- Loathing Lincoln: An American Tradition from the Civil War to the Present by John McKee Barr
More people hate Abraham Lincoln than one might expect, given his routine appearance at or near the top of “best president” and “greatest American” lists. Nor is “hate” too strong a word; as John McKee Barr’s excellent study demonstrates, the level of vitriol Lincoln’s detractors aimed at him has been persistent and at times remarkably intense.
Barr traces the long and tangled history of hatred toward Lincoln, beginning with the man’s rise to national political prominence in the late 1850s. He reminds us that Lincoln was a controversial politician and president, highly unpopular in many quarters. This was true on both ends of the political spectrum, as many abolitionists pilloried him for his perceived slowness in embracing emancipation, while more conservative elements were just as incensed at his embrace of the same. Nor was everyone unhappy about his assassination; more than a few embittered southerners celebrated his demise, as did a surprising number of even his erstwhile abolitionist allies. “The universal feeling among radical men here is that his death is a godsend,” claimed Radical Republican George Julian (50).
Such sentiments were soon buried under an avalanche of hero worship, as Lincoln would experience a postwar apotheosis equaled by few others in American history. Still, he had his critics. Barr deftly examines both the controversies surrounding whether or not Lincoln was a “true Christian” and ongoing ex-Confederate hostility that lingered for decades after the war. Lincoln also attracted a fair number of African American detractors. “By the end of World War I the tradition of criticizing Lincoln as a timid, reluctant emancipator reasserted itself among some intellectuals within the African-American community,” Barr points out (105).
Lincoln often became a handy vehicle for critics to express worries about the direction of twentieth-century America, from the nation’s embrace of imperialism to its changing cultural and racial makeup. He has likewise figured prominently in post–World War II political debates, not just between left and right, but more often than not between intellectuals and politicians who ostensibly function within the same ideological milieu. Thus did conservative intellectuals like Harry Jaffa and M. E. Bradford battle over Lincoln’s legacy during the 1980s and 1990s, a debate that [End Page 103] laid bare deeper divisions concerning just what it meant to be a “conservative,” or (in more latent political terms) whether or not the modern Republican Party was an embodiment or rejection of old-fashioned southern and neo-Confederate principles. Likewise, on the left Lerone Bennett’s controversial 1999 book Forced into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream sparked a lively debate among modern progressives concerning whether or not Lincoln was indeed the “Great Emancipator,” the extent to which he embraced white supremacy, and whether he was truly worthy of acclaim. Bennett’s work “struck a nerve in the Lincoln community and also among the public at large,” Barr points out. Even more recently, Lincoln’s wartime presidency has lain at the center of debates concerning the proper size and scope of the federal government, with his expansive use of presidential power and civil liberties record coming under attack by more libertarian-minded critics like Thomas DiLorenzo.
At bottom, Loathing Lincoln is another study of historical “memory.” Others have traveled similar ground—Merrill Peterson’s 1994 Lincoln in American Memory comes immediately to mind, as does Barry Schwartz’s 2000 Abraham Lincoln and the Forge of National Memory—but Barr is the first serious scholar to identify and analyze negative opinions of Lincoln as a more-or-less systematic body of thought, with common themes across time. In doing so, Barr develops a unique (and to my mind quite convincing) thesis: that notwithstanding some exceptions, “loathing Lincoln” has generally been the province of those Americans who fear modernization and its attendant effects of diversification of American society. “The contest over Lincoln’s image from the...