A review of Brian R. Dirck, Lincoln and Davis: Imagining America, 1809-1865 (Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 2001).
Mr. Dirck’s comparative analysis of Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis promises much. Friendly reviewers have found his work “intellectual history at its most stimulating,” or “psychologically sophisticated.” Alas, I confess that I do not see it. To be fair to Mr. Dirck, he is constrained by the usual orthodoxies and dogmas which currently reign in the academy. Moreover, Mr. Dirck does attempt a fair analysis of both men, and he does give us useful parts of both Davis and Lincoln, moreso Davis, but we do not quite get the whole man in either case. In Lincoln’s case, Mr. Dirck’s analysis leaves out the essence of the man’s self-conception.
Much of Mr. Dirck’s narrative plunges into the depths of psycho history. Psychology is a slippery enough endeavor when one has the patient live and in person, and on the couch. When the subjects are dead and the source record is incomplete, then one treads where angels fear to go. For example, let us examine Mr. Dirck’s case for the presence of surrogate fathers in the life of both Mr. Davis and Mr. Lincoln. Joseph Davis, the elder brother of Jefferson Davis, does present a plausible figure for surrogate father. He takes an active interest in Jefferson Davis’s education, his professional career as a soldier, and later as a planter and politician, and in the formation of Jefferson Davis’s character and intellect. The case for Henry Clay and George Washington representing surrogate fathers for Lincoln is a bridge too far. Granted, the idea fits neatly with Mr. Dirck’s Lincoln as the abstract and detached logician. Nevertheless, describing Mr. Lincoln’s reaction to Stephen Douglas’s charge that Lincoln had betrayed the principles of Henry Clay as that of an indignant “natural descendant.” is a stretch. Could not a more simple explanation be that Lincoln was merely stung by Mr. Douglas’s veiled charge of hypocrisy for Lincoln’s rejection of the Compromise of 1850? A compromise that was, as Mr. Douglas pointed out, designed by one Henry Clay. As they say in psychology, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
Another more minor case of psychological overreach involves the relationship of Jefferson Mr. Davis and Varina Davis. Mr. Dirck relies heavily on feminist theory to explain Davis’s successful attempts to impose his will upon Varina Davis. What Mr. Dirck does not explore is the significant difference in the ages between Jefferson (36) and Varina Davis (18). Davis was embarking upon a public career that would take him away from home for significant periods of time leaving a young Varina Davis with the complex duties necessary to run a successful plantation. Indeed, marriages between older men and significantly younger women were common from early modern times through the antebellum period, in part due to the assumed pliability of younger women, a pliability older men found necessary if they were to entrust their wives with authority to manage and run a family’s commercial affairs in their absence. It also seems to me to be overreach to suggest, as Mr. Dirck does, that Mr. Davis “deceived himself” about the tranquility of his home. It may be the case, but such a case needs very hard evidence to be proven.
Where Mr. Dirck’s analysis does shine is in his exploration of Mr. Davis’s understanding of the “community of sentiment.” Dirck views Mr. Davis as a man who desired “authenticity,” the harmonization between internal thoughts and emotions and outward expressions of the same. In Mr. Davis’s view, what binds the union of states together were real feelings of open and authentic fraternity forged in common experiences. When political agitation began to intensify over the issue of slavery in the territories, culminating in John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, Mr. Davis concluded that the bond of friendly sentiments holding North and South together had dissolved. The campaign of terror promised by Brown, and the support Brown received in certain quarters of the North, was proof positive for Mr. Davis that the evil deeds of Brown emerged from evil hearts. Mr. Davis’s community of sentiments was best realized in the states, a position Mr. Davis began to embrace as he matured in his public career. Nevertheless, this was not a vision unique to Mr. Davis, nor did this vision have its origins with Mr. Davis. It was much older and went back to the first formation of communities in what would become the United States.
