I appreciate Noah’s post on the Beran article. In fact, the article did amaze me, though perhaps it did not really surprise me, in part because I usually expect sharp and interesting articles at City Journal rather than enbarrassing exercises in political mythology. Noah was right to say that the abuse of history is what agitated me so, and if in my response I was a bit too heated it was because I find this particular kind of distortion of history through anachronism and precursorism to be one of the worst things someone studying history can do. Any approach to American history based in the query, “What made it possible for us to enter WWI or WWII?” strikes me as being as misguided and tendentious as the studies of modern German history that read everything that ever happened since the Reformation as one slow, winding road to Dachau. The idea that we can divvy up national histories into partisans of liberty and forces of oppression is one held over from Whig readings of history, which are wrong not simply because they valorise the “wrong” side, but that they must necessarily do violence to the evidence to glorify their preferred party. History should be an exercise in understanding the past, not mutilating it.
In my response, I did not intend to endorse entirely Beran’s simple Lincoln-as-revolutionary caricature, and indeed wanted to stress that Lincoln was also representative of a system that defended different kind of privilege and used coercion. Lincoln’s policies were arguably very revolutionary in their effects, but he was the inheritor of the political tradition of greater centralism and expressed his political vision in first principles derived from a (rather superficial) reading of foundational American texts. He was in some respects less revolutionary than the European liberals with whom he had much in common politically, because his struggle was, at least in his mind, one of preservation rather than a radical break with an existing political system.
As incredible as this seems to some of us, he and other friends of consolidation believed that they were saving the Republic, no doubt much as Caesar claimed and probably genuinely believed that he was saving the Roman Republic through war and dictatorship. Nonetheless, politically and ideologically Lincoln and his party represented the progressive wing of American politics, which, like its European centralising liberal cousins, worked to sacrifice established, customary rights to rather more abstract conceptions of rights. In so doing, they were emancipating some and subjecting others to stricter control, eliminating the privileges of local notables and other regions while enshrining those of their own.
What I hoped to show in my short response was that Lincoln and his heirs were much more like those whom Beran wished to demonise, partly to keep the record straight and partly to puncture an attempt to whitewash what Lincoln and his party stood for and continued to represent at least into the early twentieth century. The polemical point was to stress that Lincoln and his heirs partook of many of the things that Beran vilifies, or the things he tries to use to vilify his targets.
Obviously, my sympathies do not lie with Lincoln and his successors, but even if they had I would like to think that the article’s offenses against truth and the historical record would still have moved me to repudiate it forcefully.