Uncategorized

The Birth of a Notion”€”National “€œPurpose”€

January 12, 2009

The Birth of a Notion”€”National “€œPurpose”€

Under discussion:

Vindicating Lincoln: Defending the Politics of Our Greatest President, Thomas L. Krannawitter, Roman & Littlefield (2008), 376 pages

Hamilton’s Curse: How Jefferson’s Arch Enemy Betrayed the American Revolution”€”and What It Means for Americans Today, Thomas DiLorenzo, Crown Forum (2008), 256 pages.  

Christianity made an epochal change by elevating ordinary people to spiritual equality with the social, political, and economic elite. In the old religion of Greece and Rome, the gods were beautiful, immortal supermen. Roman emperors, the closest thing to gods on earth, often received deification at death; their temporal greatness made them indistinguishable from the divine, and stationed well above the hoi polloi.

Not only did Christianity say that mundane man could ascend to the emperor’s level, but Jesus counseled that He was in “€œthe least of these.”€  Among the Orthodox, St. Symeon the New Theologian went so far as to advise Christians to steer clear of political authority.  The exercise of power over other men required politicians to act in un-Christian ways, whether by making war, by executing malefactors, or otherwise.  Rather than bear such a burden, he said, better to avoid it.

The transition to Christianity also radically affected the ancient tradition of biography.  Works such as those of Arrian and Plutarch, Suetonius and Tacitus, which had sought instruction and/or entertainment in the lives of the great, yielded place to a Christian tradition of hagiography.  From St. Athanasius”€™ Life of St. Anthony on, the struggle to achieve Christ-centeredness, the saints”€™ working out of their own salvation, took pride of place.  Monks became popular heroes.

In the medieval period, yes, lives of great rulers did occasionally appear, but most were marked by extensive attention to the ruler’s Christianity. A shift back toward the old emphasis came in the Renaissance, which marked a rebirth of heroic ideals of ancient paganism. Perhaps the first modern biographer was the 18th-century francophone man of letters Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose own autobiography featured neither inspiring greatness nor estimable asceticism.  Rousseau really was in it for himself.

This degradation of the biographical form reflected a change in the way that a post-Christian era aborning, the self-styled Enlightenment, understood man’s relationship to history and the cosmos.  The ordinary individual mattered as much as anything, Rousseau believed, and no individual more than he.

Ultimately, the idea that great men were no more significant than small gave way to the idea that great men are not really great at all. One finds perhaps the most passionate statement of this idea in the final section of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. There, the great man by birth, Tolstoy, descendant of people just below the Romanovs in Russian society and owner of hundreds of serfs, elaborates upon his contention that the individual great man matters not at all. France in Napoleon I’s day had to attack Russia, he asserts, and the emperor was merely swept along by history.

Today, biography runs the gamut from lives of great men to semi-fictional autobiographies of purported ex-addicts. Lives of celebrities attract extensive attention, and the best-seller lists are full of titles about long-dead politicians and statesmen.

One powerful current of American biographical writing is the extended eulogy to a particular political figure. Critics of the surge of popularity enjoyed by such works over the past decade have dubbed it “€œFounders Chic.”€ Where some authors once upon a time promised “€œwarts and all”€ accounts of notorious fellows, books with titles like Vindicating the Founders: Race, Sex, Class, and Justice in the Origins of America now earn their authors substantial royalties from the worshipful by demonstrating that warts did not exist in days gone by; in fact, long-dead statesmen had only the most politically correct current opinions!

Leading scholars of the American Revolution who came of intellectual age during the Vietnam War and Watergate, generally disdain this approach, and in fact the efflorescence of American Revolution studies over the past 40 years is of a quality unseen in the study of any other historical topic, anywhere, ever. Yet, potboilers by authors like David McCullough draw far more popular attention.

Close behind leading figures of the Revolution in book-buyers”€™ esteem are other American presidents. The chief attractions are Franklin Roosevelt, Andrew Jackson, John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and, in first place by a large margin, Abraham Lincoln.  Accounts of presidential “€œgreatness”€ seem always to be in season, demand for them insatiable. Thus, the January 4 New York Times Hardback Nonfiction Best-Seller List (extended) included a book about Jackson, four books about Barrack Obama, and one title about once and future presidential aspirant Mike Huckabee, while the Paperback list for the same day included a Lincoln book, three Obama books, and a Roosevelt tome.

One might infer that the availability of such a large number of works meant that at least there was a range of opinions on these people. But one would be wrong. The biographical approach popular with book-buyers starts at flattering and extends to vindication. With the exception of their ongoing interest in Richard Nixon, Americans want to read positive accounts of bygone presidents.

