Abraham Lincoln and the Historian’s Profession

Civil War historian Allen Guelzo takes up the notion that all our big government problems can be traced to…Abraham Lincoln. Guelzo dismisses the argument pretty handily…from a historian’s perspective. Like any good historian these days, Guelzo focuses on numbers and measurable social trends, not ideas or political emphases. Thus while making an argument with which I tend to agree, Guelzo fails to convince even me.

I remember a conversation I had with a well-known Reagan historian a few years ago. The historian was telling a group of mostly right-leaning political staffers that conservatives needed to re-embrace Reagan in order to return to the glory years. I asked him if such a person-centered approach to politics could really be called conservatism, and if there weren’t more permanent things on which to build a political movement. I meant to imply that conservatism was grounded in moral principles and organic traditions rather than charismatic leaders. He looked at me in befuddlement and asked, “Well who else would you build it on?”

This is the problem of the training given modern historians, at least in America. They are equipped to analyze social trends, but usually not ideas. At the worst, they can identify a social trend but not its significance. At the best, they too often do what Guelzo does in his article and make a political argument that utterly misses another side of the coin that renders their argument incomplete. Even legendary historian James McPherson, in his later years at Princeton, was known to (occasionally) throw in cheap anti-Bush analogies that failed to account for fundamental differences in philosophy.

In this article, Guelzo seeks to address a common “paleo-conservative” view of Lincoln:

“Of course, it has been a long time since Abraham Lincoln was headline news, and most Americans will meet this with little more than a shrug of the shoulders. But there is a certain strain of conservative thinking today (some of it on display at the Conservative Political Action Conference this February) that gets its jollies from wailing that big government has been a slow-growing cancer in American life, so slow in fact that its origins need to be traced back to the 16th president. Sometimes the motivation for this is a neo-Confederate urge to take yet another shot at the man who presided over the loss of the Lost Cause. Sometimes it comes from the satisfaction paleo-conservatives get in beating up their neo-conservative rivals, who are supposed to have given away the conservative store in the Bush years by endorsing big-government solutions under the standard of “compassionate conservatism.” Whatever the motivation, they’ve got the wrong man in Abraham Lincoln.”

Guelzo rightly points out that if you want to check a man’s motivations for growing a government to face a crisis, see what happens after the crisis passes. FDR? Grow, grow, grow. Lincoln? Nearly all the “growth” shrank right back down immediately after the war. Guelzo demonstrates this compellingly using statistics of both government spending and federal employee numbers.

Problem: the paleo-conservative case against Lincoln is based on (at worst) isolated anecdotes and (at best) philosophical ideas, not the actual size of the government at the time. For example, a paleo will rail against Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus (any Lincoln hater knows this one, even if he knows nothing else about the man). You won’t hear him complain of how many employees Lincoln hired. Or he’ll criticize Lincoln’s perspective on states’ rights, or on the relationship between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution; he won’t lament the amount Lincoln spend to fund an inherently expensive war.

While Guelzo could have used his historical trends to make a case against the isolated anecdote mode of criticism, showing how certain bad things have been taken out of context, he does not attempt to do that. Guelzo is an excellent historian who has done a lot of good work within his field, but like most historians who try to draw contemporary lessons from historical circumstances, he can’t get his mind outside his field.

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