Commentary Magazine


Topic: Abraham Lincoln

Why Politics Matters

My Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Yuval Levin, who edits the quarterly National Affairs, recently was interviewed by William Kristol as part of his “Conversations With” series.

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My Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Yuval Levin, who edits the quarterly National Affairs, recently was interviewed by William Kristol as part of his “Conversations With” series.

In the course of their conversation Mr. Levin, in speaking about policy, says it’s about problem-solving–not ultimate problems but practical ones. This is vital in allowing a society to function well and to become its best self. And he added this:

Politics in the end is moved by arguments. The intellectual work does matter. I think it does absolutely shape outcomes. But it happens in a way that relies on a kind of food chain. Things have to move through our intellectual world and it doesn’t move directly from that kind of work to policymaking; there has to be some time to digest, to think it through. I think that happens on a lot of important issues in our politics. So I am impressed with how ideas move politics but you know it’s not a direct process. Not a simple one.

This is vital to remember. In thinking about politics, after all, people are frustrated with the gridlock and the conflict, the deal-making, the maneuvering, and the mundane. They are disenchanted with the pace and direction of change and those who are in public life for personal aggrandizement. Americans are frustrated and angry with politicians, with politics, and with one another. And so it’s important to remind ourselves, as Levin does, that politics is moved by arguments–haltingly, imperfectly, but inevitably.

(It’s probably worth adding here, if only as a side note, that in America we tend to romanticize our past. Even the Constitutional Convention of 1787–which featured the most extraordinary collection of political minds since ancient Athens–had its own low moments, frustrations and fierce, polarizing battles. It was one of our greatest founders, James Madison, who in Federalist #55 wrote, “Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.” And our greatest president, Lincoln, presided over a nation that was a good deal more polarized–lethally polarized–than ours is today. So some perspective is in order.)

There are several layers to public and political arguments. One of them is focused on hard facts and empirical data, on social science and different governing approaches related to a range of issues like crime, education, health care, welfare, economic growth, and social mobility.

But the other, deeper layer has to do with arguments grounded in political theory, dealing with matters like liberty and equality, individual responsibility and civic duty, justice and human dignity. The greatest practitioners of statecraft are able to make both sets of arguments–to show a mastery of public policy and the ability to articulate a public philosophy. To explain the means and the ends of government and the good society.

At the core of every social, political, and economic system is a picture of human nature, to paraphrase the 20th century columnist Walter Lippmann. The way that picture developments determines the lives we lead, the institutions we build, and the civilization we create. The political philosophy of Madison produces one set of results; the political philosophy of Marx produces another. So yes: ideas move politics in one direction or the other, toward justice or away from it. Like all things human, it’s imperfect, frustrating, and fraught with failure. It’s a long, hard grind. And it’s not always aesthetically pleasing. But cynicism that leads to political disengagement–the world-weary, pox-on-both-your-houses, what difference does it make, I don’t give a damn attitude that seems rather fashionable and trendy these days–can lead to disaster. Because someone’s ideas will prevail. If ones that advance justice and human flourishing win out, it won’t be by accident or by default. It’ll be the product of determined effort; of those who do not grow weary in doing good.

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Americans Have Corrosive Dissatisfaction for Our Political System

A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll revealed some noteworthy data about the public’s attitude toward our political system. When asked about how satisfied they were with it, here’s what they found:

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A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll revealed some noteworthy data about the public’s attitude toward our political system. When asked about how satisfied they were with it, here’s what they found:

Very Satisfied: 2 percent
Somewhat Satisfied: 17 percent
Somewhat Dissatisfied: 30 percent
Very Dissatisfied: 49 percent
Not Sure: 2 percent

So 19 percent are very/somewhat satisfied with our political system while 79 percent are somewhat/very dissatisfied–and nearly half are very dissatisfied.

“We’re in the summer of our discontent,” said Democratic pollster Peter Hart, who conducted this survey with Republican pollster Bill McInturff. “Americans are cranky, unhappy.”

Indeed they are, and they have ample reasons to feel as they do. Of course, they are the very citizens who elected the very lawmakers who operate the very system they verily hate, so there’s plenty of blame to go around. Our broken system is the result of our divided selves.

Still, whatever the causes–and there are many of them–it can’t be good when there’s such massive dissatisfaction with our political system. For one thing, we have urgent challenges that require a political system that works, that people have confidence in. Beyond that, though, our political system–the extraordinary handiwork of our founding generation–produced what Lincoln called an “inestimable jewel.” It is one of the main reasons we revere our country. Sustained contempt for our political system is corrosive. It undermines our affections for America. And unless it is reversed, it will find increasingly disturbing outlets and end up doing durable damage to the nation we love.

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The Idealism and Realism of the American Founders

During an engaging, wide-ranging interview with Katie Couric at the Aspen Ideas Festival, New York Times columnist David Brooks was asked this: “How do you feel about the Tea Party? The notion of compromise is a dirty word more than ever on Capitol Hill. So how do you see us getting us to a place where there can be a moderate middle? Do you think it’s possible to return to those days?” To which Brooks replied this way:

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During an engaging, wide-ranging interview with Katie Couric at the Aspen Ideas Festival, New York Times columnist David Brooks was asked this: “How do you feel about the Tea Party? The notion of compromise is a dirty word more than ever on Capitol Hill. So how do you see us getting us to a place where there can be a moderate middle? Do you think it’s possible to return to those days?” To which Brooks replied this way:

Let me quibble with one phrase in your question, which would be “moderate middle.” So I’m a moderate but I’m not in the middle. And what I mean by that, I think being moderate is seeing politics as a competition between partial truths. And like in this era we have competition between security and freedom, between achievement and equality, between mobility and cohesion. And both sides have a piece of the truth. And often you want to be radical on both ends and try to balance. So it’s all about balance. So you can really value things that are on each end as long as you try to balance these opposing things and as long as you understand that politics is a messy, slow … boring through hard boards–it’s just messy and slow and you take one step at a time.

Brooks went on to say this:

My problem with the Tea Party is partly what they believe, but partly it’s just their [methods]–they’re anti-political. I believe in politics, that you pass a piece of legislation and you get half a loaf and you make a slow step and you make a compromise and you try to go a little forward every day. Politics is not, it’s not show business. It’s just messy compromises because you’re always caught in contradictions and filled with paradoxes. And my problem with the Tea Party is they don’t like politics. They want it to be pure, and they often punish people who they call RINOs–who are Republican in Name Only–because they’re not pure. But I think impurity is what leaders do. They take impurity upon themselves. They take the sins of the situation on themselves. They take the complexity of the situation on themselves and they try to muddle through. And so I think people who are unwilling to muddle through are not being political; they’re being self-indulgent. And so I have a problem with that style of politics.

I would add some elaborations to what David says, ones I think he might agree with, such as: No one in politics sees the truth in full, but some people are within much closer striking distance than others. And the Tea Party movement has produced some of the most impressive politicians now on the right, including Marco Rubio (who defeated Charlie Crist in their primary) and Mike Lee (who defeated Bob Bennett in their primary).

With that said, Brooks is zeroing in on something quite important, which is that politics is an inherently messy business. Moreover, the American founders–who developed the concepts of checks and balances, separation of powers, and all the rest–wanted politics to be messy. That is, our constitutional order requires give and take, adaptation and collaboration, the balancing of competing interests, and compromise itself. As Jonathan Rauch has written in National Affairs, “In our constitutional system, compromise is not merely a necessary evil but a positive good: an indispensable source of political discipline, competition, and stability — which are all conservative values.”

Too often these days, zealous people who are in a hurry don’t appreciate that the process and methods of politics–the “messy,” muddling through side of politics–is a moral achievement of sorts. But this, too, is only part of the story.

The other part of the story is that justice is often advanced by people who are seized with a moral vision. They don’t much care about the prosaic side of governing; they simply want society to be better, more decent, and more respectful of human dignity. So yes, it’s important not to make the perfect the enemy of the good. But it’s also the case that politics requires us to strive for certain (unattainable) ideals.

There’s a distinction, then, between motivating ideals and the methods and processes of politics. Think of Martin Luther King’s dream and Lyndon Johnson’s civil-rights legislation. Or think of Lincoln, who was both the greatest exponent of principles of the Declaration of Independence in American history and a supremely great politician.

What happens all too often in our politics is that people who are drawn to one tend to look with disdain on those who are drawn to the other. What we need, I think, is greater recognition that both are necessary, that each one alone is insufficient. Visionaries have to find a way to give their vision concrete expression, which requires deal-making, compromise, and accepting something less than the ideal. Legislators need to govern with some commitment to philosophical and moral ideals; otherwise, they’re just passing laws and cutting deals for their own sake.

What David Brooks is saying, I think–and where I agree with him–is that some recalibration needs to occur in some quarters on the right, away from those seeking purification and excommunication (RINO-hunters) and toward a fuller, more authentic conservatism. Call it the conservatism of the founders.

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Memorial Day: Let Us Finish the Work

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that the United States has fought in the last 14 years have not been popular. The consensus that initially backed U.S. intervention in the region quickly evaporated and became a victim of partisanship once it became clear the fighting there is part of a generations-long conflict that can’t be easily won.