It seems not to matter that the people of whom they read flattering accounts often loathed each other, personally and politically, in their day. History “€œbuffs”€ of 2009 admire Jefferson and Adams, Washington and Jackson, James Madison and Abraham Lincoln.  When one said things that disparaged another (as, for example, when it comes to Jefferson’s appraisal of President Adams or of General Jackson, or Lincoln’s estimation of President Jefferson), no problem!

The ancient historian Plutarch arranged his magnum opus, Parallel Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, in pairs intended to present pro and con portraits of people displaying mirror-image characters. Plutarch hoped that his readers could learn something of how to behave in seeing the wages of eminent men’s (mis)behavior. American readers, however, seem to have adopted an attitude of “€œI just like to know what they did. They were so great!”€

Perhaps nowhere is the tendency to lick one’s subject’s boots more in evidence than in relation to Abraham Lincoln. New Orleans may have decided that it was inappropriate for a public high school to be named for slave-master George Washington, John Adams deservedly earns criticism for the Sedition Act, and Franklin Roosevelt unthinkingly carried a cigarette in public, but Abraham Lincoln is not to be criticized in any way.

Thus, in relation to the Constitution, one adulatory account called Lincoln a good dictator.  In explaining his frequent racist statements, spread over a long period of time, another historian”€”one recently given the National Humanities Medal by President George W. Bush”€”said that “€œThis is how honest people lie.”€

To dare to dispute Lincoln’s view of the Constitution may earn one the sobriquet “€œneo-Confederate.”€ A recent account of Lincoln’s most famous speech is entitled The Gettysburg Gospel.  One could go on.  Many people make mountains of money writing adoringly of Abraham Lincoln.

There have been a few critical accounts of Lincoln by hardy souls”€”certainly not untenured professors”€”in recent years. Charles Adams and, most notably, Thomas J. DiLorenzo have attracted attention with substantial criticisms. In general, DiLorenzo’s best-selling Lincoln books are mirror images of the run-of-the-mill; for example, where leading lights of Lincoln scholarship believe that Lincoln can do no wrong, DiLorenzo insists that American slavery would have ended peacefully soon after 1861 even in the absence of Lincoln’s efforts.

I know of no reason to believe that, and good reason to disbelieve it. American slaves reached their highest value ever in 1860. They had been appreciating for years. Their value helps to explain southern touchiness about the future of slavery in the Union.

But that does not mean that DiLorenzo’s criticisms are all ill-founded. And what DiLorenzo calls “€œthe Lincoln cult,”€ centered in Claremont, California, among the students and other acolytes of Harry V. Jaffa, has fired back.

Their response takes the form of Thomas L. Krannawitter’s Vindicating Lincoln: Defending the Politics of Our Greatest President.  The title is self-explanatory.  Seemingly the sole shortcoming of Lincoln’s statesmanship, for Krannawitter, was his limited understanding of the economic effects of the American System.

Skeptics of the Lincoln myth are summarily dismissed. On pages 160-61, I learn that I am a “€œsecessionist,”€ as if I were taking part in a rebellion of some kind. And in a fit of Jaffa-like name-calling, Krannawitter makes Thomas E. Woods Jr. a “€œhistoricist.”€ Woods may be a lot of things, but this long-time associate editor of Latin Mass magazine does not think that all truth is time-bound. (A better description of Woods might be “€œmore Catholic than the pope”€!)     

The tack that Krannawitter intends to take is made evident by a careful perusal of his endnotes.  While he says quite a lot about the “€œFounders”€ and the “€œFounding,”€ there is no mention of the most obvious scholarly source on the ratification debates in the several states. In other words, Krannawitter holds forth for 200-odd pages without having read the chief sources.

So why doesn”€™t Krannawitter pepper his book with references to the chief documentary source on ratification of the Constitution? Because he relies on Lincoln’s version of history instead. Lincoln’s account, alas, was basically cribbed from John Marshall’s partisan opinion in McCulloch v. Maryland (1819), which said that the Constitution was made not by the states but by one American people, despite what the Constitution itself said in Article VII.  Lincoln, of course, deduced from Marshall’s false account that secession was impossible, despite what a committee of which Marshall was a member had told the Virginia Ratification Convention in 1788.

The odd thing about books with “€œvindication”€ in their titles, of course, is that they are not scholarship. They seem rather more to resemble the products of political parties stumping for their candidates, or of religious bodies defending their dogmas. Were there not so great a gap in learning between Krannawitter and Origen, I might say Vindicating Lincoln is of the same genre as Contra Celsum, or perhaps St. John of Damascus’s treatise On the Divine Images.

Mencken called the Gettysburg speech “€œgenuinely stupendous.”€ But then reminds us, “€œ[L]et us not forget that it is poetry, not logic; beauty, not sense.

Think of the argument in it. Put it into the cold words of everyday. The doctrine is simply this: that the Union soldiers who died at Gettysburg sacrificed their lives to the cause of self-determination”€”that government of the people by the people, for the people, should not perish from the earth. It is difficult to imagine anything more untrue. The Union solders in the battle actually fought against self-determination; it was the Confederates who fought for the right of their people to govern themselves.

