It’s true what historians say, you interpret the past through a filter of the present.
When I read Gore Vidal’s historical novel Lincoln in the spring of 2016, it was my first attempt to understand the sixteenth U.S. president. By custom and training, we approach Lincoln as an amalgam of bland superlatives that we learn in grade school. He was the most mythical of Americans; he flew so high, we truly believe he touched the face of God.
Indeed Lincoln’s aura began to take form even while he was still alive. His closest friends in the White House called him “the Ancient.” They seemed to know that he would go down as a giant in history.
The last, deeply affecting words that were spoken of Lincoln foretold the reverence we would always feel for the great man. “Now he belongs to the ages,” intoned Secretary of War Stanton as Lincoln breathed his last in William Peterson’s house. Well, he had always belonged to the ages.
Vidal’s novel about Lincoln caused wailing and gnashing of teeth when it came out in 1984, the high tide of Reagan’s America. If you’ve heard anything at all about the book, you probably caught that it was a hatchet job, done to chop Lincoln down to size. Great Americans, after all, do not contract veneral diseases, do not entertain atheist ideas. Infamously, Vidal insinuated the former of Lincoln and made a pretty plain case for the latter. (There is a whopping great literature on both controversies, and Vidal stoutly defends his sources. My purpose today is not to weigh in on this argument. If you’re interested in it, start here.)
But read Lincoln in any case, I implore you, no matter where your instincts lie about the subject. It is a 650-page novel, and Vidal spends 640-odd pages detailing other things about the man than his atheism or alleged case of syphilis. It is a deeply nuanced, complex portrait that does a far greater service than any patriotic haigography ever could. Indeed, for me, Lincoln establishes convincingly that truly a god became man and walked among us. Even seen through Vidal’s realist filter, Lincoln is so gravely noble, it is hard to feel worthy of his legacy. More on this in a moment.
The fact that Lincoln made the superhuman choices he did and suffered inhuman tragedies while bearing the burden of a potentially suicidal national question–Are we free or not?–and that he did all this on the strenth of only the most human resources–stubbornness, introspection, humor, conviviality, pragmatism and patience–shows that he was more verily a giant than our pious myths ever made him out to be.
Say what you will of Vidal’s cynicism or subversiveness, but the fact is, he accomplished something nearly magical with Lincoln–he humanized a god, but kept the god part. And in so doing, he illuminated the scope of greatness that is attainable by any American. If each of us could muster even a fraction of Lincoln’s genius or compassion or magnanimity–or, yes, foxiness–we would help build a better country, or at least we would be better friends, parents, neighbors, teachers, officials.
There is a scene from Lincoln that I suppose I will take with me to the grave, it speaks so affectingly of the man’s courage and decency. It is September 1862, and the president is touring the aftermath of Antietam, the bloodiest battle so far of the Civil War. Lincoln and his entourage are about to retire for the day, having been briefed by the (disappointing) General Mclellan and having visited hundreds of wounded Union soldiers. They mount their horses and start back toward Washington.
They were now opposite a large farmhouse on whose porch a dozen wounded men lay on pallets. Lincoln turned to his colonel-escort. “What’s this, Colonel?”
“Confederate prisoners, sir. Wounded at Sharpsburg. We’ll be sending them on to Washington once we’ve finished shipping our own wounded back.”
“I think I’d like to take a look at these boys,” said Lincoln. “And I’m sure they’d like to take a look at me.”
Lincoln’s bodyguard stiffened, hated the idea. The Southern press relentlessly portrayed Lincoln as a criminal and tyrant. Washington was rife with rumors of Confederate plots to kill him, and he repeatedly tempted fate by ambling around the city unguarded. Lincoln’s bodyguard thought surely one of the wounded men inside would stand up and strike a blow for the Confederacy once they saw their nemesis before them so vulnerable. But the president pressed on, together with friend and advisor Eilhu Washburne, a Repulican member of the House of Representives. “You stand outside,” Lincoln instructed his security detail, “while Mr. Washburne and I, two harmless Illinois politicians, pay these southern boys a call.”