Nor, it must be conceded, is it certain that the sacrifices made by American forces in those countries will have made a lasting impact on the region or the struggle against Islamist terror if the current administration’s desire to retreat at all costs eventually leads to a revival of the fortunes of freedom’s foes. But if there is one point on which all Americans can and should unite it is in praise and support of the brave Americans who serve our nation at the risk of their own lives.

It is out of the tragedy of these recent wars that at least some Americans have regained a sense of the importance of Memorial Day. While for many Americans, the date is merely a long weekend or the first harbinger of summer vacations, for all too many it is a day to remember loved ones and friends who have made the ultimate sacrifice for America.

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The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that the United States has fought in the last 14 years have not been popular. The consensus that initially backed U.S. intervention in the region quickly evaporated and became a victim of partisanship once it became clear the fighting there is part of a generations-long conflict that can’t be easily won.

Nor, it must be conceded, is it certain that the sacrifices made by American forces in those countries will have made a lasting impact on the region or the struggle against Islamist terror if the current administration’s desire to retreat at all costs eventually leads to a revival of the fortunes of freedom’s foes. But if there is one point on which all Americans can and should unite it is in praise and support of the brave Americans who serve our nation at the risk of their own lives.

It is out of the tragedy of these recent wars that at least some Americans have regained a sense of the importance of Memorial Day. While for many Americans, the date is merely a long weekend or the first harbinger of summer vacations, for all too many it is a day to remember loved ones and friends who have made the ultimate sacrifice for America.

Memorial Day grew out of the effort to memorialize the hundreds of thousands who died in the slaughter of the Civil War. But it is now a day on which we can recall the heroism of many generations of Americans who helped build a nation based on the concept of liberty and then were forced to fight to preserve its freedom. On such days, as we mourn the fallen and observe with sadness the toll that war has taken on the wounded who survived the battlefield, it is difficult to contemplate the causes of these wars or to imagine the circumstances under which new sacrifices might be compelled of Americans. But the point of these memorials is not merely to mourn but to celebrate the ideals that the efforts of American forces down through the ages have done so much to preserve.

Honoring our veterans requires us to do more than salute the flag on Memorial Day. Our government is obligated to keep its promises to those who served by providing them with the care they need. That is a pledge that unfortunately seems to have been observed in the breach by the Veterans Administration in recent years as the scandal about practices in its hospitals that cost the lives of at least 40 veterans showed. On this, of all days, it is imperative that the president should finally show some leadership and quickly act to redress these wrongs.

But the point about Memorial Day is not just the need to treat those who served with the respect they have earned. Rather, we must also, as Abraham Lincoln said when memorializing the casualties of the Civil War, rededicate ourselves to the ideals that our soldiers defended. In this age, as in previous struggles to preserve this nation and the democratic principles upon which it is based, it is imperative that we not let the flag of freedom drop even as we mourn our losses. Much as we may be tempted to withdraw from the affairs of the world and pretend that we can survive in a fortress America, that is neither possible nor prudent. Unfortunately, the battle to preserve freedom is not yet over and will require the constant vigilance of this and future generations.

On such a day, it is well worth re-reading the words of Lincoln in his Second Inaugural as he exhorted his nation to finish the conflict in which it was engaged rather than to abandon the struggle and to honor those who fought in it:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

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The Greatest Name Associated with the Cause of Popular Government

I first learned about Lord Charnwood’s 1916 masterpiece Abraham Lincoln while recently reading a book by the constitutional scholar Walter Berns. (Berns called it “the best of the Lincoln biographies.”) Then, early this year, the essayist Joseph Epstein wrote a review of it for the Wall Street Journal, calling it the best book about Lincoln ever written. And in a wonderful essay in National Affairs, Professor Diana Schaub refers to Lord Charnwood as Lincoln’s greatest biographer. 

Those are three enthusiastic endorsements by three estimable sources. Having now read the book, I can report to you that it is as good as advertised: beautifully written, filled with piercing insights into Lincoln’s character and his political philosophy, and concisely capturing the situation and various actors in America before and during the Civil War.  

“Salmon P. Chase must have really been a good man before he fell in love with his own goodness,” we read. Horace Greeley was “too opinionated to be quite honest.” And about John C. Calhoun, Lord Charnwood writes this: “His intellect must have been powerful enough, but it was that of a man who delights in arguing, and delights in elaborate deductions from principles which he is too proud to revise; a man, too, who is fearless in accepting conclusions which startle or repel the vulgar mind; who is undisturbed in his logical processes by good sense, healthy sentiment, or any vigorous appetite for truth. Such men have disciples who reap the disgrace which their masters are apt to somehow avoid; they give the prestige of wisdom and high thought to causes which could not otherwise earn them.” 

For our purposes, though, I want to focus on some particular aspects of Lincoln that were brought to life by Lord Charnwood and which we moderns can learn plenty from.   

Lord Charnwood, who was born during the Civil War, says this about Lincoln:

For perhaps not many conquerors, and certainly few successful statesmen, have escaped the tendency of power to harden or at least to narrow their human sympathies; but in this man a natural wealth of tender compassion became richer and more tender while in the stress of deadly conflict he developed an astounding strength. 

In his review Mr. Epstein built on this theme. “He prosecuted a war in which 1/32nd of the nation’s population was killed without ever showing hatred for the other side,” he wrote. “It was not men but slavery he hated… Malice wasn’t available to Lincoln; mercy came naturally to him. His magnanimity in forgiveness was another sign of his superiority.”

There are many reasons Lincoln holds a special place in our public life and historical memory, but this quality of both mercy and strength ranks high among them. Lincoln combined a ferocious will to win the war with restraint in victory. He fully understood the moral stakes involved in the Civil War even as he resisted the temptation to treat Southerners as lacking in any human dignity or human worth.

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I first learned about Lord Charnwood’s 1916 masterpiece Abraham Lincoln while recently reading a book by the constitutional scholar Walter Berns. (Berns called it “the best of the Lincoln biographies.”) Then, early this year, the essayist Joseph Epstein wrote a review of it for the Wall Street Journal, calling it the best book about Lincoln ever written. And in a wonderful essay in National Affairs, Professor Diana Schaub refers to Lord Charnwood as Lincoln’s greatest biographer. 

Those are three enthusiastic endorsements by three estimable sources. Having now read the book, I can report to you that it is as good as advertised: beautifully written, filled with piercing insights into Lincoln’s character and his political philosophy, and concisely capturing the situation and various actors in America before and during the Civil War.  

“Salmon P. Chase must have really been a good man before he fell in love with his own goodness,” we read. Horace Greeley was “too opinionated to be quite honest.” And about John C. Calhoun, Lord Charnwood writes this: “His intellect must have been powerful enough, but it was that of a man who delights in arguing, and delights in elaborate deductions from principles which he is too proud to revise; a man, too, who is fearless in accepting conclusions which startle or repel the vulgar mind; who is undisturbed in his logical processes by good sense, healthy sentiment, or any vigorous appetite for truth. Such men have disciples who reap the disgrace which their masters are apt to somehow avoid; they give the prestige of wisdom and high thought to causes which could not otherwise earn them.” 

For our purposes, though, I want to focus on some particular aspects of Lincoln that were brought to life by Lord Charnwood and which we moderns can learn plenty from.   

Lord Charnwood, who was born during the Civil War, says this about Lincoln:

For perhaps not many conquerors, and certainly few successful statesmen, have escaped the tendency of power to harden or at least to narrow their human sympathies; but in this man a natural wealth of tender compassion became richer and more tender while in the stress of deadly conflict he developed an astounding strength. 

In his review Mr. Epstein built on this theme. “He prosecuted a war in which 1/32nd of the nation’s population was killed without ever showing hatred for the other side,” he wrote. “It was not men but slavery he hated… Malice wasn’t available to Lincoln; mercy came naturally to him. His magnanimity in forgiveness was another sign of his superiority.”

There are many reasons Lincoln holds a special place in our public life and historical memory, but this quality of both mercy and strength ranks high among them. Lincoln combined a ferocious will to win the war with restraint in victory. He fully understood the moral stakes involved in the Civil War even as he resisted the temptation to treat Southerners as lacking in any human dignity or human worth.

There is something hopeful in seeing a great leader, having prevailed in a great struggle, show humanity and eschew casual cruelty; who was willing to concede that his side was not perfect and the other side was not unmitigated evil. Who else but Lincoln could say at the beginning of the war, “We are not enemies, but friends”–and by the end could say, “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the wounds…”? And how much we could use those sensibilities in our time, when such grace and largeness of spirit are in such short supply, including among those who claim Lincoln as their role model. 

One other thing. Lord Charnwood writes, “His own intense experience of the weakness of democracy did not sour him, nor would any similar experience of later times have been likely to do so.”

Abraham Lincoln lived in a much more riven and difficult time than ours, yet he refused to give up on his belief that politics could right certain wrongs. He didn’t withdraw from public life. He didn’t become consumed by hatred or cynicism. Neither should we.

“Beyond his own country,” Lord Charnwood wrote, “some of us recall his name as the greatest among those associated with the cause of popular government.”

It was true then; it remains true today.

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More on Rand Paul and Jack Hunter

Because my piece on Rand Paul was so long, I decided to add this separate post, since I think it makes an important point.

Those of us who strongly object when the left constantly invokes the charge of racism against people on the right find our work made rather more difficult because of people like Jack Hunter.

