Burlingame on Lincoln: Who are We Really Dealing With?

Have any of you slogged through the monumental biography of Lincoln by Michael Burlingame? I’m twice through now though I confess that you could only love this kind of forensic historical detail if you love something as tedious, fatiguingly insular, and bromidic as, say, Indo-European linguistics or Indian philosophy. There’s a lot to learn but one interesting take-away appears as Lincoln turns the corner on the ineradicable moral depravity that forms the foundation of white American life. It’s not just southerners who are irremediable racists, it’s everyone but the tiny minority of “radicals,” the true Abolishionists. There is little doubt that Lincoln’s heart is with the Abolishionists but what makes him so interesting is that he _knows_ who he is really dealing with. He is dealing with an America that is ethically incorrigible.

With Grant leading the way, Lincoln knows the Union will win the war and for all of his own doubts about the usurpation of power by the executive (he too wonders if the EP was actually legal as do the majority of Unionist lawyers), he insists on having elections and acting quickly to restore government in the south. He realizes, with a kind of deep inner sadness, how there is nothing he can do to change hearts and minds. How to unite the country that still harbors every gripe and asserts every claim it had before secession and the massacres that followed? The vast majority of candidates for office in the south once the war is over he knows will be no less racist, vehemently opposed to emancipation (with or without the 13th Amendment), and no less driven by the ethos of Confederate culture. So the Union wins the war but life goes on. Who governs the south but southerners? The vast majority of Unionists did not fight for abolishment of slavery. Then?

Lincoln doesn’t live long enough to see that his greatest singular achievement was indeed the 13th Amendment because without that slavery would have likely been reinstituted or never actually abolished except by the States. Of course, Lincoln’s notions of reconstruction fail entirely and the outcome 152 years later is that the modern Republican Party is the New Confederacy. That Confederacy isn’t just in the south. It stretches across rural white America and into its suburbs.  Everyday I see pick up trucks out here in western New York with Confederate flags driving past cemeteries of Union dead. Lincoln was a moderate, a pragmatist because he knew who he was _really_ dealing with.  He wanted to do the best he could with who he was dealing with.  Was he morally compromised because he was less principled than the true “radical” Abolishonists?  Or was he dealing with a moral problem he knew he could not solve.  He really knew who he was dealign with and what was possible.  Do we?

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