Mr. Dirck’s Lincoln by contrast embraced a much different vision of community than Mr. Davis. For Mr. Lincoln, “a state was just a place” (Why not also the United States?). Lincoln perceived the United States as a “nation of strangers.” What held Mr. Lincoln’s America together was a rational fidelity to law and order. Mr. Lincoln, who was deeply committed to restricting the spread of slavery into the territories, faced a terrible crisis with the Supreme Court’s decision in the Dred Scott case. Mr. Lincoln, true American that he was and so always ready to indulge in the paranoid style, interpreted the Dred Scott decision as the first movement of a conspiracy to nationalize the institution of slavery. Since the Constitution and the Supreme Court let Mr. Lincoln down, he turned to the Declaration of Independence for inspiration. There Mr. Lincoln found the Declaration of Independence to be a quasi-legal, quasi-constitutional document that contained the seeds of anti-slavery. Even more the Declaration bound all Americans to the proposition that, “all men are created equal,” as a kind of apotheosis toward which American history was inexorably moving, a view Mr. Dirck evidently supports. So far, so good on Mr. Lincoln.
Where Mr. Dirck comes up short in my estimation is missing how radical and singular Mr. Lincoln’s conception of America was, and how poorly rooted in the concrete historical experience of the creation of the union. Attempts to redefine the Declaration of Independence as a legal or constitutional document enshrining the principle of equality as the central tenet of the American founding predated Mr. Lincoln. During the Missouri Crisis debates, Representative John Taylor of New York described the Declaration of Independence as “the great cornerstone of all our laws and constitutions” whose principle idea was the equality of men. Richard Mentor Johnson of Kentucky corrected Taylor’s misapprehension by observing, “The meaning of this sentence is defined in its application; that all communities stand upon an equality; that Americans are equal with Englishmen and have the right to organize such government for themselves as they shall choose, whenever it is their pleasure to dissolve the bands which unite them to another people.” No one in the House rose to dispute with Johnson over his restatement of the older and original interpretation of the Declaration of Independence, and as we all know, silence gives consent.
It seems to me that Mr. Lincoln was less Mr. Law and Order than he was Mr. Lawgiver. Mel Bradford’s writings on Mr. Lincoln, which Mr. Dirck inexplicably neglects, would have been of service in revealing to Mr. Dirck a very important strain of thought present in Lincoln’s imagination: the gnostic,secular puritan. Mr. Dirck is correct that Mr. Lincoln was ambivalent with regards to the Almighty, but Mr. Lincoln was quite convinced of the power he assumed as America’s new founder bequeathing to the country a “new birth of freedom.” As lawgiver and re-interpreter of the American founding, Mr. Lincoln can rightfully suspend habeas corpus, suspend the first amendment for certain folks, shut down newspapers, call up the militias of the several states to federal service, and make war upon non-combatants. Lawgivers get to do these sorts of things as they go about constructing the new birth of freedom and erecting the new regime of equality–whatever that really meant to Mr. Lincoln. For a man who so prized law as the cement binding the American “nation of strangers,” he sure wasn’t shy about breaking a bunch of them.
I am not surprised that Mr. Dirck seems to be at peace with this fundamental contradiction in Lincoln’s imagination and character. I am pleasantly surprised by the generous spirit Mr. Dirck displays when informing us that both Jefferson Davis’s “community of sentiment” and Abraham Lincoln’s “nation of strangers” are both necessary elements of a coherent American vision of national community. But then this from Mr. Dirck, “Civil rights minded Americans erect new statues to Abraham Lincoln, even as activists fight, in many cases successfully, to remove Jefferson Davis’s name from places of honor throughout the country. This is as it should be.” (242) I suppose there is “necessary” and then there is “necessary.” For you see, Mr. Dirck believes, as did so many abolitionists of the nineteenth century, that slavery taints all–and no amount of good, time, or “necessary” can overcome the stain. Yet, and this is the truly grand part, Mr. Davis comes off in Mr. Dirck’s account as so much more authentic and human, dare I say humane, than the abstract and distant Mr. Lincoln. And this is as it should be.