To read through Mr. Hunter’s work is to journey into a very ugly and angry world. And here’s the thing: It’s a world that wasn’t hidden or shrouded in secrecy. As I pointed out in my previous post, Mr. Hunter’s words were on the public record, in his name, before he joined Rand Paul’s staff. And, for that matter, before he joined the Ron Paul presidential campaign. Senator Paul’s people had to know what they were dealing with, and what they were getting, in Jack Hunter. And when Senator Paul says he only knew “vaguely” about Hunter’s writings, what does that mean? It’s not as if what Hunter was writing about African Americans, slavery, the Confederacy, Lincoln, Booth, and all the rest were minor parts of Hunter’s oeuvre

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Because my piece on Rand Paul was so long, I decided to add this separate post, since I think it makes an important point.

Those of us who strongly object when the left constantly invokes the charge of racism against people on the right find our work made rather more difficult because of people like Jack Hunter.

To read through Mr. Hunter’s work is to journey into a very ugly and angry world. And here’s the thing: It’s a world that wasn’t hidden or shrouded in secrecy. As I pointed out in my previous post, Mr. Hunter’s words were on the public record, in his name, before he joined Rand Paul’s staff. And, for that matter, before he joined the Ron Paul presidential campaign. Senator Paul’s people had to know what they were dealing with, and what they were getting, in Jack Hunter. And when Senator Paul says he only knew “vaguely” about Hunter’s writings, what does that mean? It’s not as if what Hunter was writing about African Americans, slavery, the Confederacy, Lincoln, Booth, and all the rest were minor parts of Hunter’s oeuvre

What Mr. Hunter wrote isn’t a close call and it can’t be dismissed as the folly of youth. And what he wrote is a lot worse than “stupid,” to quote Senator Paul. We’re dealing with the morally offensive words of an adult columnist. Let’s just say that celebrating the death of Lincoln and raising “a personal toast every May 10 to celebrate John Wilkes Booth’s birthday” is disturbing even for those who may not consider Lincoln (as I do) arguably the greatest American in history. How did such a person even get an interview, let alone be hired, let alone co-author a book with Senator Paul?  

There’s something quite troubling going on here; and if Rand Paul decides he wants to try to lead the party of Lincoln, this issue isn’t going to disappear. Jack Hunter’s words will cast a long shadow.  

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Correcting DeMint’s Historical Confusion

Former Senator Jim DeMint gave an interview that requires some correction and amendment.

Senator DeMint was asked what he would say to a liberal who argued, “That Founding Fathers thing worked out really well. Look at that Civil War we had eighty or so years later.” To which DeMint answered this way:

Well the reason that the slaves were eventually freed was the Constitution. I mean it was like the conscience of the American people. Unfortunately, there were some court decisions like Dred Scott and others that defined some people as property. But the Constitution kept calling us back to ‘”all men are created equal and we have inalienable rights” in the minds of God. But a lot of the move to free the slaves came from the people. It did not come from the federal government. It came from a growing movement among the people, particularly people of faith, that this was wrong. People like Wilberforce who persisted for years because of his faith and because of his love for people. So no liberal is going to win a debate that big government freed the slaves. In fact, it was Abraham Lincoln, the very first Republican, who took this on as a cause and a lot of it was based on a love in his heart that comes from God.

Senator DeMint, who counts himself, I believe, a “constitutional conservative,” quotes from the preamble of the Declaration of Independence, but seems to ascribe the words to the Constitution. In addition the Constitution, of course, contained the three-fifths compromise (Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3) and also allowed for the importation of slaves until the early part of the 19th century (Article 1 Section 9). Why? Because the Southern states threatened to withdraw from the Constitutional Convention if slavery was banned. In Madison’s words, “great as the evil [slavery] is, a dismemberment of the union would be worse.” Madison was right; it was a difficult but necessary and prudential judgment. Furthermore, he believed that the Constitution would eventually put slavery on the road to extinction. In fact, that required the Civil War.

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Former Senator Jim DeMint gave an interview that requires some correction and amendment.

Senator DeMint was asked what he would say to a liberal who argued, “That Founding Fathers thing worked out really well. Look at that Civil War we had eighty or so years later.” To which DeMint answered this way:

Well the reason that the slaves were eventually freed was the Constitution. I mean it was like the conscience of the American people. Unfortunately, there were some court decisions like Dred Scott and others that defined some people as property. But the Constitution kept calling us back to ‘”all men are created equal and we have inalienable rights” in the minds of God. But a lot of the move to free the slaves came from the people. It did not come from the federal government. It came from a growing movement among the people, particularly people of faith, that this was wrong. People like Wilberforce who persisted for years because of his faith and because of his love for people. So no liberal is going to win a debate that big government freed the slaves. In fact, it was Abraham Lincoln, the very first Republican, who took this on as a cause and a lot of it was based on a love in his heart that comes from God.

Senator DeMint, who counts himself, I believe, a “constitutional conservative,” quotes from the preamble of the Declaration of Independence, but seems to ascribe the words to the Constitution. In addition the Constitution, of course, contained the three-fifths compromise (Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3) and also allowed for the importation of slaves until the early part of the 19th century (Article 1 Section 9). Why? Because the Southern states threatened to withdraw from the Constitutional Convention if slavery was banned. In Madison’s words, “great as the evil [slavery] is, a dismemberment of the union would be worse.” Madison was right; it was a difficult but necessary and prudential judgment. Furthermore, he believed that the Constitution would eventually put slavery on the road to extinction. In fact, that required the Civil War.

Senator DeMint is certainly right that part of the impetus to end slavery came from the people, including people of faith, including abolitionists and individuals like Harriet Beecher Stowe, who authored Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the first novel to criticize the institution of slavery. (Supposedly Lincoln, upon meeting Stowe, said, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war?”) Oddly, though, DeMint mentions William Wilberforce, a great opponent of the slave trade but who was English, not American (as the interviewer, sensing trouble, quickly points out) and who died decades before the American Civil War.

Fine. But where DeMint really gets into trouble, I think, is when he claims, “the move to free the slaves came from the people. It did not come from the federal government.” In fact, the move to free the slaves did come from the federal government – in the form of Lincoln, the chief executive at the time; in the form of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment; and in the form of the Civil War itself. Lincoln himself, it should be said, vastly expanded the powers of the federal government, including instituting the first federal income tax. And Lincoln’s prosecution of the war was based first and foremost on preserving the union, though his commitment to end slavery became an increasingly important factor.

So why call attention to these matters? In part, I think, because it’s important for conservatives to undo some of the confusion that DeMint created. But there’s another, somewhat deeper point to be made about the danger of approaching history and politics through an overly ideological lens. In this case Senator DeMint, a fierce critic of the federal government, has reinterpreted history in order to make it fit into his particular narrative. He seems so eager to refuse to give credit to the federal government for anything that he insists it didn’t play a role in the abolition of slavery. And that’s where he made perhaps his biggest error.  

I worry, too, that some on the right invoke the Constitution without really understanding it and its history. For example, many conservatives who profess reverence for the Constitution are vocal and reflexive critics of compromise per se — despite the fact that the Constitution was itself a product of an enormous set of compromises. (For more, see this National Affairs essay I co-authored with Michael Gerson. As we wrote, “A recovery of constitutional ideals is, to be sure, a worthwhile endeavor — but it does not point quite where [certain Tea Party and conservative] leaders and activists often suggest.”)

In the end, I would argue that conservatism and the cause of limited government are undermined by loose talk and an excessive animus toward the federal government. These days, in fact, conservatives would be well served to focus a good deal more attention on the purposes of government, not simply its size. I say that because during the Obama era the right has been very clear about what government should not be doing, or should be doing much less of, and for understandable reasons. But it has not had nearly enough to say about just what government should do. That needs to be corrected — and in the process conservatives need to be careful to speak with care and precision about our Constitution and the role of the federal government in our history.

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Obama’s Dumbed Down Public Rhetoric

Barack Obama, speaking at Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor, Michigan, decided to take aim at the budget released by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan. “If they tried to this sell [Paul Ryan’s budget] at Zingerman’s, they’d have to call it the ‘stinkburger’ or the ‘meanwich,’” Obama said.

Good grief.

This is the man we were told was rhetorically our next Lincoln. (“I don’t think we’ve had a president since Lincoln who has the oratorical skills that Obama has,” Professor Alan Brinkley told Charlie Rose the day after the 2008 election. “Obama has that quality that Lincoln had.”) Instead we’re getting references to “stinkburger” and “meanwich.”

Is this what passes for wit among liberals these days?

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Barack Obama, speaking at Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor, Michigan, decided to take aim at the budget released by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan. “If they tried to this sell [Paul Ryan’s budget] at Zingerman’s, they’d have to call it the ‘stinkburger’ or the ‘meanwich,’” Obama said.

Good grief.

This is the man we were told was rhetorically our next Lincoln. (“I don’t think we’ve had a president since Lincoln who has the oratorical skills that Obama has,” Professor Alan Brinkley told Charlie Rose the day after the 2008 election. “Obama has that quality that Lincoln had.”) Instead we’re getting references to “stinkburger” and “meanwich.”

Is this what passes for wit among liberals these days?

It’s not easy to lower the level of public discourse in America today. But President Obama, God bless him, is doing his part. It’s one thing to be, as Obama is, hyper-partisan and ad hominem. But couldn’t he at least be a bit clever about it?

