Was Lincoln a Flip-Flopper?
Tuesday morning NPR had an interesting segment on David Hebert Donald’s Lincoln, the first in a new series of interviews that discuss presidents from the past in the context of the 2012 presidential campaign. Participating in the discussion were three other prominent Lincoln biographers, Eric Foner (right), Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Andy Ferguson. As you might guess, with those panelists the discussion was less about Donald’s work than it was about those three making the key points they wanted to make — which is just fine with me. You can listen to the piece here, or read the transcript here.
I particularly liked this exchange between the interviewer, Steve Inskeep, and Eric Foner, whose book on Lincoln and the question of slavery, The Fiery Trial, won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in History:
INSKEEP: If it were up to you, each of you, if you were presidential speechwriters, how would you want candidates to think of Lincoln, deploy Lincoln when they’re talking about him today? FONER: You know, I would love to see a candidate – I don’t care which party we’re talking about – forthrightly say: I have changed my mind about this. That’s what Lincoln did during the Civil War. He changed his mind over and over again. He didn’t change his core beliefs. Lincoln was a flip-flopper, if you want to use the terminology of modern politics. But we don’t seem to allow our politicians to do that anymore. INSKEEP: Andrew Ferguson, you’re smiling. FERGUSON: It’s partly because politicians won’t let their speechwriters talk that way. I don’t think that Dr. Foner should wait for a phone call from any political campaign because… FONER: I’m not holding my breath.
I get what Foner’s saying, but he does his own scholarship a serious disservice by labeling Lincoln “a flip-flopper.” Lincoln knew his own mind, and was from early adulthood (if not earlier) opposed to slavery, personally. That never changed. But neither was it a priority for him as a public official, either. He was not, regardless of how he was depicted by the fire-eaters in the run-up to the 1860 election, a secret abolitionist bent on overturning the institution where it already existed. He himself held attitudes and spoke in terms that would be deeply offensive today. He told an occasional “darkey” joke. He explained once that, in his view, whites and African Americans could not peaceably live together. He considered any number of schemes in considering the “Negro problem,” including voluntary recolonization to Africa. (Colonization was an idea, one should note, that long pre-dated Lincoln and long survived him, as well.)
Confederate apologists often point to these ugly examples and say, “Lincoln believed so-and-so, ” or “Lincoln said such-and-such.” They do this reflexively, as a means of deflecting criticism of slavery in the the South. Such mentions of Lincoln are often narrowly true, but they miss the larger, and much more important, truth that lies at the core of Foner’s (and many others’) work, which is that Lincoln himself changed and grew over time. The president who told “darkey” jokes also had Frederick Douglass as a visitor to the White House in 1863, the first African American to enter that building not as a servant or laborer, but as a guest. The president who’d said he would be willing not to free a single slave if it would preserve the Union also asked Douglass, in the summer of 1864, to use his contacts to get as many slaves into Union lines as he could before that fall’s presidential election, which Lincoln fully expected to lose. The chief executive who had toyed with the idea of re-colonizing former slaves back to Africa publicly suggested, just days before his death, that suffrage should be extended to at least some freedmen, specifically those who’d served in the Union army.
I personally don’t have a lot of use for political flip-floppers, whose deeply-held convictions change according to the latest Rasmussen polls. But neither do I have a lot of use for those who are unwilling to learn, to grow, and to change their minds when the circumstances warrant. That latter group are the ideologues, and while they may shape the debate over public policy, they end up accomplishing very little themselves. Successful leaders are those who are able to distinguish between what they would prefer and what they can accomplish, and push hard for the latter. Idealism has its role, but pragmatism gets the job done. The perfect, the saying goes, must not be the enemy of the good.
Presidents don’t have the luxury of being all-or-nothing ideologues: not in 2012, or in 1862. They are expected to lead, but can only lead where the country — or at least a large part of the country — is willing to follow. Wholesale emancipation — regardless of how much Lincoln might or might not have wanted it at the time — was never a possibility in 1861. It was not a priority for Lincoln, nor was it a priority for the rest of the country. But by the third year of the conflict, it was an established war aim for the Union. Lincoln understood, as well, that his Emancipation Proclamation was a wartime expedient, a stop-gap measure that would not likely hold up once the conflict ended, so he backed the 13th Amendment, passed by the House of Representatives and Senate weeks before his own death.
Flip-floppers chose the positions they do because they believe those position will make them popular. And they do, for a time, before the public catches on to the fact that they’re being played. There are many words that might describe Lincoln during his presidency, but “widely popular” isn’t generally one of them. He might not have won the presidency in the first place had not some Southern states, including my own, kept him off the ballot altogether in 1860; he only took 55% of the popular vote in 1864, when an ultimate Union victory was clearly visible on the horizon. Lincoln probably would have been a far more popular and successful politician in his own day if he had paid more attention to public opinion, and chosen more popular positions. He would have had a much easier time of it, but American history would look very, very different. And not in a good way.