The Clare Spark Blog

September 29, 2011

The Abraham Lincoln Conundrum

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 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

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 For a treatment of Herman Melville’s treatment of Robert E. Lee and the Civil War in general, see 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, 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.


  1. I’ve just finished the Donald biography, which has the advantage of being mercifully short. Donald emphasizes that Lincoln deliberately built a diverse cabinet of strong-willed and talented men (many of them his rivals, and politically ambitious), and took counsel from them. In the end, his decisions were his own, although he agonized over them. He made egregious mistakes, especially early in his Administration, but steady improved as president and commander in chief. Circumstances drove him from moderation to radical positions, and his political opportunism cobbled together an unlikely alliance of diverse interests to preserve the Union. That Lincoln agonized over command decisions that cost hundreds of thousands of lives demonstrates his humanity, not his weakness. At the end, his tenacity and will to win while steering the ship of state through its greatest existential crisis earned him all his accolades. Lincoln played multi-dimensional chess in an atmosphere of chaos, moral confusion, and violent conflict better than all the others. As he said, “If I were to try to read, much less answer, all the attacks made on me, this shop might as well be closed for other business . . . If the end brings me out all right, what’s said against me won’t amount to anything. If the end brings me out wrong, ten angels swearing I was right would make no difference.” The end brought him “out all right”.

    Comment by Harry Lewis — February 19, 2018 @ 3:38 pm | Reply

  2. […] father figures.  See, or The latter takes up Bill O’Reilly’s efforts to render Lincoln as the pre-eminent […]

    Pingback by LINCOLN (the movie) as propaganda « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — February 9, 2013 @ 10:49 pm | Reply

  3. […] of immobilizing fear. For more on “the moderate men” (Melville’s phrase), see Moderation is a buzz word without concrete meaning, and is a key word in psychological warfare. […]

    Pingback by The Great Dumbing Down (2) « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — March 26, 2012 @ 2:52 pm | Reply

  4. Dear Clare Spark,

    I’m new to your blog, having only found out about it today via a history professor. I find your comments about Lincoln occasionally opaque but always interesting. Disclosure: I assisted the late C. A. Tripp with his extremely controversial book (2005) about Lincoln’s sexuality. As you very well may know, after a national wave of revulsion, Tripp’s book has increasingly been credited by academics as probably correct (John Stauffer, and especially, William Hanchett). My question for you: Do you have thoughts about public reactions to the idea that one of the American “good fathers” was bisexual?


    Lewis Gannett

    Comment by Lewis Gannett — October 18, 2011 @ 8:52 pm | Reply

    • Thanks for your question. There has always been conflict in the Herman Melville scholarship as to whether or not HM was bisexual. It is more interesting to me in Melville’s case than it is in Lincoln’s. I am much more interested in whether or not David Herbert Donald was relatively accurate in reporting Lincoln’s recurrent depression. Lincoln is such a candidate (role model) for the moderate men who believe that all conflicts can be conciliated with skillful, artful mediation by a neutral party, a stand-in for the neutral state as it exists in the minds of the moderate men. So the latter mourn his passing in the belief that he could have pacified the South. I would ask, not as a Lincoln scholar, but as an ordinary historian, would Lincoln’s survival have depolarized the country in 1865 and afterwards? Would such a Lincolnesque figure depolarize our country today? For me, sexuality fades into a non-issue given the situation we are in right now.

      Comment by clarespark — October 18, 2011 @ 9:07 pm | Reply

      • Thanks for the comments. I find the issue of Lincoln’s sexuality interesting, but I’m far more interested in why, if the Tripp bisexual hypothesis is correct (and I think it is), historians didn’t figure it out a long time ago. So, I’m really talking the practice of historiography. To put it more starkly: to the extent that Tripp is right, most of Lincoln Studies is not merely wrong, but colossally wrong, which makes the subject, I think, quite important. Incidentally, I’ve published twice in Journal of the A. L. Association, lead journal out of the A. L. Pres. Lib. & Mus. in Springfield, in both articles raising sharp questions about the facts behind the Ann Rutledge story. You can get both articles through Google. Again, a question of historiography. Now, about whether a Lincolnesque figure would today depolarize. In my opinion, no. We already have a president office who uncannily resembles Lincoln. Tall, skinny, from Illinois, self-made, and above all, a centrist who infuriates the left wing of his base: Obama. It’s important to keep in mind that New England Abolitionists viscerally hated Lincoln. Lincoln’s depressive nature. I’d suggest that you read Tripp and Joshua Wolf Shenk, both of whom have excellent discussions about depression and the two very serious nervous breakdowns. The suicidal question. Some of Lincoln’s friends in New Salem and later in Springfield did worry about it, but these sources don’t strike me as altogether reliable, especially Billy Green in N. S. and Joshua Speed in Sp., both of whom had reason to camouflage Lincoln attributes with–his very real–melancholy nature. “Sad Lincoln” has always been terribly convenient. I’m writing a book that, in part, focuses on this. Finally, if you haven’t read Bill Hanchett’s four-part series of articles in The Lincoln Herald, you should. It’s brilliant. It would make think more, probably, about the sexuality issue and the personality issue.

        Comment by Lewis Gannett — October 18, 2011 @ 9:40 pm

      • Please explain how Lincoln’s sexuality had anything to do with the political history of the U.S.

        Comment by clarespark — October 18, 2011 @ 9:53 pm

  5. […] Top Posts Multiculturalists and Wilsonians can't diagnose "the new antisemitism"About Clare SparkThe ABC's of AntisemitismRailroading Ayn Rand/Alissa Rosenbaum/Dagny TaggartThe Abraham Lincoln Conundrum […]

    Pingback by Updated index to Melville blogs « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — October 1, 2011 @ 10:55 pm | Reply

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