Make your way over to Vast Public Indifference for a fascinating series of posts on the naming of enslaved and free blacks after Confederate heroes.
I‘ve never quite understood the vehement anger expressed by some for Abraham Lincoln. Yes, I get the libertarian concern that Lincoln’s policies reflect a fundamental shift in the size and scope of the federal government. Funny that they rarely express the same concern for Jefferson Davis who went just as far in suspending civil liberties as well as increasing the size of the federal government in Richmond. More prevalent, however is the view that has been shaped by generations of white Southerners who see Lincoln as the man who unleashed the likes of Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan on an innocent southern populace that only wanted to be left alone to govern themselves and preserve their “way of life.” The agendas of both constituencies – one economic and the other emotional/scar-ridden – end up with an interpretation of Lincoln that resonates very little with me as a historian and as a citizen.
One of the first books I read when I first discovered the Civil War back in the mid-1990s was David Donald’s Lincoln. Lincoln had never appeared on my radar screen before, but he has occupied a central place in my reading on the war and nineteenth-century America ever since. I’ve devoured well over 100 books on Lincoln and even with everything I’ve read I can still read more. No other historical figure comes close to challenging my appetite for Lincoln studies. There were a number of things that stood out in those first few books that caught my attention. I was fascinated with his early life, his apparent ambition and concern for his own future, which revealed itself early on, and most importantly, his struggle with depression. At the time I was struggling with it myself along with a lack of direction in my life. I don’t remember learning anything about Lincoln’s personal life in high school, but this aspect of his personal profile struck a chord with me and perhaps even provided me with a little strength. In short, I felt I had a connection with the man.
That said, my interest in Lincoln has never come close to hero worship. The realm of history has never provided me with a forum for developing those kinds of connections. [The only person in my life who deserves that kind of respect and admiration is my own father.] Rather, I’ve embraced the study of history as an intellectual exercise, one that involves bringing to bear my limited analytical abilities and love for a good story. I am not trying to protect or defend a preferred interpretation of any one aspect of the past nor do I see it as a stage where good battles evil. Those who do “take sides” inevitably simplify and cherry pick their narrative to suit their own personal agenda. There is very little that I believe about the Civil War compared to when I first started reading about it fifteen years ago. I hope that fifteen years from now my understanding of Lincoln and the Civil War have progressed to a similar point. There is nothing sacred in my understanding of the past; it’s all open to reinterpretation and it is something that I actively pursue.
That being said, it would be dishonest to suggest that my view of Lincoln is entirely objective – whatever that might mean. In the end, I approve of the outcome of the war, including Lincoln’s decision as commander-in-chief to begin the process of emancipation, which eventually led to the end of slavery. That said, I am under no illusions regarding Lincoln’s racial outlook, though I am struck by the difficulty of so many in distinguishing between his moral view and the specific policies he supported as president during a civil war.
More importantly, however, my outlook on Lincoln and the war stems from my pride as a citizen of this country. The union that Lincoln helped preserve is the nation that I live in and call home. I must assume that this is what undergirds most people’s understanding of Lincoln at some level. With this in mind, it seems strange to ask why Jefferson Davis or Robert E. Lee’s recent bicentennial failed to attract the same level of enthusiasm around the country. Even in the South you will find plenty of programs to honor the memory of Lincoln throughout the remainder of this year. If we accept the assumption that the South is one of the more patriotic regions of this country than it should come as no surprise that Lincoln’s life and legacy would be honored this year. The bicentennial celebrations of Lincoln seem fitting as a celebration of the history of this great nation, even if I tend to look on more as an observer rather than as a participant when it comes to its more emotional and hagiographic moments.
For me, Abraham Lincoln will always be a subject open to further study and contemplation as well as the president who helped bring an end to slavery and worked to secure the future of this nation – warts and all. And yes, I find myself falling deeply in love with the man.
It looks like the Davis-Limber statue may wind up in a place where very few people will get to see it. The statue was origininally offered to the American Civil War Museum at Tredegar before the SCV pulled out of the deal. They are now looking to see if the state of Mississippi is interested in it; this is likely to go down in a ball of flames. A few people associated with Beauvoir have expresed interest in the statue. This would be an ideal place for the statue since it served as Jefferson Davis’s residence after the war and is currently managed by the Mississipi Division, SCV. It’s a beautiful place and by all appearances the SCV has done an excellent job of restoring the property following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.
