(I’m teaching a course this semester on the American Civil War, and so I’m doing my best to immerse myself in that subject, reading works on the conflict as much as time allows. In the review below I share my opinion of a book that I purchased at the recent annual meeting of the American Historical Association. I didn’t like it. I might even detest it. Read on to find out why.)
A Just and Generous Nation: Abraham Lincoln and the Fight for American Opportunity, by Harold Holzer and Norton Garfinkle. New York: Basic Books, 2015.
I’ll start with a compliment. Overall, academic historians long ago abandoned any sense of social responsibility to the larger society. There are admirable exceptions, but for the most part, academic history is an inward-focused conversation that academic historians have with each other about the academic questions they find of academic interest. And if the public beyond the walls of the Academy equates academic with “arcane,” “elitist,” or “irrelevant”—a pretty logical inference—well, that’s the public’s problem, not ours. Our job is to advance the boundaries of knowledge after all, not to communicate with the masses.
To their credit, Harold Holzer and Norton Garfinkle have written A Just and Generous Nation with a broad audience in mind (as its publication by a trade press, Basic Books, underscores). The book tries to make the past relevant to the present, and I applaud that. It deals with big questions, and I applaud that also. It’s written in an engaging manner—always a plus—and the authors unabashedly point out lessons they think we should learn, a trait I admire.
In sum, I really like the conception of the historian’s task that underlies A Just and Generous Nation. It’s the authors’ execution of the task that drives me crazy.
The book’s thesis is clear, in part because the authors’ repeat it monotonously. Until his final breath, Abraham Lincoln was animated by the conviction that the United States had been uniquely founded on the “vision of a just and generous economic society.” The Founders, Lincoln believed, “brought forth a new nation” in which all would have an equal chance to rise into the middle class. This is why he sought to save the Union. This is why he acted to emancipate slaves. Neither were ends in themselves. The Civil War, Holzer and Garfinkle contend, was always primarily a struggle over “what kind of economy the nation should have.” More precisely, it was a war for “the American Dream,” for the triumph of a society that gives “all a chance” and allows “the weaker to grow stronger.”
OK. This is a provocative thesis, but not beyond the realm of possibilities. Historians have debated Lincoln’s motives for a century and a half. Some have suggested that Lincoln was propelled by an almost mystical veneration of the Union bequeathed by the generation of 1776. Some have pointed to his conviction that slavery was “a moral, social, and political wrong,” a stain on the national fabric. Others have stressed Lincoln’s conviction that the Civil War was the ultimate test of the viability of democracy, a bloody trial to determine whether common people could govern themselves. And some have portrayed the war as a monumental clash of economic systems, a conflict between agricultural and industrial societies for national dominance. The Columbia University historian Charles Beard made that argument nearly a century ago, and there are faint echoes of that claim in A Just and Generous Nation.
But the heart of the authors’ argument isn’t really about Lincoln’s conception of the “American Dream.” It’s about his purported vision for the role of the federal government in promoting it. And Lincoln’s vision, Holzer and Garfinkle insist with undisguised admiration, was breathtakingly expansive and modern. “Lincoln was the first president to use the federal government as an agent to support Americans in their effort to achieve and sustain a middle class life,” they gush. He “never changed his view that government should engage proactively to build, expand, and provide opportunities for working people to improve their economic status.”
This is what the Civil War was about. This is why nearly eight hundred thousand men died and more than a million more were maimed: to secure for future generations an activist role for the federal government as the guarantor of middle-class prosperity.
Almost all historians acknowledge that Lincoln advocated an active role for government in promoting economic development and economic opportunity. Probably the first political speech he ever gave called for state aid to dredge the Sangamon River in order to help local farmers get their crops to market. He quickly embraced the new Whig Party’s commitment to what Whig leader Henry Clay called “the American System.” This included a national bank to facilitate economic exchange, a high protective tariff to promote industrialization, and government aid to “internal improvements”—subsidies for the construction of railroads, canals, and the improvement of waterways—in order to accelerate the development of a market economy. Evaluated in the context of the mid-1800s—when the federal government was minuscule and the only federal employee that most Americans ever met was the mailman—Lincoln was undeniably a champion of active government.
But he wasn’t a modern-day big-government Democrat, although Holzer and Garfinkle do their best to convince us otherwise. They may be right when they claim that “Lincoln’s domestic policies provided the first clear example of the positive role that could be played by the federal government to encourage the economic growth of the nation.” The Republican-controlled Congress passed a series of landmark economic measures during the war. Through the Morrill Act, the Transcontinental Railroad Act, and the Homestead Act, the Congress used the nation’s vast untapped resources of western lands to promote higher education, railroad construction, and increasing farm ownership.
But it’s at least debatable whether these measures all benefited, or at least primarily benefited, the middle class. The Morrill Act helped to create land-grant colleges across the West, but generations would pass before as much as five percent of the white male population would attend. The building of the first transcontinental railroad undoubtedly expanded the national economy and indirectly aided many, but it set a precedent of gargantuan subsidies to private corporations in the process. (Between 1862 and 1871, the federal government granted land subsidies to private railroad companies of nearly two hundred million acres—roughly the size of England, France, and Scotland combined.)
You can even question whether the Homestead Act was all that helpful in aiding upward mobility into the middle class. Although the act provided “free” farms to settlers who would improve the land for five years, economic historians have found that few working-class households had the resources to move west, erect buildings and fences on a homestead, and feed and clothe themselves for months while waiting for the first crops to come in.
