The example of Abraham Lincoln’s conciliatory, moderate leadership is now offered as the solution to the dramatic polarization of the American electorate by such as Bill O’Reilly, co-author of a new book Killing Lincoln, advertised as a “thriller” but certainly not a novel contribution to the massive literature on the controversial President, assassinated shortly after his second term as President was under way. Nor is it likely that O’Reilly has looked into the attempt by leading social psychologists affiliated with the Roosevelt administration to merge the “idealized” images of good father figures: Washington, Lincoln, and Roosevelt. I wrote about their attempts here, in my study of the teaching of American literature for propaganda purposes, Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival. The materials from which this startling advice to other progressives was drawn are held by the Harvard University Archives, and consisted of numerous worksheets, distributed nationally to citizen groups interested in Henry A. Murray and Gordon Allport’s program of “civilian morale,” circa 1941-42. After this excerpt from a published work, I will reflect upon the differing assessments of Lincoln and the more “radical” or “Jacobin” members of the Republican Party.
[ Book excerpt, chapter two, quoting Murray and Allport; the narrative is mine:] The section “General Attitudes Toward Leaders” anticipated the criticism that American propaganda duplicated Nazi methods. First the authors warned “the less the faith in sources of information, the worse the morale.” The next item suggested “Linking of Present Leader to the Idealized Leaders of the Past”: ‘The more the present leader is seen as continuing in the footsteps of the great idealized leaders of the past, the better the morale. (Picture of Roosevelt between Washington and Lincoln would encourage this identification.) The more the present leader is seen as falling short of the stature of the great idealized leaders of the past, the worse the identification (11). By effective leadership the group’s latent communality may emerge through identification with the leader. If this smacks of the Führer-Prinzip, we would insist that identification is a process common to all societies, and that what distinguishes the democratic leadership from the Nazi leadership is not the process of identification but the content of what is identified with. It is the function of the democratic leader to inspire confidence in the democratic way of life, in its value for the individual or the society and not mere identification with his person, or the mythical Volk (16).’ (my emph.)
For the tolerant materialists Murray and Allport, as with David Hume before them, there is no foreordained clash between individuals and institutions, no economic relationships to undermine altruism and benevolence: man is naturally communal and “society” as a coherent entity, a collective subject, actually exists. The good leader is neither autocratic nor corrupt, “does not waver, is not self-seeking, is impartial, accepts good criticism” (#4, 10). As we have seen, tolerance, i.e., criticism of leadership, had its limits.[i] The Constitutionalist legacy had to be reinterpreted because critical support of political institutions in the Lockean-Freudian mode is not identical with “identification,” an unconscious process whereby primitive emotions of early childhood are transferred to all authority, coloring our ‘rational’ choices and judgments. Only the most rigorous and ongoing demystification and precise structural analysis (with no government secrets) could maintain institutional legitimacy for political theorists in the libertarian tradition, but, for the moderates, such claims to accurate readings as a prelude to reform were the sticky residue of the regicides. And where is the boundary between good and bad criticism? Alas, just as Martin Dies had suggested that the poor should tolerate the rich, Murray and Allport advised Americans to tolerate (or forget) “Failure in the Nation’s Past.” We must do better, of course.
The worksheet continues, recommending that traditional American evangelicalism embrace the disaffected, for there may be moderate enthusiasts in the new dispensation: “The submerging of the individual in enthusiastic team work is not altogether foreign to the American temper. This means Jews, the “lower” classes, the draftees, labor unions, and so on. It cannot be done by fiat, but the inequalities might be mitigated if not removed, so that otherwise apathetic groups would feel a stake in the defense of the country, and the middle and upper classes more aware of the meaning of democracy (16).”
These latter remarks were intended to answer the question Murray and Allport had posed at the beginning of their worksheets: “Certain themes in Axis propaganda are continually stressed, notably the self-righteousness and hypocrisy of the democracies in general and of the U.S. (and President Roosevelt) in particular. What’s to be done about it?” (4). Virtually the entire postwar program of conservative reform was foreshadowed in these pages. As formulated in the mid-nineteenth century, abolitionist and working-class demands for universal education, equal rights, and enforcement of the Constitution would be redirected into the quotas of affirmative action or multiculturalism. In worksheet #17, “Long Term Aspects of Democratic Morale Building,” a program of integration and deferential politeness would rearrange the American people’s community:
” …far from ignoring or suppressing diversities of intelligence, the objective of democratic morale-building should be their conscious integration into an improving collective opinion. The techniques of such integration exist. They are inherent in the democratic tradition of tolerance and the democratic custom of free discussion. They exist, however, in outline rather than in any ultimate or perhaps even very high state of development (4). [Quoting Gordon Allport:]…Our pressure groups are loud, their protests vehement and our method of electioneering bitter and sometimes vicious. In the process of becoming self-reliant Americans have lost respect, docility, and trust in relation to their leaders. Our habit of unbridled criticism, though defended as a basic right, brings only a scant sense of security to ourselves in an emergency, and actively benefits the enemies of the nation (5). (“integration” Murray’s and Allport’s emph., bold-face mine)
And one such source of insecurity (i.e., subversion) was anti-war education and pacifism: “insofar as the disapproval of war was based on a rejection of imperialist patriotism, it engendered war-cynicism” (Red-bound typescript, 4). In other words, Murray and Allport were admitting that involvement in the war could not be legitimated as an anti-imperialist intervention, nor could there be any other appeal to reason. Leaders, past and present, would have to be idealized; all criticism bridled in the interest of “integration.” The disaffected should moderate their demands, settling for mitigation, not relief.