The colonel led Lincoln and Washburne up the steps and into the house, which consisted, at this level, of a single large room lined on both sides with cots. At least a hundred men and boys lay on the cots, some missing arms or legs or both. Some were dying; others were able to limp about. The smell of flesh corrupting was overpowering; and Washburne tried not to breathe. But Lincoln was oblivious of everything except the young men who were now aware that a stranger was in their midst. The low hum of talk suddenly ceased; and the only sound in the room was the moaning of the unconscious. . . . [S]lowly, [Lincoln] removed his hat. All eyes that could see now saw him, and recognized him.
When Lincoln spoke, the famous trumpet voice was muted; even intimate. “I am Abraham Lincoln.” There was a long collective sigh of wonder and of tension and of . . . ? Washburne had never heard a sound quite like it. “I know that you have fought gallantly for what you believe in, and for that, I honor you, and for your wounds so honorably gained. I feel no anger in my heart toward you; and trust you feel none for me. That is why I am here. That is why I am willing to take the hand, in friendship, of any man among you.”
The same sigh, like a rising wind, began; and still no one spoke. Then a man on crutches approached the President and, in perfect silence, shook his hand. Others came forward, one by one; and each took Lincoln’s hand; and to each he murmured something that the man alone could hear.
The honor, goodwill and magnanimity Lincoln shows in this scene are almost beyond belief. But we know it happened. There were several eyewitnesses, and two of them recorded Lincoln’s words more or less as he must have spoken them.
For more than a year after I read this passage I believed that Lincoln’s decision to go into that house to speak those words was the most “American” thing that had ever happened in our history. Knowing full well he was lying about being a harmless Illinois politician (the famous Lincoln irony), Lincoln presented himself to those soldiers as their enemy personified, the very man who had caused the deaths of thousands of their comrades.
In facing those troops, though, and praising their conduct, he was insisting that they must retain the ability to behold one another as equal men even in the midst of a war that pitted them as inhuman enemies. Lincoln’s offer of friendship was a superhuman act of decency. I confess that I sometimes fight back tears when I read this passage. Time and again Lincoln forced himself to feel the full weight of responsibility for the ruinous war he was waging. If ever there were an American president who felt in his bones that his nation should resolve to know war no more, it was Lincoln. When he walked unguarded into that house and gave that speech, it was because he believed more deeply in our bonds of affection and our better angels than in our civil war and our demons.
But I no longer think that that speech is the most American thing of all. Today I think the most American thing of all was the bullet fired by John Wilkes Booth that exploded Lincoln’s brain and drove his thoughts from the world. Today we put more store in the power of violence to silence challenges to our country’s political identity than in civilized dispute and argumentation. We desire to be a country full of good guys with guns ready to mete out rough justice that bypasses any effete philosopher’s wish for peace, decency, and greater freedom for all.
Like the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevski’s The Brothers Karamozov, who meets Christ face-to-face and finds that he hates him, today’s Republican high priests appear to scorn everything that made Lincoln great. Still more does the mob behind them reject everything Lincoln stood for.
The current adminstration is a hateful burlesque of presidential leadership. Lincoln’s high and noble legacy casts the noxiousness of Trumpism into deep relief. Insolence, sniggering, and the wholesale evasion of responsibility define not just Trump’s political style, but the whole substance of his administration. But for his mob we might be able to dismiss Trump’s rise as an anomaly that will pass with merciful quickness. Unfortunately, though, the currents of reactionarism run deeper than that. A large part of our country rejects the decency and humanity of our greatest president, and rather than striving to emulate any part of what made him great, we bow to a buffoon who mocks the very idea of responsibility and accountability (and tells us he does so). Republicans, are we? If so, it is not a republic that the Ancient would recognize.