It would be unfair to ask Obama to meet the standard of, say, Winston Churchill, who said of Clement Atlee that he was “a sheep in sheep’s clothing,” a “modest man who has much to be modest about,” and, “An empty taxi arrived at 10 Downing Street, and when the door was opened, Atlee got out.” (Of Stanley Baldwin, Churchill said, “He occasionally stumbled over the truth, but hastily picked himself up and hurried on as if nothing had happened.”)

It’s obvious that Obama is no Lincoln or Churchill. But these days he’s not even Joe Biden.  

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“The One Man Who Had Quite Purged His Heart and Mind from Hatred or Even Anger”

Two hundred and five years ago today Abraham Lincoln was born in Hodgenville, Kentucky. Lincoln was our greatest president, for reasons too numerous to recount here. But there is one element of Lincoln’s character, I think, that’s worth focusing on–his ability, as the scholar Walter Berns put it, to fight the Civil War to the end without looking upon the Confederates as enemies.

In his biography of Lincoln, Lord Charnwood wrote, “This most unrelenting enemy to the project of the Confederacy was the one man who had quite purged his heart and mind from hatred or even anger towards his fellow-countrymen of the South.”

In a particularly polarized political age, when the capacity to amplify personal attacks and demonize opponents through various outlets and social media is unprecedented, Lincoln’s example of purging hate and anger from heart and mind is particularly apposite. This doesn’t mean that one doesn’t fight for great causes with great passion. It doesn’t mean avoiding criticisms of opponents or refusing to take on bad arguments. Lincoln himself was a master at this, using his logic, wit, and sometimes sarcasm to great effect.

But Lincoln was never a hater; and his capacity to extend grace to rather than to exact retribution against the South after the Civil War remains one of the remarkable achievements in American history.

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Two hundred and five years ago today Abraham Lincoln was born in Hodgenville, Kentucky. Lincoln was our greatest president, for reasons too numerous to recount here. But there is one element of Lincoln’s character, I think, that’s worth focusing on–his ability, as the scholar Walter Berns put it, to fight the Civil War to the end without looking upon the Confederates as enemies.

In his biography of Lincoln, Lord Charnwood wrote, “This most unrelenting enemy to the project of the Confederacy was the one man who had quite purged his heart and mind from hatred or even anger towards his fellow-countrymen of the South.”

In a particularly polarized political age, when the capacity to amplify personal attacks and demonize opponents through various outlets and social media is unprecedented, Lincoln’s example of purging hate and anger from heart and mind is particularly apposite. This doesn’t mean that one doesn’t fight for great causes with great passion. It doesn’t mean avoiding criticisms of opponents or refusing to take on bad arguments. Lincoln himself was a master at this, using his logic, wit, and sometimes sarcasm to great effect.

But Lincoln was never a hater; and his capacity to extend grace to rather than to exact retribution against the South after the Civil War remains one of the remarkable achievements in American history.

“We are not enemies, but friends,” Lincoln said five weeks before the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter. “We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.”

In the end, of course, the war came–and with it countless patriot graves. But Lincoln saved the American Republic and, after its most brutal war, he helped to bind up the wounds. He began to repair the bonds of affection. He has a special place in the American pantheon.

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“Principle Had Made Its Painful Peace with Circumstance”

“Purer souls, sterner moralists, can and do argue that, far from being models for emulation, the architects of American constitutionalism were temporizers, or whistlers in the dark, or even covenanters with Satan himself,” the University of Chicago’s Ralph Lerner has written. Lerner went on to say:

Where such critics may see weakness and confusion, Lincoln unhesitatingly perceives prudence. The premise of his admiration is plain enough: “From the necessities of the case we should be compelled to form just such a government as our blessed fathers gave us.” Again, what Lincoln has in mind is a defense not of every jot and tittle of earlier policies and provisions but of the general stance the founders took toward the actual presence of slavery in the new nation. Its presence was a fact, not less a fact than its being a wrong. Neither fact might be ignored or wished away, and the authors of the Declaration responded to both. At one and the same time they both declared the right of all to the equal enjoyment of inalienable rights and took account of the circumstances standing in the way of an immediate universal attainment of these rights. A moral imperative was embedded in a far-from-yielding world and then left to work its influence…. Principle had made its painful peace with circumstance.

“It is to this policy, at once moral and prudential,” he added, “that Lincoln urges his countrymen to return.”

This strikes me as an elegant and historically informed way to help us think about two virtues that can be, but need not be, in tension: a deep commitment to principles and to prudence. 

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“Purer souls, sterner moralists, can and do argue that, far from being models for emulation, the architects of American constitutionalism were temporizers, or whistlers in the dark, or even covenanters with Satan himself,” the University of Chicago’s Ralph Lerner has written. Lerner went on to say:

Where such critics may see weakness and confusion, Lincoln unhesitatingly perceives prudence. The premise of his admiration is plain enough: “From the necessities of the case we should be compelled to form just such a government as our blessed fathers gave us.” Again, what Lincoln has in mind is a defense not of every jot and tittle of earlier policies and provisions but of the general stance the founders took toward the actual presence of slavery in the new nation. Its presence was a fact, not less a fact than its being a wrong. Neither fact might be ignored or wished away, and the authors of the Declaration responded to both. At one and the same time they both declared the right of all to the equal enjoyment of inalienable rights and took account of the circumstances standing in the way of an immediate universal attainment of these rights. A moral imperative was embedded in a far-from-yielding world and then left to work its influence…. Principle had made its painful peace with circumstance.

“It is to this policy, at once moral and prudential,” he added, “that Lincoln urges his countrymen to return.”

This strikes me as an elegant and historically informed way to help us think about two virtues that can be, but need not be, in tension: a deep commitment to principles and to prudence. 

The danger facing those who are active in politics is leaning too much toward one at the expense of the other. The result can be people who become ideologues devoted to abstract principles without taking into account actual circumstances (and vilify those who do). Still others will embrace compromise for its own sake, with no sense of what is trying to be achieved when it comes to justice and the ends of government. For principled politicians to make painful peace with circumstances, to shape a far-from-yielding world in a moral direction, is among the hardest balances to strike and the most impressive things to achieve. (None faced more difficult challenges, or met them as well, as did Lincoln.)

It’s perhaps worth noting that this task is made harder, not easier, by those who insist on elevating every debate, and even tactical differences, into an existential struggle between liberty and tyranny. Who have convinced themselves that the road to victory begins with excommunicating the non-pure–the heretics and apostates–in their midst. These voices are loud, often intemperate, and hardly conservative.

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Poverty, Social Mobility, and the Party of Lincoln

Yesterday Senator Marco Rubio delivered a major speech on poverty and social mobility. It’s impressive for several reasons.

While not ignoring the issue of income inequality, he made what I think is the correct and important point: Lack of social mobility, not income inequality, is what we should focus on. And the speech was intellectually impressive in part because it was intellectually honest. Senator Rubio explained with some sophistication the reasons for what he calls “opportunity inequality”–including long-term economic, social, cultural, and educational causes. This speech was not politically partisan or shallow; it admitted the causes of poverty and decreasing social mobility are complex. (Many European countries now have as much social mobility as, and more opportunity than, the United States; and today a child’s future depends on parental income more in America than it does in Canada and Europe.) Senator Rubio’s address deepened the public’s understanding of these issues, and that’s all to the good.

On the policy side of things, Senator Rubio’s proposals on the Flex Fund (which would consolidate many anti-poverty programs that in turn would be distributed to the states to enact their own anti-poverty agenda) and transforming the Earned Income Tax Credit into a real wage subsidy are promising steps, with more, I gather, to follow.

What Mr. Rubio unveiled yesterday merits support on federalism and subsidiary grounds, in terms of how we should think about the working poor versus those who are unable to work, because it incentivizes work and creates incentives to avoid unemployment programs, and because it makes upward mobility more, not less, likely. (For a more detailed and illuminating discussion of the merits of Rubio’s proposals, see here and here.)

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Yesterday Senator Marco Rubio delivered a major speech on poverty and social mobility. It’s impressive for several reasons.

While not ignoring the issue of income inequality, he made what I think is the correct and important point: Lack of social mobility, not income inequality, is what we should focus on. And the speech was intellectually impressive in part because it was intellectually honest. Senator Rubio explained with some sophistication the reasons for what he calls “opportunity inequality”–including long-term economic, social, cultural, and educational causes. This speech was not politically partisan or shallow; it admitted the causes of poverty and decreasing social mobility are complex. (Many European countries now have as much social mobility as, and more opportunity than, the United States; and today a child’s future depends on parental income more in America than it does in Canada and Europe.) Senator Rubio’s address deepened the public’s understanding of these issues, and that’s all to the good.

On the policy side of things, Senator Rubio’s proposals on the Flex Fund (which would consolidate many anti-poverty programs that in turn would be distributed to the states to enact their own anti-poverty agenda) and transforming the Earned Income Tax Credit into a real wage subsidy are promising steps, with more, I gather, to follow.

What Mr. Rubio unveiled yesterday merits support on federalism and subsidiary grounds, in terms of how we should think about the working poor versus those who are unable to work, because it incentivizes work and creates incentives to avoid unemployment programs, and because it makes upward mobility more, not less, likely. (For a more detailed and illuminating discussion of the merits of Rubio’s proposals, see here and here.)