And if, despite the neo-Progressive prescriptions, the road to national unity remained rocky, scapegoating, properly guided by social scientific principles, would certainly deflect aggression away from ruling groups. [end, excerpt, Hunting Captain Ahab.]
Left-liberal historians vs. Southern historians on Lincoln: That the historic figure Lincoln has been appropriated for present-day partisan concerns should be obvious. Richard Hofstadter debunked him as well as Roosevelt in The American Political Tradition (1948): for Hofstadter, Lincoln was a calculating, ambitious politician, who followed public opinion without leading it. That same sub-text can be found in the more recent popular biography by David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (Simon and Schuster, 1995), foreshadowed by Southerner T. Harry Williams’s anthology of Lincoln’s speeches (Packard, 1943). For instance, in reporting Lincoln’s last public speech, Donald takes him to task: “…Nor was he about to issue a proclamation for the general reorganization of the Southern states. The sole item on the agenda was peace, and Lincoln did not in this speech—or elsewhere—offer a broad vision of the future, outlining how the conquered South should be governed. He stipulated only that loyal men must rule. His view was not that of the Conservatives, who simply wanted the rebellious states, without slavery, to return to their former position in the Union, nor was it the view of the Radicals, who wanted to take advantage of this molten moment of history to recast the entire social structure of the South. [Williams wrote an entire book on Lincoln and the Radicals.] He did not share the Conservatives’ desire to put the section back into the hands of the planters and businessmen who had dominated the South before the war, but he did not adopt the Radicals’ belief that the only true Unionists in the South were African-Americans. (p.582).”
Donald, originally a Southerner. later a Harvard professor of note, and author of a hostile biography of Charles Sumner (Donald refers to the Radical Republicans as “Jacobins” in the Lincoln book) is writing partly in the Hofstadter tradition, as he demonstrates throughout this minutely documented study of Lincoln’s life—a study that strongly contradicts the conversion narrative offered up by leftist historian Eric Foner (see https://clarespark.com/2011/03/30/eric-foners-christianized-lincoln/). By contrast, Foner uses the Lincoln example to buttress the case for reparations, in concert with other left-liberal historians such as David Brion Davis, David Blight, Steven Mintz, and John Stauffer. They are not interested in Lincoln’s purported moderation (that in Donald’s account slips into rank opportunism and lack of principle).
Eric Foner made much of Lincoln’s growing religiosity as his presidency progressed, but one wonders if the religious rhetoric of the Second Inaugural Address was not at least partly inspired by Julia Ward Howe’s Battle Hymn of the Republic (1861), with an almost identical appeal to Providence, hence an evasion of personal responsibility for the welfare of the freedmen, for Lincoln’s recurrent depression and sense of horror over the casualties of the Civil War must at least partly account for his distressing lack of personal security that allowed Booth’s conspiracy to triumph. It is not an unreasonable inference to suggest that Lincoln was suicidal, and not only at the end, when the country remained enraged, as it had been for many years over such matters as the expansion of slavery and states rights. Add to that the slaughter that we have just learned was underestimated in its numbers of killed and wounded–estimates now exceed 750,000, and perhaps that too is low! See http://www2.bupipedream.com/news/professor-rethinks-civil-war-death-toll-1.2613738.
I find it impossible to laud Lincoln’s record as a moderate who succeeded in conciliating sectional conflict, as O’Reilly imagines; no human being could have done. We are still fighting over the causes and conduct of the Civil War; the proposals of the so-called Radical Republicans might have done much to allay the bitterness that remains over this irrepressible, unresolved, traumatic and traumatizing conflict. (See https://clarespark.com/2011/02/20/are-we-still-fighting-the-civil-war/.) For a treatment of Herman Melville’s treatment of Robert E. Lee and the Civil War in general, see https://clarespark.com/2008/05/03/margoth-vs-robert-e-lee/. And oh, yes, I still maintain that the antislavery Senator from Massachusetts, Charles Sumner, was at least one contributor to Melville’s world-famous Captain Ahab. See https://clarespark.com/2009/10/05/charles-sumner-moderate-conservative-on-lifelong-learning/, for similarities between Sumner’s views and Ahab’s words.
[i] David Hume had confidently asserted that unpredictability enters politics when factions are infiltrated by radical religion; by triumphalist hypermoralistic, hyper-rationalist puritan extremists: the link between cause and effect would no longer be obvious. See History of England, Vol. 6, year 1617. The Hume entry in the Encyclopedia Brittanica, 1971, presents Hume as a philosopher whose major contribution was his demonstration that there could be no theory of reality, no verification for our assertions of causality. Faced with the necessity of action we rely upon our habit of association and (subjective) beliefs. And yet Hume is described as a thinker who saw philosophy as “the inductive science of human nature.” He is not described as a moderate or a Tory.