Commentary Magazine


Freedom, by William Safire

Preserving the Union

Freedom.
by William Safire.
Doubleday. 1125 pp. $24.95.

William Safire’s new historical novel makes an imposing space for itself on the shelf of contemporary Civil War fiction. Covering the first two years of Lincoln’s presidency, from the Inauguration in 1861 (and the Confederate firing on Fort Sumter) to the Emancipation Proclamation on New Year’s Day in 1863, Freedom brings alive the political issues, the personal rivalries, and the battlefield tragedy that marked these critical years in American history.

Union and Confederate generals like George B. McClellan, U.S. Grant, and Robert E. Lee; Cabinet members like Salmon P. Chase, Edwin Stanton, and William Seward; and powerful Washington women like Anna Ella Carroll, Kate Chase, and the Confederate spy “Wild Rose” Greenhow make major appearances in the novel. Memorable minor roles are played by the detective Allan Pinkerton, the battlefield photographer Mathew Brady, the journalist Horace Greeley, and the Jewish chiropodist Isachar Zacharie, who served Lincoln as a courier in the South. And of course there is Lincoln himself—bent on preserving the Union at all costs, usurping (if that is what he did) the war powers of Congress, proclaiming military rule, restricting the civil liberties of antiwar dissidents, and manipulating the press and public opinion.

Walt Whitman said that the real war would never get into the books. Does Freedom capture it? Let me say at the outset that Safire’s novel is a stunning demonstration of political and historical research. If you want to understand the push-pull of Civil War politics in Washington and Richmond and the personalities who pushed and pulled, Safire’s novel tells more, and tells it more vividly, than most narrative histories of the period. This is not merely the consequence of the novel’s size. Safire has an analyst’s gift for defining the political issue, linking it to the hidden calculation of the actor, and dramatizing it in action. And his battlefield scenes, at Bull Run, Antietam, and Shiloh, offer realistic pictures of the terrible carnage produced by the Secession.

But it is power politics that most absorbs Safire. In his world there is no other rival passion, emphatically including the sexual kind. Although he offers us the (invented) love stories of Anna Carroll and Senator John Breckinridge, and of Kate Chase and John Hay, it is hard to believe in Safire’s affairs of the heart, which anyway are always being interrupted in flagrante delicto by the wanderings of his protagonists’ minds into the true arena of their lust, politics. For the reader, the effect is anaphrodisiacal, to say the least.

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To anchor his novel in a sea of swirling facts, Safire provides the reader with a long appendix of 150 pages that he calls the “Under-book.” There he presents the historical sources of his imagined scenes, confesses to what is real and what is invented, provides a bibliography of Civil War readings, and clarifies the debates of the historians over the political meaning of Civil War events. Repeatedly in this appendix we are told things like: “The interview with [Benjamin] Wade is fictional, but Lincoln’s dialogue is taken from his letter to Orville Browning.” Or “Some of my mind reading of [Salmon P.] Chase is fictional, and several meetings are telescoped into two, but on the whole the chapter is based on [Gideon] Welles’s diary.” Or “Fiction. That is what I think Lincoln was thinking in late May 1862.” This stratagem, which allows us to discriminate between the actual and the invented, also delivers Safire from the charge of misleading readers and falsifying history for the sake of his plot.

But is the result historical truth? Since many readers are likely to get their information about the Civil War from novels like Freedom rather than from works of history, there is something ethically responsible about Safire’s alerting us to where he deviates from the factual into the imaginary. In doing so, however, he is also implicitly acknowledging the legitimacy of the distinction, and paying obeisance as well to some ideal of historical truth which he as a novelist is trying to serve with no less devotion than would a professional historian. In all this Safire seems grandly oblivious to the attack, within the discipline of history itself, on the adequacy of any narrative history to tell the truth about the past.