Still, if the deal goes through it is hard not to consider the entire project to be a failure. After all, the goal was to counter or balance the Lincoln-Tad statue on the grounds at Tredegar, which many in the SCV find offensive. Don’t ask me why. A sitting Lincoln with his arm around Tad doesn’t seem to me to be very shocking. Finally, if the deal does go through the SCV would have offered the statue to themselves. I wonder if they will accept it.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans is still trying to find a home for their statue of Jefferson Davis and Jim Limber. The statue, which cost $100,000, was originally planned for the grounds at Tredegar in Richmond next to the statue of Lincoln and his son Tad. The American Civil War Museum accepted the statue, but made no promises as to whether it would be displayed and how. Apparently, the SCV doesn’t know the first thing about how museums operate. Now they are offering the statue to the state of Mississippi. Good luck boys, but in this political climate my guess is that you don’t have a chance. My offer still stands to use it in my classroom as an interpretive piece to help my students better understand the continued influence of the Lost Cause. What do you say? We will take very good care of it.
Between the statue, their big ass Confederate flags flying over Southern highways, and their endorsement of a NASCAR driver, the SCV has demonstrated their commitment to wasting money and their inability to take Southern heritage seriously.
Professor Stephen Berry was kind enough to send along this wonderful letter after reading yesterday’s post. In the following 1930 letter, Lexington lawyer and Lincoln-historian, William Henry Townsend, responds to the cranky “posts” of Mary Carter, who has charged Lincoln with the usual tyrannies and abuses. Apparently, angry “Lady Rebs” have been unleashing their venom in defense of the “Lost Cause” for a long time. It’s nice to know that I am in such good company. Enjoy
Dear Miss Carter:
I have your letter…. Thank you very kindly. You will pardon me, however, if I say that a careful reading of your lengthy letter fails to disclose much that I had hoped to find in it…. Although it was time for a rebuttal, I find that you abandoned the argument as to all of the…issues…and in lieu thereof, dumped into the hopper of our discussion a putrid mass of undigested vituperation. Really, my dear Miss Carter, let me say in all good temper that you apparently have run into the same error that the “old tyrant” Lincoln once admonished against when he said: “One ought never plead what he need not, lest he be compelled to prove what he can not!”… Lincoln once said that “a mathematician could hardly disprove Euclid by calling Euclid a liar.” Yet, you fall into this error also. Dr. Cravens is a liar! Allen Clark is a liar! Mrs. Pickett, the widow of a brave Confederate soldier, is a liar! Mrs. Davis is a weak, unstable creature with traitorous inclinations!! Everybody is either a traitor or a liar who has a good word for poor old homely, kind, tragic Abraham Lincoln!… I have carefully read the enclosures…. I am sorry to say that they are all alike—bald, blatent assertion, vituperation and abuse, dripping with prejudice and a black, stifling heat that sheds no light…. You say that you will “cease firing” when Lincoln the man is divorced from Lincoln the myth. Why, bless you dear lady, you do not need to do that if it is any sport you. Abraham Lincoln is as far removed from blank cartridges as Mount McKinley was from the “Big Berthas” on the Western Front. If Lincoln himself were here, he would smile and say, in that slow Kentucky drawl: “Will, it don’t hurt me any, and it does her good, so let her alone.”…
Miss Carter, are there really any enemies of the south, or do we see only windmills which prejudice and bias have distorted into pugnacious knight errants of old? Who, at this time, are the traducers of Davis and Lee in the south? What organization of the north is now engaged in vicious propaganda against our southland and its heroes? I have traveled through the north and east extensively, and if we have any enemies, any persons who possess a settled hostility to the south, I have neither read nor heard of them. Name me, please, any man or set of men who are today flooding the mails with defamatory matter concerning any southern soldier or statesman…. Miss Carter, if the tone of this letter has been too emphatic, I confess that I was somewhat nettled at first by the accusation of “posing” in my respect for Lee and Davis and the rather surprising reference to “men of your ilk.” I had hardly supposed that my two courteous letters merited such an appraisal of me, but I waive these small matters in deference to a southern gentlewoman, doubtless quite sincere, though sadly misguided, who will frankly and candidly, as becomes her breeding, take it all back when she meets Abraham Lincoln in heaven. With very best regards and many thanks for writing me, I am, sincerely [W.H. Townsend, to Miss Mary D. Carter, August 29, 1930]