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What Lincoln Believed

The Values and Convictions of America's Greatest President
Published:   May 2005
ISBN: 0385507399 | 368 pages

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Selected reviews of What Lincoln Believed are featured below:

Publishers Weekly

Tuesday, May 17, 2005
People from across the political spectrum are embracing Lincoln in the ongoing debate over our 16th president's political philosophy. Several months after Mario Cuomo's Why Lincoln Matters: Today More Than Ever, political commentator Lind (The Next American Nation) endeavors with some success to disassemble Lincoln as a liberal icon and reclaim him as a hero for American conservatives. Lind argues that a raft of biographies written by left-wingers during FDR's New Deal identified Lincoln with a progressivism he would have found abhorrent. As Lind cogently points out, Lincoln repeatedly identified himself as a Henry Clay Whig. "Henry Clay had helped organize the Whig Party in opposition to Jackson, the hero of New Deal Democrats.... Cut off from his political predecessors, Lincoln was also separated from the Republican presidents who succeeded him, such as William McKinley and Herbert Hoover." Likewise, Lind quite correctly places Lincoln in the conservative Federalist tradition of Hamilton, Jay and Adams: men who worried about the tyranny of the majority and the risk to property inherent in democracy, and therefore sought to maintain democracy by building in limitations. Thus Lincoln as shown here remains the champion of government of the people, by the people and for the people—but with a few major asterisks.

Booklist

Tuesday, May 17, 2005
Liberal political writer Lind contributes a provocative viewpoint to the body of Lincoln commentary. Yet Lind's conclusions about the Great Emancipator's politics are not entirely novel: it's not news that Lincoln modeled himself after Henry Clay. Lind parses Lincoln's oeuvre and synthesizes his selections to shape Lincoln not as an original but as a legatee, albeit an exceptionally articulate one, of Clay's constitutional and economic vision of America. Clay's "American System" promoted protectionism, central banking, and subsidized transportation improvements. Lind maintains that dividing Lincoln from the Gilded Age that followed his death, including the imposition of racial segregation, is a misinterpretation of Lincoln's entire career. Lind's Lincoln is a white supremacist. Lind supports his theory by quoting Lincoln on colonizing American blacks abroad and, although he regards Lincoln's opposition to slavery as genuine, minimizes any sentiments indicating Lincoln was favorable toward civil rights for blacks. Ready for inevitable attacks from upholders of an "evolving" Lincoln, Lind presents his critics with evidence they must overcome.

The New York Times

Sunday, May 22, 2005
"In 1863," Michael Lind begins, "the democratic republic as a form of government was rare -- and in danger of extinction." He then looks around the world at the governmental forms prevalent in that year. This seems an odd way to start a study of Abraham Lincoln, but such indirection is Lind's way of saying: if you want to read my book, you're going to have to do it my way. Happily, Lind is not just demanding; he is intellectually bold and an enthusiastic researcher. In large doses, "What Lincoln Believed" can get claustrophobic. But taken a little at a time and in a generous spirit, it will almost certainly change the way you think about America and one of its greatest presidents.

Among the world's ruling classes, Lind shows, opinion was running against democracy in 1863. Republics had been coming and going since the French Revolution, but mostly they had been going, and it looked possible that the form might soon be gone. For Lincoln, "government of the people, by the people, for the people," as he put it in his speech at Gettysburg, was the essential promise of the American Revolution and of the United States. If the Union could be pulled through this civil war, democracy might endure. If the Union fell, democracy might fall with it.

This zeal to secure democratic government as a covenant for future generations, against the political tide of the times, is what Lind finds most worth celebrating in Lincoln. He calls him the Great Democrat. This picture is set against three previously prevalent images: the Great Commoner, the Savior of the Union and the Great Emancipator.

The first of these was part of Lincoln's own electoral mythology: the rail-splitter, studying by firelight, pressing ever forward with Midwestern grit. The Savior of the Union was, of course, a wartime image, but one grandly reasserted later in the 19th century as part of the effort to reconcile white Americans north and south. Lincoln the Great Emancipator, having been born in the last days of the war, went into a long hibernation as white Southern tribalism achieved its partial victory in the decades of racial segregation. This Lincoln re-emerged with the civil rights movement.

