I am an unabashed lover—not a worshipper (I reserve that for Someone Else)—of Abraham Lincoln, forever grateful for what he was and what he did for our country.  While I don’t question the patriotism of Chronicles’ editors, I believe it is supremely ironic that you publish your magazine from the “Land of Lincoln,” since you have so clearly chosen up sides with his critics, then and now.  Joe Sobran’s first Bare Bodkin (“Abe-Worship,” October 2001) is merely the latest such effort.  

Mr. Sobran’s primary thesis, amidst all his critical rhetoric, is that Lincoln “embodied a tradition of which he was actually ignorant.”  He “seldom appealed to the Founding Fathers” and “got this wrong” when he did mention them in the Gettysburg Address.  He also “got wrong” his understanding of states’ rights and the “plausibility of secession” (despite the fact that Lincoln’s views on secession were virtually indistinguishable from Andrew Jackson’s).  Mr. Sobran asserts an inability to discern anything other than “fleeting references” to the Framers in Lincoln’s writings, unlike Jefferson Davis, who was “steeped in the thinking of the founding period.”  There are many similar denigrating remarks about Lincoln’s character, motives, and his “upstaging” and “supercession” of the founding generation.

None of this criticism is really new, although the arrogance of Mr. Sobran’s sweeping judgments is remarkable.  These criticisms were raised in Lincoln’s day and have continued ever since.  My only wish is that we could deal with facts a little better as we make our judgments, and that we would all be more honest with ourselves and others about the consequences of our beliefs, opinions, and philosophies.

When Lincoln was 29, he gave a speech to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, which Mr. Sobran references and mischaracterizes.  The whole purpose, tone, and substance of this address is a living refutation of Mr. Sobran’s rhetoric: “Let every American, every lover of liberty, every well wisher to his posterity, swear by the blood of the Revolution, never to violate in the least particular, the laws of the country; and never tolerate their violation by others.  As the patriots of seventy-six did to the support of the Declaration of Independence, so to the support of the Constitution and laws, let every American pledge his life, his property, and his sacred honor . . . let reverence for the laws . . . become the political religion of the nation [emphasis in the original] . . . [so that it may be said at the end] that we improved to the last; that we remained free to the last; that we revered his name to the last; that during his long sleep, we permitted no hostile foot to pass over or desecrate his resting place; shall be that to which the last trump shall awaken our WASHINGTON.”

The Lincoln-Douglas debates are even more emphatically a refutation of Sobran’s thesis.  They are replete with reverence for the founding generation, amidst a crisis and complexity that makes Mr. Sobran’s easy criticism seem disgusting.  Does Mr. Sobran wish that Lincoln had not opposed the extension of slavery?  Was Douglas the better man?  Or is Mr. Sobran a Jefferson Davis worshipper?

What this really boils down to is that Mr. Sobran, along with the Stephen A.  Douglas Northerners and Southerners, and the Southern revisionists of the recent past and present, were and are simply opposed to what Lincoln stood for and spent his life achieving.  Who is more in harmony with the American founding: Lincoln, or such critics?  Count me in with an observer of the 1858 debates, Henry Villard, who wrote that “the unprejudiced mind felt at once that, while there was on the one side a skillful dialectician and debater arguing a wrong and weak cause, there was on the other a thoroughly earnest and truthful man, inspired by sound convictions in consonance with the true spirit of American institutions.  There was nothing in all of Douglas’s powerful effort that appealed to the higher instincts of human nature, while Lincoln always touched sympathetic chords.”

Black revisionists revile Lincoln because they read that he did not favor marriage between whites and blacks and felt blacks to be inferior, as if current views about racial relations apply.  Yet he was the greatest and firmest voice against the extension of slavery.  White revisionists probably have many different motivations, but they essentially spring from a conviction that either Douglas or Davis was right and Lincoln was wrong (to which they add a string of ad hominem epithets).  Southerners usually lead this pack.  No matter how great your academic credentials (e.g., those of the late M.E. Bradford, who held views similar to Sobran’s), it is of paramount importance to have a clear and proper understanding of America’s greatest crisis.  A fundamentally flawed and mistaken understanding of this matter undermines all other judgments.

While I am essentially nothing other than a basic American, a Northerner who thinks Lincoln and the North were right, I hereby offer, at my own expense, to debate Joe Sobran, Sam Francis, Tom Fleming, and anyone else about these views of Lincoln, Douglas, and Davis.  The question should be: “Was Lincoln or Douglas Right?”  I will let you in on my strategy: I will liberally quote Lincoln from the debates.

        —Richard K. Mason
Altadena, CA

Mr. Sobran Replies:

The Civil War was fought over secession, not slavery or its extension.  Lincoln made this clear in his 1861 Inaugural Address.  His position on secession forced him to falsify the meanings of the founding documents: the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution.  If he knew the great ratification debates over “confederation” and “consolidation,” he gave no evidence of it; nor does Mr. Mason even offer such evidence.  These questions didn’t come up during the Lincoln-Douglas debates, which were concerned chiefly with slavery.  There Lincoln was at his best, and Douglas, as far as I know, showed no great familiarity with the Framers’ thought, either.  As Mr. Mason suggests, the first president to assert anything like Lincoln’s no-secession nationalism was Jackson; Douglas, in 1860, opposed secession much more explicitly than Lincoln did—even threatening to hang secessionists!  True, Lincoln did express reverence for the Founding Fathers; but this does not prove he knew their writings.  He said he owed all of his political ideas to the Declaration, which suggests he regarded that document as all-sufficient; I would add that he misread even that, since it affirms not “a new nation,” but 13 “free and independent states.”  A state was, by definition, sovereign; but a confederation of states was voluntary and contingent.  Even Lincoln sometimes referred to the Union as a “confederacy.”  Why is it “supremely ironic” that some sons of Illinois still refuse to follow Lincoln in his disastrous errors?