As for politics: This kind of effort can only help the Republican Party, which has been too disengaged and morally indifferent to the problems facing the poor for too long. It has not offered a compelling agenda that addresses the economic and structural problems that face (especially) those living in the shadows of society. Whether or not to support or oppose Senator Rubio’s proposals should hinge on the substantive merits. But of course you can’t take the politics out of politics, and so as a purely political matter, focusing on the plight of the poor would certainly make middle-class voters, and especially middle-class women, more amenable to the GOP.

I’ve written before that social mobility is the central moral promise of American economic life; the hallmark of our system is the potential for advancement and greater prosperity rooted in merit and hard work rather than in the circumstances of one’s birth. This was the key insight of Lincoln, who noted that “the progress by which the poor, honest, industrious and resolute man raises himself, that he may work on his own account and hire somebody else … is the great principle for which this government was really formed.”

It’s time that the Party of Lincoln more fully embrace the philosophy of Lincoln. That is, I think, what Marco Rubio (and congressional Republicans, like Representatives Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan and Senator Mike Lee) are doing. More Republicans should follow their lead. 

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Distinguishing Between Moderation and Political Compromise

I wrote a piece recently on compromise, moderation, and the American Constitution, and in reaction I received a note from Diana Schaub, a professor of political science at Loyola University Maryland.

She pointed out to me that it’s “helpful to distinguish the virtue of moderation, which is always right, from the practice of political compromise, the goodness of which depends on circumstances.” Moderation, Schaub went on to write, “doesn’t always entail the spirit of accommodation. There are times when one must stand fast, and one can do so without becoming immoderate.”

To buttress her argument, Schaub cited an example of George Washington (who became a revolutionary, having arrived at the conclusion that diplomatic compromise was no longer possible with Great Britain) and Abraham Lincoln (who was unwilling to consider certain sorts of compromise in order to maintain the Union and who steadfastly opposed any action that would remove the label of moral evil from the institution of slavery). Professor Schaub herself has used the apposite phrase “intransigent moderation” when describing Lincoln. 

Her main point, Schaub said in the note she sent to me (and which she kindly allowed me to quote from), is that “moderation, while usually receptive to political compromises, can at times be uncompromising without ceasing to be moderation.”

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I wrote a piece recently on compromise, moderation, and the American Constitution, and in reaction I received a note from Diana Schaub, a professor of political science at Loyola University Maryland.

She pointed out to me that it’s “helpful to distinguish the virtue of moderation, which is always right, from the practice of political compromise, the goodness of which depends on circumstances.” Moderation, Schaub went on to write, “doesn’t always entail the spirit of accommodation. There are times when one must stand fast, and one can do so without becoming immoderate.”

To buttress her argument, Schaub cited an example of George Washington (who became a revolutionary, having arrived at the conclusion that diplomatic compromise was no longer possible with Great Britain) and Abraham Lincoln (who was unwilling to consider certain sorts of compromise in order to maintain the Union and who steadfastly opposed any action that would remove the label of moral evil from the institution of slavery). Professor Schaub herself has used the apposite phrase “intransigent moderation” when describing Lincoln. 

Her main point, Schaub said in the note she sent to me (and which she kindly allowed me to quote from), is that “moderation, while usually receptive to political compromises, can at times be uncompromising without ceasing to be moderation.”

These words are ones I fully concur with and are consistent, I think, with some of the observations I made in my original piece. My emphasis, though, was somewhat different. What I intended to underscore is that to assume per se that moderation and compromise are problematic is itself problematic.

In any event, I thought Professor Schaub’s explication was wise and very intelligently stated, and certainly worth sharing. 

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What Conservatives Shouldn’t Be Watching

The recent dustup over the presence of a “pro-secessionist and neo-confederate” activist on the staff of Senator Rand Paul raised the danger that some oddball extremists interested in refighting the Civil War were worming their way into mainstream politics from the fever swamps of the far right. Nevertheless, most observers dismissed the story as insignificant and saying little if anything about mainstream conservative opinion. They are right about that, but yet another story indicates that there is a serious problem that leading conservatives must address lest this lunacy continue to spread.

Earlier this week, Politico noted that one prominent conservative activist has gotten into the movie endorsement business. Richard Viguerie, the head of ConservativeHQ.com, emailed his supporters to express his delight with Copperhead, a new film that has yet to go into general commercial release but which is available on demand in some cable systems. It is, he says, the movie “that every conservative needs to see.”

“[W]hile Copperhead is about the Civil War, believe me, it will hit close to home for every conservative fighting to preserve our Constitution and our American way of life,” Viguerie wrote. “Because Copperhead is about standing up for faith, for America, and for what’s right, just like you and I are doing today. In fact, I’ve never seen a movie with more references to the Constitution, or a movie that better sums up our current fight to stand up for American values and get our nation back on track.”

Suffice it to say that if conservatives agreed with Viguerie that would not only be dead wrong; it would mark the effective end of the modern conservative movement that William F. Buckley ushered into existence in the 1950s. Anyone who wishes to identify contemporary concerns about the unchecked growth of government with northern opponents of Abraham Lincoln, as this dishonest and dreary film does, is consigning the movement to certain death.

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The recent dustup over the presence of a “pro-secessionist and neo-confederate” activist on the staff of Senator Rand Paul raised the danger that some oddball extremists interested in refighting the Civil War were worming their way into mainstream politics from the fever swamps of the far right. Nevertheless, most observers dismissed the story as insignificant and saying little if anything about mainstream conservative opinion. They are right about that, but yet another story indicates that there is a serious problem that leading conservatives must address lest this lunacy continue to spread.

Earlier this week, Politico noted that one prominent conservative activist has gotten into the movie endorsement business. Richard Viguerie, the head of ConservativeHQ.com, emailed his supporters to express his delight with Copperhead, a new film that has yet to go into general commercial release but which is available on demand in some cable systems. It is, he says, the movie “that every conservative needs to see.”

“[W]hile Copperhead is about the Civil War, believe me, it will hit close to home for every conservative fighting to preserve our Constitution and our American way of life,” Viguerie wrote. “Because Copperhead is about standing up for faith, for America, and for what’s right, just like you and I are doing today. In fact, I’ve never seen a movie with more references to the Constitution, or a movie that better sums up our current fight to stand up for American values and get our nation back on track.”

Suffice it to say that if conservatives agreed with Viguerie that would not only be dead wrong; it would mark the effective end of the modern conservative movement that William F. Buckley ushered into existence in the 1950s. Anyone who wishes to identify contemporary concerns about the unchecked growth of government with northern opponents of Abraham Lincoln, as this dishonest and dreary film does, is consigning the movement to certain death.

In its two tedious hours, Copperhead tells the story of the most reasonable citizen of a small village in upstate New York in 1862. Its hero Abner Beech claims to be a supporter of the U.S. Constitution and deplores, as many conservatives do today, the willingness of the federal government to give itself power and to treat its opponents roughly. For this belief, his neighbors ostracize him. But he is undaunted and eventually wins many of them over while his leading opponent in town, who happens to be the most unreasonable if not downright crazy character in the film, winds up killing himself.

That might sound like a promising plot line, but the problem here is that in 1862 arguments about federal power were not theoretical disputes about legislation. The real-life versions of people like the Beech character (and his abolitionist antagonist) were focused on the efforts of the president to not only defend the existence of the republic but to prevent the spread of slavery on American shores.

All wars are terrible and few have been as horrific as the Civil War in terms of casualties and the scale of destruction. But to brand that war, of all conflicts, as unjust or not worth the sacrifice of so many Americans is the moral equivalent of saying that slavery wasn’t so bad. Copperhead is so boring that it’s doubtful that it will ever find much of an audience. But its chief failing is that it is fundamentally dishonest about its subject. It is true that many in the north didn’t like Lincoln or the war. But it is a lie to represent their views as having nothing to do with racism.

The film attempts to portray the dispute as simply a matter of Democrats versus Republicans and one man’s effort to make his views heard. But most northern Democrats supported the war even if they hadn’t voted for Lincoln. Only those elements of that party that were drenched in hatred of blacks and hostile to the very notion of emancipation considered the war illegal. Copperheads were a minority of the Democratic Party and their activity often bordered on what any reasonable observer would consider sedition in time of war and sought to obstruct recruitment into the Union Army.

Filmmaker Ron Maxwell attempts to get around this problem by portraying Beech as not only reasonable but actually against slavery. When he and his friends say they won’t fight for Lincoln, real Copperheads would have said they wouldn’t fight for blacks (though they invariably used the n-word when they said it).

Contrary to the argument in the film, what Lincoln had done did not undermine democracy. Secession was itself fundamentally undemocratic since it was based on the idea that those states that didn’t like the outcome of an election could use their displeasure to destroy the Union.

Maxwell made Gettysburg, a somewhat plodding 1991 film version of Michael Shaara’s classic book The Killer Angels about the great battle. Though that movie had some fine moments, it was still more pageant than drama. But Gods and Generals, the sequel he made more than a decade later, was more unfortunate in its source material, a dreadful novel by Shaara’s son Jeffrey that treated the southern cause as justified rather than merely tragic as his father had portrayed it. The director has doubled down on that morally bankrupt conclusion in “Copperhead” in which those who oppose the war are seen as the voices of conscience rather than intolerance.