For too many current historians, a historical narrative is itself a work of the imagination. An instance is the view of Hayden White of the University of California at Santa Cruz who complains in Tropics of Discourse (1978) that people are reluctant “to consider historical narratives as what they most manifestly are: verbal fictions, the contents of which are as much invented as found and the forms of which have more in common with their counterparts in literature than they have with those in the sciences.” For historians like White, it is naive to “expect that statements about a given epoch or complex of events in the past ‘correspond’ to some preexistent body of ‘raw facts.’” For White, all historians are novelists; and all history is an imaginary construction of found facts. Given such views, is it any wonder that the discipline of history is now collapsing into subjective ideologies and tending toward cognitive nihilism?

Luckily, Safire is innocent of this kind of academic skepticism. He may argue about the meaning of past events, but the existence of historical truth as such he never calls into question. Just as the responsible narrative history can tell a truthful story about the past, so the well-researched historical novel can recreate the continuity of intimate human relations, personal psychology, and public events. Happily indifferent to the inanities of current historical theory, Safire gets on with the task.

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Freedom is divided into nine long books, each (except the one called “The Negro”) devoted to a major character, each character a participant in the unfolding of political and military events that led Lincoln to propose the Emancipation Proclamation. Safire opens with John Cabell Breckinridge, the Kentucky Senator who held out against Lincoln’s “usurpation” of constitutional liberties until events forced him to quit Washington and don the rebel gray. Anna Ella Carroll, who devised a brilliant military strategy for the Union army, gets a book of her own, as do Stanton, Grant, McClellan, Chase, and Lincoln. Curiously, only a handful of blacks appear in this novel: the question of their freedom is submerged in the abstract issue of the freedom of all American citizens, whose civil rights were put in jeopardy by Lincoln when he suspended habeas corpus and ordered the arbitrary arrest and imprisonment of antiwar dissidents.

Throughout each of the books, Safire superbly interconnects the Washington wheeling-and-dealing, the political jockeying for power, the adroit maneuvering of Lincoln to hold together the army, the government, and the country. This entry from the (fictional) diary of John Hay, Lincoln’s secretary, aptly defines the President’s seemingly impossible situation in 1862:

Consider the position at this moment of the man trying to hold the country together: enemies in the field, on the march in two major offensives; enemies within the army, conniving to create a dictatorship or at least throw their weight to the Peace Democrats; enemies in the Cabinet, eager to supplant him at the next party convention; enemies in the Congress, plotting to snatch away his authority to run the war. Not to mention a wife crazy as a coot, now bringing in spiritualists to hold ghostly seances in the Mansion so she can speak to the dead [son] Willie. Sometimes it seems that the Prsdt has to fight a half-dozen wars at the same time; who can blame him for looking as if he wants to hang himself?

For all his virtues, however, Safire has little of what Henry James called “solidity of specification.” Settings are often vague; the scenic properties are scant. We are not told enough about how rooms are furnished or given the atmosphere of specific locations. It is also difficult to visualize Safire’s characters. (Some eighty photographs of the dramatis personae, many by Mathew Brady, illustrate the book and do help to evoke a mental picture.) The style—excessively cerebral—is frankly that of a journalist and political analyst, not that of a true novelist. The power struggles among Chase, Stanton, Seward, the Blair family, the generals, and others are handled not so much dramatically as by oration. Conversations quickly give way to overlong speeches that rehearse the conflicting policy positions of the antagonists. Despite Safire’s mind-reading of Lincoln, the great President comes off as a shadowy figure. We know that his boots hurt his feet and that he carries his notes around in his stovepipe hat; we know that he likes the cornpone jokes of Artemus Ward and Petroleum V. Nasby. But Lincoln as a magisterial presence, Lincoln as a human being, simply does not come into focus.

