What happens when our study of history becomes a casualty of identity politics?
In my previous post, I wrote about a talk that I had recently given about Lincoln. I had not expected it to be terribly controversial – in fact, I wondered whether it was such common knowledge that it was not worth reporting.
But there is something about Lincoln that leads people to react in extreme ways.
Let me start with the long criticism by the first commenter, which is then endorsed by the second commenter. The comment goes on and on, in an extremely intemperate way. The principal complaint appears to be that I took Lincoln at his word and did not conclude that he repeatedly lied to the American people about his views on slavery. For this, I am accused of somehow not respecting Lincoln. I would think if I had accused him of lying, without any foundation, that I would be open to criticism. But apparently the opposite is the case.
The funny thing is that my post did not suggest that Lincoln personally approved of slavery or would not have liked to have eliminated it more quickly. Quite the contrary. As I said, “in Lincoln’s defense, he believed that any stronger position would have been rejected by the American people and therefore this was the best that could be accomplished for the slaves.”
I don’t normally respond to commenters in a post, but I think this comment is illustrative of how Lincoln leads people of varying positions to extreme reactions. I was once at a conference and a Straussian professor there defended every single thing that Lincoln had done. Lincoln could do no wrong. The professor was very nice, but I don’t think I agreed with a single thing they said.
I was at another conference among libertarians, and one professor strongly attacked Lincoln. Here I tried to defend some of Lincoln’s actions, but I made no headway. For this professor, Lincoln could do very little right.
I could go on, but the point is that Lincoln leads people to extreme reactions. Why is this? I am not sure, but my guess is that it is a function of a couple of considerations. First, he was an eloquent writer, and this leads people to focus on his words – either in a favorable or unfavorable way. Second, he was an important figure – more important to the second founding than any single framer of the first founding. And finally, as a politician who sought to stay within the bounds of public opinion, he often took moderate or intermediate positions – positions that are open to criticism or defense, depending on one’s perspective.