Contemporary observers that see parallels between the battles being fought today over measures taken by the government to fight the republic’s current enemies should tread very carefully. The NSA metadata mining is nothing when compared to Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus or imprisonment of secessionists. But for 150 years there has been a consensus that rightly understood that Lincoln’s actions were crucial at a moment when a failure to act would have ensured the dissolution of the union. As the war gradually became one dedicated to the eradication of slavery as much as the preservation of the union, opposition to it has correctly been viewed as indefensible.

If the point of the film were a morality tale about the virtue of dissent, one would be hard-pressed to think of a worse example than the Copperheads. It is an axiom of history that one shouldn’t take figures out of their historical context and judge them by the beliefs of our own day. But one needn’t view the Copperheads in that manner to understand that even in their time they were viewed as a vicious element determined to destroy the country rather than lift a finger against slavery or rebellion. A moral universe where a Copperhead is the good guy and an ardent abolitionist is the villain is not one any American should seek to live in. If Abner Beech thinks the cure of war is worse than the plague of slavery, there is no reason why anyone living in 2013 should not view such utterances as both absurd and hateful. One can only wonder what would make anybody make such a film, let alone treat it as a model of political thought.

I can think of no better way to discredit the libertarian trend that seeks to pull back America from the world and cease an active defense of the country against Islamist terrorism than to identify it with opposition to an American secular saint and the war against slavery. Were conservatives as a whole to listen to Viguerie’s conclusion they would be validating the smears of racism that have been wrongly hurled against the movement by liberals. Nothing could be more antithetical to the values that conservatism actually seeks to defend than the message this disgraceful flick upholds.

Neo-confederate revisionist trash like Copperhead shouldn’t be ignored. It should be actively denounced as an insult to Americans who descend from the slaves that Beech didn’t think worth freeing and to the memory of those who, as Lincoln said, “gave their last full measure of devotion” to ensure that American democracy would “not perish from the earth.”

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The Stravinsky Controversy

Was the modernist composer Igor Stravinsky gay? Who cares, you might ask? A lot of people, it seems. Or so one can conclude from the controversy regarding an article in the Times Literary Supplement claiming a whole list of gay lovers for Stravinsky, including his collaborator and co-founder of the Ballets Russe, Sergei Daighilev. Stravinsky scholars are skeptical of the claims about such a famously practicing heterosexual, but it is perhaps no surprise that Stravinsky is having homosexuality imputed to him.

The same thing has happened in recent years to countless famous people ranging from Alexander the Great to Michelangelo and Abraham Lincoln. Apparently sexless celebrities–at least those who were unmarried and not publicly attached–are especially ripe for such treatment, viz., Henry James, T.E. Lawrence, Lord Kitchener, and others.

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Was the modernist composer Igor Stravinsky gay? Who cares, you might ask? A lot of people, it seems. Or so one can conclude from the controversy regarding an article in the Times Literary Supplement claiming a whole list of gay lovers for Stravinsky, including his collaborator and co-founder of the Ballets Russe, Sergei Daighilev. Stravinsky scholars are skeptical of the claims about such a famously practicing heterosexual, but it is perhaps no surprise that Stravinsky is having homosexuality imputed to him.

The same thing has happened in recent years to countless famous people ranging from Alexander the Great to Michelangelo and Abraham Lincoln. Apparently sexless celebrities–at least those who were unmarried and not publicly attached–are especially ripe for such treatment, viz., Henry James, T.E. Lawrence, Lord Kitchener, and others.

Having done a little historical research on Lawrence and Kitchener, I have found that the evidence for their supposed homosexuality is actually extremely poor. While they may have been repressed gays, there is little to no evidence of their having carried on a same-sex affair or, for that matter, an affair of any sort. The same is true of James. Hard as it may be to believe in the sex-soaked America of the 21st century, it is possible that they were simply asexual–secular monks as it were.

Whatever the case, it should hardly matter one way or another. “Gay” and “straight” are modern categories that scarcely fit people who lived centuries ago and did not think of their behavior in those terms. Nor is it the case that their sexuality, whatever it was, was necessarily the key to understanding their personalities and achievements.

Even most present-day gay men and woman who are proudly out of the closet don’t want to be defined by their sexuality; indeed, that was a point that CNN anchor Anderson Cooper made in explaining why he waited to come out publicly. What’s true for Cooper is certainly true for Stravinsky, Lawrence, James, and many other famous individuals: they should be judged by their achievements and merits, not on the basis of their sexuality–especially when there is no definitive evidence about what their sexuality was in their first place.

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The Extraordinary Lincoln

Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, is the author of a excellent new biography, Lincoln Unbounded: How An Ambitious Young Railsplitter Saved the American Dream–And How We Can Do It Again.

The first thing to note about the book is that it is elegantly written. It also does an excellent job capturing Lincoln’s personality and industriousness, his burning ambition and integrity, and his incomparable mind and rhetoric. We’re told about Lincoln’s devotion to Henry Clay, the role of the Whig Party in 19th century America (and what attracted Lincoln to it), why Stephen Douglas was a formidable opponent and why the Declaration of Independence “became a field of battle in the fight over slavery.” And the book is graced with paragraphs like this:

Lincoln sought to recapture what seemed to be slipping away, to catch the falling flag of our patriotic patrimony. “He endeavored to bring back things to the old land marks,” Joseph Gillespie wrote [William] Herndon, “but he never would have attempted to invent and compose new systems. He had boldness enough when he found the building racked and going to decay to restore it to its original design but not to contrive a new & distinct edifice.” Lincoln wanted to “re-adopt,” as he said at Peoria, the Declaration. The road to salvation ran through 1776, he argued in a gorgeous passage: “Our republican robe is soiled, and trailed in the dust. Let us re-purify it. Let us turn and wash it white, in the spirit, if not the blood, of the Revolution.” 

Lincoln believed that this renewal is exactly the purpose for which the Declaration had been intended. He had complicated feelings about Thomas Jefferson. …. Lincoln had no use for Jefferson the aristocrat, the hypocritical slaveholder and celebrant — like Andrew Jackson — of yeoman agriculture. It was Jefferson’s Declaration he adored.

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Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, is the author of a excellent new biography, Lincoln Unbounded: How An Ambitious Young Railsplitter Saved the American Dream–And How We Can Do It Again.

The first thing to note about the book is that it is elegantly written. It also does an excellent job capturing Lincoln’s personality and industriousness, his burning ambition and integrity, and his incomparable mind and rhetoric. We’re told about Lincoln’s devotion to Henry Clay, the role of the Whig Party in 19th century America (and what attracted Lincoln to it), why Stephen Douglas was a formidable opponent and why the Declaration of Independence “became a field of battle in the fight over slavery.” And the book is graced with paragraphs like this:

Lincoln sought to recapture what seemed to be slipping away, to catch the falling flag of our patriotic patrimony. “He endeavored to bring back things to the old land marks,” Joseph Gillespie wrote [William] Herndon, “but he never would have attempted to invent and compose new systems. He had boldness enough when he found the building racked and going to decay to restore it to its original design but not to contrive a new & distinct edifice.” Lincoln wanted to “re-adopt,” as he said at Peoria, the Declaration. The road to salvation ran through 1776, he argued in a gorgeous passage: “Our republican robe is soiled, and trailed in the dust. Let us re-purify it. Let us turn and wash it white, in the spirit, if not the blood, of the Revolution.” 

Lincoln believed that this renewal is exactly the purpose for which the Declaration had been intended. He had complicated feelings about Thomas Jefferson. …. Lincoln had no use for Jefferson the aristocrat, the hypocritical slaveholder and celebrant — like Andrew Jackson — of yeoman agriculture. It was Jefferson’s Declaration he adored.

But what Lowry’s book does that sets it apart from many others is to remind us of Lincoln’s belief that America is, by birthright and through its free institutions, a nation of aspiration; that America exists to give all people the chance to rise; and that his “animating purpose” was to enhance individual opportunity. “Lincoln’s critique of the Slave South is inseparable from his view of the free economy as the field for self-improvement,” according to Lowry. Lincoln was a great champion of upward mobility and modernization, of individual initiative and enjoying the fruit of one’s own labor. It is astonishing how relevant Lincoln is to the here and now.

Abraham Lincoln is not only the most consequential and impressive figure in American history; he is the most nearly impossible-to-comprehend one as well. He was a man of so many different parts which somehow all fit together. Generation after generation of Americans seem to know intuitively that to understand Lincoln is, in some deep way, to understand ourselves, or at least our better selves. Rich Lowry’s book is the most recent and welcome link in a wonderful chain.

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Obama Goes from Lincolnian to Carteresque

The November 7, 2008 broadcast of PBS’s Charlie Rose featured a conversation with David Remnick of the New Yorker and historians Alan Brinkley and Michael Beschloss.

“The extraordinary outpouring of celebration, joy, and hope all over the world at this election is something I could never have imagined in my lifetime,” according to Professor Brinkley. “There’s a discipline to Obama that is so extraordinary,” he raved. And then he added: “I don’t think we’ve had a president since Lincoln who has the oratorical skills that Obama has. Obama has that quality that Lincoln had.”

