Guelzo's Lincoln and Douglas

Coming out of the 1990s, I had - as a book reviewer - a set disposition towards Lincoln books and authors. I found them vacuous and annoying.

The annoyance came from a "do as I say" ethos. We were invariably told about Lincoln's great mind, his insights, his wisdom, and his general superiority over the common run of statesmen of the same era. We were told to admire him while the authors gamboled on the meadows of storyland instead of sailing the rough waters of argument and analysis. Lincoln authors still seem to avoid arduous demonstrations as a rule.

Readers should have naturally expected from these touted gifts a Lincolnian school of political philosophy but where was it? Even second rank nineteenth century politicians like Henry George or William Jennings Bryan could inspire an intellectual heritage where Lincoln left nothing but law and policy and rivers of useless nonfiction.

In 2000, my editor asked me to review (in tandem) new books by John Patrick Diggins and Harry V. Jaffa and I learned then and there where the philosophers had been hiding and what they had to say. They were well outside the Lincoln field and they were heavy laden with insights.

Diggins, I read first. Note that Diggins is not a Lincoln scholar but his On Hallowed Ground: Abraham Lincoln and the Foundations of American History had more meat than the historical and biographical material normally served. Diggins made and substantiated an argument that Lincoln represented the culmination of Lockean political philosophy permeating the founding generation; that Lincoln's Lockeanism was not derivative but represented a culmination of Locke's thought tested in arduous new circumstances; that Lincoln was a contributor to the Lockean tradition; and that Lincoln's political philosophy was terminal. He was the last and greatest exponent of the American Lockean tradition.

Instead of stopping here, Diggins used this extensive preparation as a place from which to comment on modern political developments. The commentary was weak with polemic tarnishing the preceding deep and convincing exercise in historical analysis. He was aiming at a mass audience and appears to have gotten one - the book remains in print.

Jaffa I read next: A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War. I won't attempt to summarize this magnificent work except to say it was as satisfying as it was challenging. Where Diggins saw a Lockean natural rightist, Jaffa presented Lincoln, through his slowly unfolding analysis, as a classical natural rightist, the culmination of a non-Lockean natural rights tendency in early American government.

I am simplifying here but these threads stood out.

So, you had in the marketplace at once two books on Lincoln, one placing him as the exemplar of the Lockean view of natural rights, the other making him a paladin of the anti-Lockean view of natural rights. When will we see the like of a similar publishing accident in Lincoln studies?

What would have been interesting, as I noted in my review then, would have been a debate in which these two engaged on natural rights and Lincoln. Is such a debate possible today in Lincoln circles? Can the audience for this current flavor of Bicentennial nonfiction approach such a symposium? We're talking about readers of Mr. Lincoln's T-Mails.

Jaffa, like Diggins, pitched his book to an audience far beyond Lincoln readers and that is where Bicentennial publishing must follow them. One mark of Jaffa's 2000 volume was that it followed up his 1959 predecessor volume, Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Issues in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates. Is that not charming? To presume that the best part of the nonfiction readership of 1959 would be present and reading at the same level in 2000 has to be one of the most beautiful compliments an author has ever paid the reading public.

Allen C. Guelzo had praise for A New Birth of Freedom and House Divided both, as noted here a few years back: "Forty years ago, Harry Jaffa wrote the greatest book on Abraham Lincoln's politics for a generation; now, Jaffa has written the greatest book on Lincoln's politics for another generation."

In his new book, Lincoln and Douglas: the Debates That Defined America, Guelzo refers to Jaffa again. He had to because his new book aspires to convey why these are "The Debates That Defined America" where Jaffa has already done so.

Guelzo's answer set me back. Jaffa is "not … a historian" but "a political scientist." After a long, irrelevant digression into Leo Strauss's political philosophy, he then ties Jaffa to Strauss and Strauss to modern "neo-conservative" political time servers (this is a common, pop-culture error) while giving a greasy, blotted, back-of-the-napkin sketch of "the greatest book on Abraham Lincoln's politics for a generation."

As this happened in the introduction, I was forewarned.

My daughter, as a five year old painter, was sometimes given masterworks to copy impressionistically and the result was similar to Guelzo's explanation of Jaffa's House Divided. We end up with a nice something that bears little relation to the original.

But the masterwork sets an expectation that is unavoidable, even for a five year old finger painter. And Guelzo, having put Jaffa's analysis of the debates aside as a work not of history but of political science, sets the stage for our expectations of him and what he views history as being.

Well, he views it as narrative. Fast moving, information rich narrative. That's what his book is, storytelling, leavened with more than the usual load of facts and dates. There is no hint in this of why the debates defined America.

