Journal of Interdisciplinary History 32.2 (2001) 322-323
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On Hallowed Ground:
Abraham Lincoln and the Foundations of American History
On Hallowed Ground: Abraham Lincoln and the Foundations of American History. By John Patrick Diggins (New Haven, Yale University Press, 2000) 330pp. $27.95
Lincoln was called upon to perform many tasks and support many causes. Because he served during the greatest national crisis, and because no other president, not even Thomas Jefferson, equaled his mastery of the language or matched his ability to express the meaning of the American experience and experiment, Lincoln occupies the most revered seat in the American pantheon.
In this book, both learned and combative, Diggins enlists Lincoln as his flag bearer in the divisive cultural wars that he perceives roiling the country, especially academe. He takes up the cudgels in behalf of what he sees as the wrongly condemned consensus school of American historiography, which, according to Diggins, articulated the fundamental [End Page 322] American value, liberalism. In his view, its critics and his nemeses--radical historians, deconstructionists, and poststructuralists--have misread American history and purveyed a false history aimed at misleading Americans about their past.
Diggins enlists Lincoln's aid because he interprets Lincoln as the great example of American liberalism and as an effective educator. Lincoln understood that America was chiefly about the worth of the individual and the individual's right to achieve. Defining the Declaration of Independence as the formative document of American history and the sacred text of American values, Lincoln emphasized that the creed of America gave every American the right to advance, socially and economically. Diggins' discussion of Lincoln follows Boritt, whom he credits, and more recently Guelzo, who also owed much to Boritt's scholarship. 1 Although Lincoln commands his forces, Diggins provides an impressive list of subalterns--chiefly the authors of The Federalist, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Max Weber--to demonstrate that individuality has historically been the formative ingredient in American character and the individual pursuit of interest the fundamental right. For Diggins, the liberal consensus did not mean the absence of conflict; rather, it took time for most Americans to embrace it overwhelmingly. And he has a powerful point. Even his major exception, the southern slaveholders, did not stray so far from liberalism as he maintains.
Diggins arrays his legions against his enemy--what he terms a radical historiography dominated by leftist scholars who came of intellectual age in the 1960s, condemning America and any historical tradition that propounded a positive national past. Disgusted with capitalist America and denying the influence of liberalism, they have, according to Diggins, attempted to impose their own nonliberal agenda by denigrating the critical impact of individualism and individual self-interest in American history. They reject the proposition that democracy married property. Searching for an alternative past, they have, in Diggins' estimation, made specious claims about a precapitalist republican and communal tradition, especially among the lower classes, that fought the onset of capitalism.
In this script, the vicious and voracious capitalist machine devoured the principled conduct of the oppressed. Forceful and succinct in his depiction of the historiography, Diggins credits it with undergirding the fiefdoms of gender and minority studies in academe, and, in the larger political world, buttressing the identity politics that demand preferential treatment from the state. Yet, intelligent and worthwhile as this book is, the intensity of the cultural war that he wages has been decreasing.
William J. Cooper, Jr.
Louisiana State University
1. Gabor S. Boritt, Lincoln and the Economics of the American Dream (Memphis, 1978); Allen C. Guelzo, Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President (Grand Rapids, 1999).