One reason for Lincoln’s elusiveness may be that Safire harbors a deep ambivalence about the President—indeed, he wants to demystify the Lincoln myth. Lincoln’s distrust of General McClellan, who was fired for failing to prosecute the war vigorously enough, his deviousness with the divided cabinet, his manipulation of the press—all these, together with the clamp-down on American civil liberties, make Lincoln in Safire’s eyes less the national hero than a President who set a disastrously bad example. And he is not content just to let the novel show us this danger. In the “Underbook,” we find openly argued the political reservations that inform Safire’s fictional critique of Lincoln’s imperial presidency. And it is here in the appendix that the quality of Safire’s mind as a student of American history (and not incidentally Richard Nixon’s former speechwriter) becomes apparent.

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It is true that Lincoln adroitly exploited ambiguities in the constitutional separation of powers and the authority to conduct the war. Justifying his actions on the ground that Congress was not in session at the outbreak of hostilities and that the Constitution required him to act immediately to preserve “the public safety,” Lincoln sidestepped Congress, jailed some 13,000 Americans without trial (many of them merely “Peace Democrats”), ignored the Supreme Court, and closed down a number of antiwar newspapers. One effect of his proclamation of military rule was to give any army officer the right to decide on the spot who was to be evacuated as a military threat or jailed without a trial. While initially only individual dissidents were at risk, one military order put a whole group under the gun. Because certain Jewish cotton traders (along with many Gentiles) were evidently profiteering and “stealing the army blind,” General U.S. Grant issued a General Order expelling the Jews as a class from the Tennessee and Mississippi areas controlled by the armies of Grant and Sherman.

Luckily, Lincoln immediately countermanded the order. But the episode is a pointed illustration of what happened to American citizens under the military rule imposed by Lincoln. Safire therefore cannot take the view, frequently expressed by historians, that Lincoln’s government acted with reasonable restraint in abridging the constitutional freedoms enjoyed by our citizens in peacetime:

I disagree. The argument that times were tough, and a few thousand dissenters clapped in jail were no big deal in the midst of insurrection, misses the point of democracy under stress: insofar as a nation departs from its guarantees of civil liberty, it is less of a democracy.

It will not help to protest to Safire that a civil rebellion was under way, that McClellan was dithering, that the capture of Washington seemed imminent, and that Lee was moving into Pennsylvania. For Safire, the suspension of habeas corpus and the proclamation of military rule were never really necessary and did nothing to help win the war. He takes some satisfaction in the fact that the Supreme Court, in 1866, struck down as unconstitutional Lincoln’s proclamation of military rule: “Martyred heroes come and go, but the rule of law wins in the end.”

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The question comes down to how much disorder, how much anarchy, how much plain subversion a democracy can tolerate while a civil war is going on within its borders. Safire’s is a respectable position, and many historians endorse it. Yet his character Anna Carroll makes a good case for the opposite position. She quotes Jefferson, who had lived through war and revolution, to this effect: “A strict observance of the written law is doubtless one of the highest duties of a good citizen, but it is not the highest. The laws of necessity, of self-preservation, of saving our country when in danger, are of higher obligation.” Jefferson likewise remarked to J.B. Colvin in December 1810 that “To lose our country by scrupulous adherence to written law would be to lose the law itself, with life, liberty, property, and all those who are enjoying them with us, thus absurdly sacrificing the end to the means.”

Lincoln knew that in suspending habeas corpus and in proclaiming military rule he was putting postwar constitutional government at risk, supplying, in theory, a precedent for a later tyrant. But he was determined to preserve the Union at all costs, and the emancipation of blacks—proclaimed at just the right political moment—was an astute maneuver to reanimate the abolitionists and to mobilize flagging Northern support for the war. Lincoln said that he was “pleased to know that the present judgment of thoughtful men” about his harsh suspension of constitutional freedoms “is so generally in accord with what I believe the future will, without serious division, pronounce concerning it.” Safire holds that Lincoln “was wrong about that,” for division still exists.

Jefferson and Jackson, I think, would have approved of Lincoln’s desperate remedy. But this just goes to show how serious an issue Safire has chosen to deal with in Freedom. To his own presentation of the argument in fictional form, we may apply one of Lincoln’s favorite jokes: “As the girl said when she stuck her foot in the stocking, ‘I think there’s something in it.’”

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