Clintonizing Lincoln: Revising History

Peter W. Schramm

February 1, 1996

Abraham Lincoln is in the news again. A new biography by Harvard historian David Herbert Donald (Lincoln, published by Simon and Schuster) is on the bestseller list. It is a comprehensive and scholarly tome occupying Donald’s labors for thirty years. He argues that Lincoln was a sort of negative personality, that he "preferred to respond to the actions of others" rather than take the initiative and make bold plans. Lincoln was hesitant and without purpose. He let events control him. He argues that Lincoln’s essentially passive nature was driven almost entirely by chance and accident.

Professor Donald maintains that although Lincoln was highly ambitious, the purpose of his ambition was unclear. He was a pragmatist, without a solid set of core beliefs. He also says that Lincoln was one of the most poorly prepared men ever elected president. Oddly, Donald doesn’t deny that Lincoln became America’s greatest president. He just thinks that he became great as a result of more or less appropriate reactions to very large events. He was one of these guys who grew in office!

This is almost entirely the opposite of the real Lincoln. He was involved in politics out of principle. His principles were clear and simple and they never changed. He understood that slavery was wrong. Although it was tolerated by political or constitutional necessity, it was utterly incompatible with the moral idea on which America was founded. He saw that this "ancient faith" of the Founders was being questioned and that slavery was expanding: hence, the crisis of the house divided. And he understood that constitutionally its expansion could be prevented. He saw the problem very clearly and he never wavered. He knew that nothing less than the meaning of America was at stake. There was no growth here, no passivity, no pragmatism, no poor preparation. There was high statesmanship reflecting philosophic depth and moral decisiveness.

So why does Professor Donald present us with a Lincoln who is pragmatic, vague, and passive? Why does he present us with a man
who is able to frequently change his mind and is uncertain of the things for which he stands? In an interview Donald declared that he wanted to write a biography that would be comprehensible in the 1990’s, one that would resemble the current occupant of the White House, who is indeed able to change his mind, who is not guided by a steady rudder, and who is therefore, it seems, "capable of great growth." Perhaps that is why Bill Clinton asked Donald to help him draft his State of the Union address. Perhaps that is why that address seems to contradict Clinton’s first three years in office, perhaps that is why it seems more conservative than anything ever said by George Bush. I guess Donald would call this growth.

Maybe it is growth on Clinton’s part. Maybe it’s good politics on his part. But it’s not Lincoln, and Donald’s thesis is not history.

Peter Schramm is Director of Special Projects of the Ashbrook Center and Professor of Political Science at Ashland University. His new edition of Lord Charnwood’s classic biography of Lincoln will be published by Rowman and Littlefield this spring.