The structure of the narrative is to follow the two candidates on their campaign trails from place to place. But the number of visits is so many and the economy of book publishing is so limiting, that instead of the story of traveling from A to B we get a torrent of maps showing campaign stops at each stage of the tour. These maps are not explained in the text but rather complement the distracted reader who is trying to keep up with Guelzo's breakneck pace. They also constitute a kind of data enrichment we would be grateful for if the author were not hustling us.

The account of each debate runs a few short pages and it is followed by a matrix. This matrix is divided down the middle to give the reader (student?) a he said/she said outline recapping what happened in that debate. I picture a cheater writing this on his shirt cuffs before an exam. These are real examples, actual quotes:
Douglas: Lincoln is an abolitionist radical.
Lincoln: Denied.

Douglas: Lincoln and Trumbull are conspiring to abolitionize old parties.
Lincoln: Denied

Douglas: Lincoln betrayed his country in the Mexican War.
Lincoln: Denied.
And so it goes, and in all their reader-friendliness, the tables depress us and take these debates down to the level of a Pee Wee Herman's America. How Jaffa - a mere political scientist - could have made a silk purse out of such sow's ears beggars belief.

Guelzo, by showing us what a real historian can do with the material - and the machinery of narrative - falls into the typical narrator's fallacy of identification, among others. The Douglas character (he's not an historical person in these pages) is vile, utterly hateful. He mounts a podium possibly under the influence and by the end of that passage Gulezo has him drunk for sure, as if losing track of his underlying sources afted 200 words. As he hypnotizes the reader, the storyteller hypnotizes himself.

Identification works the other way as well. When Lincoln is warned off the "house divided" metaphor, Guelzo blandly recites Lincon's own justification before the fact. When the reference then generates the outrage its single meaning evokes, when Lincoln elaborates contortions to twist Christ's meaning into a second interpretation (in which a house divided need not fall), Guelzo justifies Lincoln's decision and (mis)interpretation to the reader.

The narrator's taste for speed and compression cause, as I said, an unnatural brevity in the telling about the debates. If you hate having indirect speech converted to direct, I would like to see how you manage Guelzo's stew of debate summaries rendered in a patented technique of mixed quotes and non-quotes without attribution. What do we make of this:
Lincoln was not just plotting to abolitionize old Whigs: he was plotting genocide. "Mr. Lincoln thinks that it is his duty to preach a crusade in the free States, against slavery, because it is a crime, as he believes, and ought to be extinguished." Well, "how is he going to abolish it?" If Lincoln was telling the truth about not wanting to "interfere with slavery in the States, but intends to interfere and prohibit it in the territories," then the result could only be that the "natural increase" of the slave population would create more slave mouths than the South could feed, and "his policy would drive them to starvation." This Douglas said with a smirk, "is the humane and Christian remedy that he proposes for the great crime of slavery." Or if not genocide, then perhaps Lincoln was plotting treason.
For the love of Allen C. Guelzo, what do we do with such a summary? It's typical for every one in this work. Do we attribute use of the word "genocide" to Douglas? Who said he smirked? What rules are being followed in compressing and paraphrasing?

We are already laboring under the adverse knowledge that any recapitulation of debate quotes is a blend of multiple sources. What history readers expect is a heavily noted summary not only explaining any potentially controversial paraphrasing but even more - a running commentary on which transcript generated which quotes and why the author made the quote choices he did. Here the narrative comes first.

Guelzo is to be commended for using Rafuse's book McClellan's War to clear up a persistent legend about GBM's favoritism towards Douglas over Lincoln in the senatorial campaign. Guelzo doesn't actually clear it up, but he does relay that Douglas's campaign rented from the Illinois Central those trains used to travel the state, and thus the attentive reader understands they were not provided gratis by a Democrat-loving GBM at railroad expense. Guelzo nevertheless muddies the waters by describing how much the Illinois Central owed to Douglas in political favors and he links this to the McClellan controversy in an insinuating way.

Oddly, after reporting on McClellan's public embarassment in the train service controversy, Guelzo makes the observation that Lincoln and McClellan would eventually meet again during the war. You shake your head in disbelief.

This is the same railroad superintendent and his corporate lawyer who shared the same beds traveling to Illinois county courts endlessly on railroad land business. Does that information need to be taught to Lincoln scholars?

This "meet again," coming after displays of bad quoting, overcompression, and non-citing, makes you wonder how firm is Guelzo's grip on historical details. You even begin to question those handy campaign maps.

Well, I'll give it this. It was a good read. I think it was my last Guelzo read as well.

Top to bottom, Diggins, Jaffa, Guelzo