Mr. Remnick also compared Obama’s rhetorical skills to Lincoln. The campaign also “shows him in a decision-making mold that is very encouraging.” Obama demonstrated a “receptivity to ideas outside the frame” and possesses a “worldview that allows for complexity.” He “assumes a maturity in the American public” and possesses “great audacity.” Not to believe Obama’s election will have “enormous effect” on the streets of Cairo, or Nairobi, or Jerusalem is “naive.” It continued in this vein until Remnick finally had to say, “We’ll climb out of the tank soon.” (For the record, Remnick never has.) 

I mention that discussion for several reasons. The first is that as a general matter it’s not wise to compare any person to Lincoln, particularly before they’ve even taken office, which was the case during this 2008 discussion. Second, Obama had achieved nothing in his life that deserved these types of encomiums. It didn’t matter. Journalists and historians were besotted by the Myth of Obama, not the reality. But now that we’re four years and four months into the Obama presidency, reality has set in. And let’s just say that Mr. Obama has lost some distance to Lincoln in the race for the greatest president in American history. Quite some distance, in fact.

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The November 7, 2008 broadcast of PBS’s Charlie Rose featured a conversation with David Remnick of the New Yorker and historians Alan Brinkley and Michael Beschloss.

“The extraordinary outpouring of celebration, joy, and hope all over the world at this election is something I could never have imagined in my lifetime,” according to Professor Brinkley. “There’s a discipline to Obama that is so extraordinary,” he raved. And then he added: “I don’t think we’ve had a president since Lincoln who has the oratorical skills that Obama has. Obama has that quality that Lincoln had.”

Mr. Remnick also compared Obama’s rhetorical skills to Lincoln. The campaign also “shows him in a decision-making mold that is very encouraging.” Obama demonstrated a “receptivity to ideas outside the frame” and possesses a “worldview that allows for complexity.” He “assumes a maturity in the American public” and possesses “great audacity.” Not to believe Obama’s election will have “enormous effect” on the streets of Cairo, or Nairobi, or Jerusalem is “naive.” It continued in this vein until Remnick finally had to say, “We’ll climb out of the tank soon.” (For the record, Remnick never has.) 

I mention that discussion for several reasons. The first is that as a general matter it’s not wise to compare any person to Lincoln, particularly before they’ve even taken office, which was the case during this 2008 discussion. Second, Obama had achieved nothing in his life that deserved these types of encomiums. It didn’t matter. Journalists and historians were besotted by the Myth of Obama, not the reality. But now that we’re four years and four months into the Obama presidency, reality has set in. And let’s just say that Mr. Obama has lost some distance to Lincoln in the race for the greatest president in American history. Quite some distance, in fact.

One example: In the Daily Beast, the influential Democratic political consultant Bob Shrum has written a column in which the best defense he can offer the president in the context of the IRS scandal is this:

For the White House, there is no crime here, there is no scandal, no matter how feverishly, irresponsibly, or demagogically the GOP labors to concoct one. This is not a case of Nixonian indifference to the Constitution, the law, and the president’s oath of office. But it does look like a reprise of Cartersque incompetence, increasingly so as we learn more about how the White House staff handled—or mishandled—a crisis they knew was coming… For the White House, the problem here resembles Carter, not Nixon.

This critique echoes the comments made to CBS’s Sharyl Attkisson by an Obama administration official, who told her in the context of the Benghazi scandal, “We’re portrayed by Republicans as either being lying or idiots. It’s actually closer to us being idiots.”

Before he took office, we were told time and again that Obama was a Lincolnian figure. Now that he’s been in office and demonstrated his governing skills, his strongest liberal supporters and his own staff are defending the president by insisting that we have a White House that is being run by Carteresque idiots.

Welcome to reality. 

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Secession and Patriotism

I rarely find myself in complete agreement with anything that comes out of the Obama administration. But I have to commend Jon Carson, the White House director of public engagement, for his thoughtful response to the petitions received from those asking that Texas and some other states be allowed to peacefully withdraw from the union. This is the sort of thing that can easily be dismissed as the domain of crackpots. Fortunately, only a tiny minority of Texans supports secession. Nevertheless, the ongoing debates about gun control and the debt ceiling have given a concept that deserved to be consigned to the dustbin of history some traction. And since 125,746 signatures were appended to the Texas petition, the White House was obligated to respond in some way. There are some on the right who are inclined to indulge secessionist fantasies as well as others who think such talk is an amusing way to jibe the current president. But those who read Carson’s low-key takedown of the idea will come away understanding that there is nothing funny about it.

As Carson writes, the courts and history have long since adjudicated the concept of secession by the states. No less a source than Abraham Lincoln can be cited to tell us that “in contemplation of universal law and of the Constitution the Union of these States is perpetual.” Lincoln’s answer to the secessionists of his time, who launched a bloody war that left more than 600,000 Americans dead, was to point out that their effort was the antithesis of democracy. The same can be said of the ideas of the latter-day Lone Star republicans who no longer wish to be part of the same country run by Barack Obama. While some radicals may see this as a rational response to the policies of the administration, this is the sort of absurdity that deserves the most severe condemnation from conservatives who understand that any such talk is an irrational diversion of attention from vital debates on the great issues of the day.

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I rarely find myself in complete agreement with anything that comes out of the Obama administration. But I have to commend Jon Carson, the White House director of public engagement, for his thoughtful response to the petitions received from those asking that Texas and some other states be allowed to peacefully withdraw from the union. This is the sort of thing that can easily be dismissed as the domain of crackpots. Fortunately, only a tiny minority of Texans supports secession. Nevertheless, the ongoing debates about gun control and the debt ceiling have given a concept that deserved to be consigned to the dustbin of history some traction. And since 125,746 signatures were appended to the Texas petition, the White House was obligated to respond in some way. There are some on the right who are inclined to indulge secessionist fantasies as well as others who think such talk is an amusing way to jibe the current president. But those who read Carson’s low-key takedown of the idea will come away understanding that there is nothing funny about it.

As Carson writes, the courts and history have long since adjudicated the concept of secession by the states. No less a source than Abraham Lincoln can be cited to tell us that “in contemplation of universal law and of the Constitution the Union of these States is perpetual.” Lincoln’s answer to the secessionists of his time, who launched a bloody war that left more than 600,000 Americans dead, was to point out that their effort was the antithesis of democracy. The same can be said of the ideas of the latter-day Lone Star republicans who no longer wish to be part of the same country run by Barack Obama. While some radicals may see this as a rational response to the policies of the administration, this is the sort of absurdity that deserves the most severe condemnation from conservatives who understand that any such talk is an irrational diversion of attention from vital debates on the great issues of the day.

One would think that 150 years after the Civil War it would be impossible for Americans to give even a moment’s serious thought to the merits of secession. The idea that the losers in a presidential election—such as southern advocates of slavery in 1860—could be justified in dissolving the union is contrary to the Constitution as well as to any sense of patriotism. In a democracy, those who are defeated in elections do not seek revenge via destruction of the country, they redouble their efforts to persuade the people of their mistake and look to come back to win the next time. Secession isn’t an expression of autonomy as much as it is a rejection of the system by which we use ballots rather than bullets to choose our leaders. Once you understand that, talk of Texas resuming its brief career as an independent republic stops being an interesting diversion and is seen, as it should be, as a noxious form of public discourse that should be shunned by patriotic Americans.

Extremism is not the exclusive preserve of the right. For the eight years of the George W. Bush administration, the left often acted as if there was nothing, no matter how outrageous, that could be said about the president, including jokes or films about his assassination, without censure. Since January 2009 some on the right have similarly sought to demonize Barack Obama. Far from advancing the fight against his agenda to expand the power of the federal government, extremist utterances and the related conspiracy theories have helped Obama stigmatize all his critics as extremists.

But the history of secession, associated as it is with the cause of slavery and the issues that were fortunately decided by the triumph of the Union, makes it particularly egregious and is therefore especially deserving of denunciation.

One should never throw words like treason around loosely since it has a specific definition that does not apply to offenses that fall short of “making war on the United States.” But the oaths of our public officials speak of preserving and defending the Constitution. Those who advocate the destruction of the union, even in the context of a form of political protest against the government of the day, are treading on very dangerous rhetorical ground. No responsible person, either in Texas or anywhere else, should be under the impression that this falls within the bounds of legitimate political discourse.

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Call Us Blessed

This year marked the 150th anniversary of what David Von Drehle calls the most perilous year in our country’s history. As 1862 dawned, Von Drehle writes in his marvelous book Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year, America was at death’s door. The federal government appeared overwhelmed. The Treasury Department was broke. The War Department was a corrupt shambles. The Union’s top general, George McClellan, was gravely ill. And Lincoln was viewed as weak and overmatched by events. “It is in the highest Degree likely that the North will not be able to subdue the South,” the British prime minister, Lord Palmerston, counseled his Foreign Office.

By the end of the year, the tide had turned. The South had been dealt major battlefield losses. The Union had developed a military strategy that would eventually prevail. “The twelve tumultuous months of 1862 were the hinge of American history,” according to Von Drehle, “the decisive moment at which the unsustainable compromises of the founding generations were ripped up in favor of a blueprint for a much stronger nation.” And it was the year in which Lincoln rose to greatness. 

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This year marked the 150th anniversary of what David Von Drehle calls the most perilous year in our country’s history. As 1862 dawned, Von Drehle writes in his marvelous book Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year, America was at death’s door. The federal government appeared overwhelmed. The Treasury Department was broke. The War Department was a corrupt shambles. The Union’s top general, George McClellan, was gravely ill. And Lincoln was viewed as weak and overmatched by events. “It is in the highest Degree likely that the North will not be able to subdue the South,” the British prime minister, Lord Palmerston, counseled his Foreign Office.