All this raises the question why the Church of Lincoln defends its leader and his myth so zealously? The answer, of course, is that the state cult of Lincoln underlies much of what nowadays is commonly called “€œAmerica’s purpose.”€

We heard quite a lot at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall about what America’s purpose would thenceforth be. Alas, since the Lincolnian rededication of the USA in the “€œnew birth of freedom,”€ Americans have gone in for the idea that their country has a “€œpurpose.”€ Moreover, this new “€œpurpose”€ has cost the average American dear.  It might almost be said to be America’s special curse. Imagine someone debating Sweden’s purpose, say, or India’s.  Since “€œHis truth … march[ed] on,”€ in Mrs. Howe’s words, again and again Americans have been roused to momentous sacrifice and suffering in the name of their purpose.

In 1898, that purpose was to relieve the suffering subjects of imperial Spain. In 1916, it was to make the world safe for democracy. In the Cold War, it was somehow to stand as a “€œshining city on a hill,”€ a secular nirvana to which all could repair. George W. Bush says that he is going to eliminate evil from the world.

With confidence in their purpose, Americans know that it is moral for them to intervene anywhere.  Who could object, indeed, to bringing the vote to Mesopotamia or to admitting girls to government schools in Afghanistan? Whatever the real reason behind it, the U.S. Government’s latest assertion abroad will almost invariably be covered in some way with a patina of “€œpurpose.”€

America’s special purpose can be appreciated best, Krannawitter and his ilk insist, through study of the career of Abraham Lincoln. Distasteful elements in his life”€”frequent use of the N-word, for example”€”mark Lincoln simply as the pragmatic idealist who had to play the racist to beguile the racists around him. He didn”€™t really want war.  He was right that God was responsible for the war’s severity. Etc.

Apparently the Lincoln church had its own Vatican I, and kept the notes secret.

It is not only followers of the Great Men in American history who ascribe god-like powers to them, however.  Some of their opponents do precisely the same thing.  Consider, for example, the latest work of one of Krannawitter’s chief targets, Thomas DiLorenzo.

DiLorenzo did a service by exposing the slavish attitude of the Lincoln industry.  Although some of his assertions, such as that concerning the likely fate of slavery in the absence of the Civil War, strike me as essentially groundless, it is a useful exercise to consider so lauded a figure from a critical perspective.

The latest target of DiLorenzo’s ire is Lincoln’s precursor, Alexander Hamilton.  The first secretary of the treasury, Hamilton can be seen as the fountainhead of virtually all of the ideas that Lincoln ultimately brought to fruition:  corporate welfare, use of the military against state self-determination, censorship of political opponents, protective tariffs, government funny money, etc.  The path from Hamilton to Marshall to Lincoln is a straight line.

Which is not to say that Hamilton is responsible for all statism in America since 1786.  Reading DiLorenzo’s Hamilton’s Curse: How Jefferson’s Archenemy Betrayed the American Revolution”€”and What it Means for Americans Today, one repeatedly gags at the bit as DiLorenzo tries to whip him around the track of Hamilton blame one more time.  Yes, Hamilton’s idolators at the New-York Historical Society did entitle their 2004 exhibition “€œAlexander Hamilton: The Man Who Made Modern America,”€ but their hyper-exaggeration should not inspire similar overstatement from Hamilton’s detractors.

Can we really blame Hamilton for the Federal Reserve? Is it fair to refer to the Second Bank of the United States, which Congress chartered at President James Madison’s request a dozen years after Hamilton’s death, as “€œHamilton’s bank”€?  In sum, is “€œcredit”€ for the “€œNational Greatness Conservatism“€ of Bill Kristol and David Brooks properly laid at Hamilton’s door?

We do not know whether Hamilton would have been a neo-Jacobin in 2009. Yes, he did say that the problem in American politics for the foreseeable future would be that the states were too powerful in relation to the Federal Government, but that was 200+ years ago.  It is not historical to make of Hamilton an all-purpose anti-freedom symbol, just because he stood for a far stronger government than the Articles of Confederation and against constitutional limitations on federal power in his own day.

DiLorenzo’s evaluation of Hamilton is highly overheated.  Just as his evaluation of Lincoln was.  Likely this is because he does not trust his reader to weigh the mixed, but finally negative, records of the men about whom he writes.  The result, however, is to weaken his own case against promoters of the American “€œpurpose.”€  Extremism in defense of liberty may be no vice, but reasoned explication is far more persuasive.  Mature American readers might hope for something a bit more balanced than a saint’s life or a standard-issue Nixon biography.  Even if the market rewards authors such as Krannawitter and DiLorenzo.

Pay to Play - Put your money where your mouth is and subscribe for an ad-free experience and to join the world famous Takimag comment board.