If it’s debatable to characterize these measures as unalloyed victories for the middle class, it’s preposterous to describe the enormous military expenditures that the war demanded as “the federal government’s stimulus programs.” Yet Holzer and Garfinkle do so, in keeping with their determination to portray Lincoln as the founding father of twenty-first-century liberalism. To drive home their point, in the second half of the book they trace the decline and rebirth of Lincoln’s progressive vision in the century and a half since his death. As they tell the story, in the late-nineteenth century the GOP turned its back on Lincoln’s dream for America and become the party of the one percent. Theodore Roosevelt tried to restore the GOP’s moral center, but it was the Democratic Party that eventually became, in vision if not in name, the true party of Lincoln.
The central agent in this transformation was Franklin Roosevelt. The authors pair FDR with Lincoln as the two most important promoters of the American Dream in U. S. history. Lyndon Johnson was also a worthy heir of Lincoln when he sought to use the federal government to build the “Great Society.” So was Barack Obama, who during his second term finally began “girding his loins to follow in Lincoln’s footsteps and take new steps to use the power of the presidency to improve the status of middle-class and working-class members of the American community.”
In sum, Lincoln would have been an enthusiastic advocate of social security, welfare, affirmative action, and the Affordable Health Care Act. Apparently, he also would have looked for economic guidance to Sweden and Denmark, where public spending and tax revenue as a percentage of GDP is double what it is in the U. S. The authors conclude A Just and Generous Nation with an extended tribute to both nations, leaving us to conclude that, while Lincoln’s vision may be withering in the United States, it’s alive and well in Scandinavia.
You can draw your own conclusions about the authors’ policy proposals. There are arguments for and against them, with intelligent and decent people on both sides of the debate. As a historian, however, I have to say that A Just and Generous Nation is bad history, and I don’t say that lightly, given that Holzer is widely recognized as a leading Lincoln scholar. And yet the book is riddled with inaccuracies. I won’t bore you with the details, except to say that the authors misstate or misrepresent the facts concerning the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the meaning of Lincoln’s “house divided” metaphor, his vision for slavery’s “ultimate extinction,” the significance of Congressional compromise proposals in 1860-1861, Lincoln’s stance on the Second Confiscation Act of 1862, the implications of the Wade-Davis bill of 1864, the end of the Freedmen’s Bureau, and the relationship between postwar peonage and convict labor. The book can be sloppy at times.
It is also relentlessly one-sided. The authors regularly ignore evidence that would weaken their argument. (In a masterpiece of understatement, a New York Times review notes that the book “flattens out a story that has some uncomfortable complexities.”) While praising Lincoln’s commitment to the working class, for example, the authors fail to mention that by the 1850s Lincoln was essentially a corporate lawyer who earned the lion’s share of his living representing wealthy commercial concerns: insurance companies, banks, and railroads. His single largest client was the Illinois Central Railroad, the longest railroad in the world at the time and one of the world’s largest corporations. (Lincoln’s law partner, William Herndon, would later joke, “Much as we deprecated the avarice of great corporations, we both thanked the Lord for letting the Illinois Central Railroad fall into our hands.”)
Nor do the authors find occasion to mention Lincoln’s well-documented response when his brother-in-law, a subsistence farmer named John D. Johnston, wrote Lincoln in 1848 and asked to borrow $80 to pay off some pressing bills. “What I propose is,” Lincoln wrote Johnston, “that you shall go to work ‘tooth and nails’ for some body who will give you money [for] it.” “Follow my advice,” Lincoln lectured his brother-in-law, “and you will find it worth more than eight times eighty dollars to you.”
Most problematic of all is the authors’ reading of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which can most charitably be described as imaginative. After paying tribute to those “who here gave their lives that [the] nation might live,” Lincoln had challenged the assembled throng “to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced,” to “take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.” Although his audience didn’t know it (nor did the Union soldiers Lincoln was praising), the “cause” was not the preservation of the Union. It was not the eradication of slavery and a “new birth of freedom.” It was the promotion of the American Dream grounded in activist government. “Looking to the aftermath of the Civil War,” the authors explain, Lincoln “was defining the nation’s ‘unfinished work’ as the new task of providing all citizens a government committed to helping all citizens build a middle-class life.”
A Just and Generous Nation is a textbook example of what I call “history as ammunition,” an approach to the past as a storehouse of illustrations for proving predetermined points. When politically conservative amateur historians appeal to America’s Founders to promote a conservative contemporary agenda, academic historians are quick to protest. Only anti-intellectual populist yahoos—“historical fundamentalists,” to use Harvard historian Jill Lepore’s condescending phrase—would naively do such a thing. But it’s apparently fine for two prominent scholars to ask WWLD?—“What Would Lincoln Do?”—as long as the answer points in the direction that most academics are already headed.
Let me be clear: I’m not frustrated by this book because I disagree with the authors’ liberal politics. Their politics are irrelevant. Long-time readers of this blog will know that I have regularly called to account conservative Christians when they have done something similar. As a historian of the United States, my frustration is with those who distort our past while claiming to honor it. And as a historian of the American Civil War more specifically, I can only say that Holzer and Garfinkle have so contorted that crucial conflict that few of the men who fought in it would recognize it.