By the end of the year, the tide had turned. The South had been dealt major battlefield losses. The Union had developed a military strategy that would eventually prevail. “The twelve tumultuous months of 1862 were the hinge of American history,” according to Von Drehle, “the decisive moment at which the unsustainable compromises of the founding generations were ripped up in favor of a blueprint for a much stronger nation.” And it was the year in which Lincoln rose to greatness. 

Rise to Greatness takes us through 1862 month by month. It’s a marvelous and gripping story, compellingly and beautifully written. And this is how the book concludes:

The first day of 1863 did not mark the end of the war, or even the beginning of the end. That would come later in the year, when Grant drove the Rebels out of Vicksburg and Chattanooga on his way to replacing Halleck as general in chief. But the close of 1862 — to borrow from Winston Churchill — brought the nation to the end of the beginning. And like the Shakespearean dramas that spoke so powerfully to the genius of Abraham Lincoln, the events of the final scenes were fated by the decisions, actions, omissions, flukes, failures, and successes of the early drama. When that fateful year began, a shattered land looked backward at a dream that seemed forever lost. When a new year arrived, the way forward was perceptible, an upward climb into a challenging but brilliant future.

As another new year arrives–a century and a half after the end of the beginning of the Civil War–it is a good time to reflect on the extraordinary journey America has traveled, the terrible “original sin” of slavery the United States had to overcome, and how close things came to unraveling. It’s also a good time to recall just how fortunate we were that, at the most arduous moment in our history, America produced its greatest president, an individual whose intellectual, political, and rhetorical gifts converged in a way unmatched in all our history.

Even with all the political nonsense we see unfolding before our eyes today, call us blessed.

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Labor Unions, Violence, and America’s Political Religion

When he was only 28 years old, Abraham Lincoln delivered an address before the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois.

The speech included Lincoln’s plea to avoid what he called the “mobocratic spirit.” He warned about an “ill-omen amongst us”–which he identified as, among other things, the “growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passion, in lieu of the sober judgment of Courts.” 

In fact, the Young Men’s Lyceum speech deals in large part with the issue of passion vs. reason. Lincoln, like the Founders, had a deep insight into human nature, acknowledging that “jealousy, envy, and avarice” are “incident to our nature.” The basest principles of our nature, he said, “were either made to lie dormant, or to become the active agents in the advancement of the noblest of cause — that of establishing and maintaining civil and religious liberty” (meaning they were directed exclusively against the British nation). But at the end of his speech, Lincoln issues this warning:

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When he was only 28 years old, Abraham Lincoln delivered an address before the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois.

The speech included Lincoln’s plea to avoid what he called the “mobocratic spirit.” He warned about an “ill-omen amongst us”–which he identified as, among other things, the “growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passion, in lieu of the sober judgment of Courts.” 

In fact, the Young Men’s Lyceum speech deals in large part with the issue of passion vs. reason. Lincoln, like the Founders, had a deep insight into human nature, acknowledging that “jealousy, envy, and avarice” are “incident to our nature.” The basest principles of our nature, he said, “were either made to lie dormant, or to become the active agents in the advancement of the noblest of cause — that of establishing and maintaining civil and religious liberty” (meaning they were directed exclusively against the British nation). But at the end of his speech, Lincoln issues this warning:

Passion has helped us; but can do so no more. It will in future be our enemy. Reason, cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason, must furnish all the materials for our future support and defence. Let those materials be moulded into general intelligence, sound morality and, in particular, a reverence for the constitution and laws. This must become America’s “political religion.”

Which brings us to Michigan, where Governor Rick Snyder signed a law declaring that workers will no longer be required to pay union fees as a condition of employment.

National Review offers a summary of the reaction to the new Michigan law: “Democratic legislator Douglas Geiss declared on the floor of the state house: ‘There will be blood. There will be repercussions.’ And indeed there were: Knife-wielding partisans brought down a tent on representatives from the conservative group Americans for Prosperity — women and children among them — and roughed up bystanders. Fox News contributor Steven Crowder was beaten by the same mob, punched repeatedly in the face.” In addition, Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa declared there would be a “civil war” in Michigan. (A video of some of this can be seen here, courtesy of HotAir.com. And on the left, it’s being said that “getting hit in the face is a hazard of inserting yourself in the middle of an argument between billionaire-funded know-nothing ideologues and people whose livelihoods and stability are being threatened by the insatiable greed of the super-rich and the blind extremism of their wooden-headed political allies.”) 

Conservative commentators have pointed out that Michigan is merely the most recent link in a chain of events, from the response to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s decision to end collective bargaining rights for public sector unions (where Walker was often compared to Hitler, Mubarak, and Mussolini) to the Occupy Wall Street protests (which were characterized by sexual assault, arson, and vandalism, among other things).

My point isn’t that what’s happening today is anything like the scale of what Lincoln was referring to (which included murders committed by pro-slavery mobs). But the confrontations and rage, the acts of intimidation and violence we’ve seen in places from Lansing to Zuccotti Park and several other cities are troubling enough.

We all know passions can be inflamed in political disputes. What’s crucial is to respect the rights of others even when we disagree with them. Those who don’t–those who substitute wild and furious passion for cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason–are engaged in something destructive.

We are nowhere close to a pre-civil war situation. We’re even a long distance removed from the violent protests of the late 1960s and early 1970s. But our divisions are deep enough. And when differences in policies lead to screaming matches, shoving matches, provocations and fist fights, it’s not a sign of civic health. (Liberals might be somewhat more attuned to this point if the actions we’re seeing at union rallies had happened at Tea Party gatherings.)

A “mobocratic spirit” is at odds with America’s political religion. And it would be nice, and perhaps even helpful, if the president reminded his supporters and allies of that from time to time.

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Spielberg’s Lincoln

I have no talent for creating plots and characters, and so I must leave it to God to do that job for me; I write history instead of fiction. Fortunately, He is very good at plots and characters. Has there ever been a better sea story than that of the Titanic’s maiden (and final) voyage? Could the best practitioner of the art of “romance fiction” have come up with a story to match the reality of Edward VIII and Mrs. Simpson?

History, of course, can shade off into fiction, sometimes with terrible results but sometimes with sublime ones. Docudramas make up dialogue but are supposed to stick to historical reality otherwise. Historical fiction, however, can alter historical reality for dramatic purposes.

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I have no talent for creating plots and characters, and so I must leave it to God to do that job for me; I write history instead of fiction. Fortunately, He is very good at plots and characters. Has there ever been a better sea story than that of the Titanic’s maiden (and final) voyage? Could the best practitioner of the art of “romance fiction” have come up with a story to match the reality of Edward VIII and Mrs. Simpson?

History, of course, can shade off into fiction, sometimes with terrible results but sometimes with sublime ones. Docudramas make up dialogue but are supposed to stick to historical reality otherwise. Historical fiction, however, can alter historical reality for dramatic purposes.

At its best, historical fiction can be a wonderful window into the past. If you would like to be vastly entertained while getting a real sense of what mid-18th century England was like, you can’t beat the movie of Tom Jones. The Hornblower novels of C. S. Forrester are, likewise, an accurate as well as page-turning introduction to the realities of the Nelsonian Royal Navy. (But stay far, far away from the recent television dramatization of the Hornblower saga. It was appallingly, insulting-to-the-intelligence ahistorical, like a symphony played with half the instruments out of tune.)

All this is in introduction to Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, which opened last month to great reviews. It is historical fiction, to be sure, but like the best historical fiction it is a window into a lost world of the past, in this case the final months of the Civil War.

There are occasions when the movie parts company with historical reality for its own, legitimate purposes, as the noted Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer pointed out in the Daily Beast. Mary Todd Lincoln would never have listened to debates in the House of Representatives in 1865, still less accompanied by her black servant. Thanks to gas light, the interiors would have been much better lit than they appear in the movie. The Gettysburg Address had not yet become iconic. Lincoln did not appear on the 50-cent piece. (Indeed only allegorical figures appeared on American coinage until 1909, when Lincoln was put on the penny to celebrate his hundredth birthday.)

But none of that matters. Daniel Day-Lewis’s amazing portrayal of Lincoln brings the 16th president to life as, say, Daniel Chester French’s magnificent statue in the Lincoln Memorial could never do. French’s statue is the Lincoln of legend, the quite literally larger-than-life figure who saved the Union. Day-Lewis’s Lincoln is the story-telling, disheveled, deceptively shrewd prairie lawyer with the emotionally unstable wife. He is the Lincoln who fought his personal demons every day, kept his fractious, ambitious cabinet under firm but subtle control, and practiced down-and-dirty politics with genius to achieve his goals.

The other characters are also extremely well portrayed (especially Mary Todd Lincoln, played by Sally Field, and Thaddeus Stevens, played by Tommy Lee Jones). The settings and scenes, especially the killing field around Petersburg and the petitioner-clogged halls of the White House, could hardly be better.

If you would like to know the historical Lincoln, there are a thousand biographies. Perhaps the best recent one is David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln. But if you would like to get a glance of the real Lincoln, the human Lincoln, you must see the movie. It is a masterpiece.

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