Lincoln (1984)


Lincoln (who could probably dunk a basketball) and his generals after the Battle of Antietam.

If you’ve spent much time talking about the United States Civil War with the far-right or the far-left, neither of whom have much use for Abraham Lincoln, you’ve undoubtedly read the famous passage from his August 22, 1862 open letter to Horace Greeley.

I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be “the Union as it was.” If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views.

At first glance, it not only appears to be an open and shut, but case an open and shut case argued by a first-rate lawyer. “No,” Lincoln insists to the high influential, and abolitionist Greeley, “the war is not about slavery. It’s about preserving the union.” In fact, the letter almost reads like a passage from a textbook on formal logic. “Yes,” Lincoln insists from another angle. “The war is about preserving the union, not about slavery.” And “no I’m not a radical Republican who believes in freeing the slaves at all costs.” Lincoln covers every possibility and preempts every objection from Greeley, who was at that moment badgering him to push the Army of the Potomac on to Richmond, win the war and destroy the slave power forever.

The Army of the Potomac, however, which had just suffered a shattering defeat at the Battle of Second Manassas, was in no position, even to defend Washington, let alone march on Richmond. What’s more, Lincoln had already written the Emancipation Proclamation, which he had locked away inside his desk. What he needed was a victory, even one as imperfect as the Battle of Antietam, which would came later that fall, in order to begin to do exactly what he so vehemently denied he would, make the war at least partly about slavery. Lincoln, who understood far better than Greeley that only state power and a mass, industrialized army could suppress an uprising by a vicious, heavily armed aristocracy of human flesh peddlers, was not about to declare victory on the eve of the destruction of the American state, which in August 22, 1862 was a very real possibility.

Events would ultimately force Lincoln’s hand and, in the words of Karl Marx, transform a limited constitutional police action to defend the union into a revolutionary war to destroy the slave power and banish slave labor from the North American continent. To be more specific, the slaves, who escaped to Union lines, resisted forced labor to support the Confederate war effort, and eventually serve in the Union army in massive numbers, forced Lincoln’s hand. In 1863 and 1864 Lincoln, who was, above all a practical politician, realized that if in 1862 saving the union meant appeasing slave owners in Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky and East Tennessee, in 1864 it meant making use of the vast supply of manpower that was being forced on him by that vast supply of manpower itself, and without which he wouldn’t have been able to win the war.

Gore Vidal, the self-consciously aristocratic writer who’s probably best known for humiliating William F. Buckley at the 1968 Democratic Party Convention, has no interest in slavery. Nor is he particularly interested in the two million German and Irish immigrants who made up the backbone of the Union Army and who were willing to die in great numbers rather than see North America subjugated under the same kind of land owning gentlemen they left Europe to escape. It’s not that Vidal hates democracy. It’s more that he simply denies its existence. Lincoln is a history of the American Civil War from the top down. He spends no time in a Union, or Confederate, army camp, no time in any of the military hospitals that ringed Washington. We never see a group of ex-slaves desperately trying to get behind Union lines. We never get into the head of an abolitionist newspaper editor agitator. The elections of 1862 and 1864 are decided largely on whether or not the Lincoln Administration is willing to send rank and file soldiers back home to vote. The most dramatic episode of the war, freed slaves surrounding Lincoln in adoration as he walked through newly liberated Richmond in 1865, and making a bodyguard completely unnecessary, is airbrushed out of Vidal’s history like Trotsky out of a 1950s Soviet history.

Vidal’s Lincoln is American history as a Liz Smith gossip column. We learn all about which sex workers Lincoln’s secretary John Hay visited on his arrival in Washington in 1861. We spend interminable pages with a grubby little drug store clerk who played a minor role in the Lincoln assassination. Mary Todd Lincoln’s extravagant purchases are enumerated in great detail. We find out that Kate Chase, the daughter of Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, a radical Republican and abolitionist, for whom Vidal has the greatest contempt, was manipulated into a loveless marriage to an ignorant, shallow, vain, and ultimately treasonous Rhode Island millionaire, by her father. With the exception of the Jubal Early raid on Washington in the Spring of 1864, the war itself is shunted off to the side. Indeed, if you go into Lincoln without a detailed knowledge of the military history, you’ll barely be able to figure out that vast, bloody confrontations like the Battle of Chickamauga, which instead of being named is referred to by a brief allusion, even happened. Shiloh, Gettysburg, Second Manassas, and Antietam register only insofar as they affected the fortunes of top commanders like Burnside, McClellan, Grant, Pope, and Hooker. Vidal tells us all about Ulysses Grant’s promotion to Lieutenant General. He tells us nothing about the 19 year old privates and 23 year old second lieutenants who made it all possible. More than anything, Lincoln made me think of Bertold Brecht’s famous verse on the “great man” theory of history.

Who built Thebes of the 7 gates ?

In the books you will read the names of kings.

Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock ?

And Babylon, many times demolished,

Who raised it up so many times ?

In what houses of gold glittering Lima did its builders live ?

Where, the evening that the Great Wall of China was finished, did the masons go?

Great Rome is full of triumphal arches.

Who erected them ?

Don’t expect any answers from Gore Vidal. This is not to say that Lincoln is necessarily a bad novel, at least a badly written one. At times it can be a witty take down of the concept later made famous in Dorris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals. Vidal effectively paints Lincoln’s cabinet as a corrupt gang of ineffective schemers, more of a burden than an asset. He brilliantly evokes the fetid swamp of the District of Columbia, the dangerous, volatile city that would eventually take Lincoln’s life. Vidal’s prose is flat and lifeless, but it’s also smooth and well-constructed. 700 pages go down almost as easily as 200. The problem is not that Gore Vidal can’t write. He certainly can. It’s his choice of subjects. He’s at his best when dealing with frauds like Seward, Chase and Governor William Sprague. He has no idea how to deal with great, but flawed men like Ulysses Grant. If Lincoln himself comes out looking oddly sympathetic, I don’t think that was Vidal’s intention, but rather a byproduct of the fact that he hates the people around Lincoln even more than Lincoln. Indeed, maybe the best scene in the entire novel involves Vidal’s one attempt in earnest to cut him down. Lincoln brings a group of black abolitionists to the White House to talk about his idiotic plan to colonize black Americans in Africa, “colonize” being a euphemism for “ethnically cleanse.” They look at him in dismay, then speak to him in an honest, straightforward manner. No, they tell him. They don’t want to go back to Africa. America is their country too. They have no desire to leave. That’s the last we see of these men. For a brief moment, they have brought Vidal’s flat, wet fart of a historical novel to life. Like a good actor in a bad movie, we wait for them to have another scene. Sadly, it never comes.

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