Each of these stereotypes provides something like an anvil on which Lind hammers out his own ideas. Most of the pounding is at the expense of the Great Commoner and the Great Emancipator. Lincoln was a "Henry Clay Whig," Lind explains: "Henry Clay's plan for the American nation-state combined an industrial economy created by Hamiltonian methods" -- that is, using protectionist tariffs and government spending to promote manufacturing and shrink the economic role of raw-material producers, mainly farmers -- "with a white-only society created by Jeffersonian racial policies. His disciple Abraham Lincoln adopted Clay's entire nation-building program as his own." This was a democracy of aspiration, not mundane contentment; part of what made the commoner deserving of social honor was his desire to be uncommon.

Such a democracy had to grow, as its work was never done -- and this thrilling, nerve-racking growth came with the glow of destiny. "But for the difference in habit of observation," Lincoln once wondered aloud, "why did Yankees, almost instantly, discover gold in California, which had been trodden upon, and overlooked, by Indians and Mexican greasers, for centuries?" As his language suggests, Lincoln saw American destiny as white.

For most readers today, Lincoln's protectionism and his promotion of cities will probably be more surprising than his casual (not theoretical) racism, or his belief that whites and blacks should be forever kept apart. After all, Lind is building on the ample work of W. E. B. Du Bois, Eugene H. Berwanger and Lerone Bennett Jr. -- and many others, although Lind's footnotes could have been more thorough than they are. By now it is, or should be, reasonably common knowledge that Lincoln, like Clay and a number of other leading antebellum American statesmen, believed sincerely in the mad project of resettling blacks, and in particular freemen, in warmer, more distant climes to create a white America.

As Lind notes, the Free Soil movement so crucial to Lincoln's achieving the presidency was closely related to the colonization movement that preceded it. Both were concerned with sparing white workers from having to compete with black ones, initially in the newer states of the Midwest and then as far as California. A decisive portion of the population that settled these places came from the white lower classes of the South, people whose route upward was blocked by slave-owning Bourbons and whose route downward looked very like a descent, by degrees, into blackness.

Such were the Lincoln forebears who moved into Illinois. In 1856, according to one source cited by Lind, about half the number of people who had left the South had settled in Illinois and Indiana. As Lincoln said in the 1850's, "Is it not rather our duty to make labor more respectable by preventing all black competition, especially in the territories?" He went on to warn that if slavery were allowed to spread, "Negro equality will be abundant, as every white laborer will have occasion to regret when he is elbowed from his plow or his anvil by slave niggers."

What might have been seen as separate questions -- the extension of black slavery and the existence of black people in America -- were rendered as one, because free black laborers, not just black slaves, were also expected to "degrade" white labor. Lind amply demonstrates Lincoln's acceptance of this view, though he fails to ask the obvious question: Was wage competition from blacks a reality, or likely to become one?

This failure seems odd, especially since the periodic fanning of white lower-class fears of degradation would be a feature of postbellum political life. Besides, a sizable prewar Southern literature argued that racial slavery for blacks was the only alternative to eventual wage slavery, under industrialization, for a great many whites. The tormented relationship of racial and economic bondage both predated the war and continued well beyond it.

Lind argues that while Lincoln did preserve the Union, his deep wish to advance democracy went unrealized. "The amount of the earth's territory controlled by Western empires," he writes, "expanded from 35 percent in 1800 to 67 percent in 1878 and then to 85 percent in 1914." Lincoln's hopes of defending the best of the 18th century against the worst of the 19th were borne out only "in the middle of the 20th century in a way he could not have expected. The principles of the post-1945 world order enshrined in the U.N. Charter, the U.N. organization and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are those of the 18th-century American and French tradition of liberal republicanism."

By looking at Lincoln from many angles, Lind makes an already somewhat mysterious president still more puzzling and more interesting. But the Great Democrat image that closes his book doesn't really bring it all together. Lind evidently hoped to do an end run around Lincoln's detractors by erecting a previously unnoticed new Lincoln, one ruled by a passion for republicanism. This puts the emphasis on Lincoln's character rather than on what he did with his life. It's an approach that may serve our need for heroes. But Lincoln's legacy to us is in what he did, not who he was, a distinction Lincoln himself seemed to appreciate -- which was and is part of his continuing fascination.