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Claiming Lincoln: Progressivism, Equality, and the Battle for Lincoln's Legacy in Presidential Rhetoric.

Claiming Lincoln: Progressivism, Equality, and the Battle for Lincoln's Legacy in Presidential Rhetoric. By Jason R. Jividen. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2011. 248 pp.

Claiming Lincoln is an effective challenge to the fashion of attributing to Abraham Lincoln the moral preferences of the Left. Jason Jividen's book reminds us of the affinity between egalitarianism and political centralization; it clarifies the relationship between equality and race; and it corrects some of the excesses of collective memory scholarship, most of which conceives images of the past as constructions based on the concerns of the present.

Chapter 1 provides a criterion that is independent of the concerns of the present, a tool for gauging how far and in what direction Lincoln's egalitarianism has been distorted. Here, Jividen shows Lincoln following "the standard maxim" (p.18) of the founders. This maxim posited that all men are entitled to equal opportunity--but that this very equality, given natural differences in intelligence and talent, inevitably leads to unequal outcomes. In this connection, Lincoln wrote painfully about the founders' reluctant compromise on slavery, but he could not imagine equal outcome by race as a desirable or just goal for society.

Jividen shows that Theodore Roosevelt, although silent on race, was the first president to misrepresent grossly Lincoln's notion of equality. An industrial democracy, in Roosevelt's view, must spread power through public initiatives, propositions, referenda, and recalls. It must also spread riches: only those who share their fortunes with the community are entitled to keep them. Roosevelt invoked Lincoln to legitimate his doctrine, but Lincoln never so much as insinuated that the benefits of equality should include a redistribution of wealth.

That egalitarianism can only be sustained by charismatic leadership is exemplified by popular presidents replacing the law as the ultimate source of legitimate authority (Michael Thompson, Richard J. Ellis, and Aaron Wildavsky, Cultural Theory [Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1990], p. 231). Woodrow Wilson, a segregationist, invoked Lincoln to legitimate this ideal. Lincoln, however, assessed progress toward equality by the extent to which unchangeable constitutional rights are enforced. Wilson, by contrast, regarded the Constitution as a renewable instrument that accommodates changing circumstances. He thus helped to shape the modern plebiscitary presidency, according to which a shifting public will is embodied in the executive, not in the Congress.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the third reincarnation of Abraham Lincoln, accepted racial discrimination reluctantly. But he also tried to become the benign, charismatic executive that the Constitution was designed to prevent. Every individual, FDR declared, has a right to material security, employment, a decent wage, and adequate leisure, but it is the government, not the private market, that is obligated to secure these rights. Roosevelt thus made the most of Lincoln's statement, oft-quoted by progressives, that "the legitimate object of government is to do for the community of people what they need to have done, but cannot do at all, or cannot do so well for themselves" (p. 103). However, most of us are aware of Alexis de Tocqueville's warning (Democracy in America [New York: Vintage Books, 1945], pp. 304-39) that concentration of power is the prerequisite of tutelary, egalitarian government.

Lyndon Johnson's ideas of equality were the most radical of any president up to his time. Johnson could not live with Lincoln's notion that equal opportunity must produce unequal outcomes, for he believed that differences in achievement and wealth are due solely to discrimination--particularly racial discrimination. Going so far as to assert that government should ensure equality of outcomes among groups as well as individuals, Johnson helped to set the stage for affirmative action, which for him meant that Lincoln's "race of life" (p. 23) must always end in a draw.

Effective conservative opposition makes Barack Obama seem to be a bland centrist, but his promise to change the U.S. fundamentally, if fulfilled, would have expanded Johnson's program--in Lincoln's name. Obama quoted Lincoln throughout his campaign, became the first African American president, followed Lincoln's train route into Washington for his inaugural, and took the oath on Lincoln's Bible. He continues to refer to Lincoln, but he misrepresents him in ways readers will by now find familiar.

Claiming Lincoln gets Lincoln's vision of equality right. However, some critical comments are warranted. First, Jividen never explains what it is about industrial democracies that induces the rejection of natural rights and the strict constitutionalism that harnesses federal power. He never explains why egalitarian conceptions of justice call for the investment of extraordinary powers in the executive. He never connects the changing infrastructures of the United States to Lincoln's changing reputation.

Second, although progressive presidents distort Lincoln's legacy, Lincoln is still recognizable in their ideas. Throughout the twentieth century, Americans repeatedly asked "What would Lincoln do?" The question referred not to a concrete policy but to a guiding pattern of political and moral standards (Barry Schwartz, Abraham Lincoln in the Post-Heroic Era: History and Memory in Late Twentieth-Century America [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008], pp. 25-30). In this regard, Jividen's book, which is about Lincoln in presidential rhetoric, could have addressed the question of whether progressive presidents recognize Lincoln's belief in equality as a right to equal opportunity or actually think the Lincoln they portray for the public is a modern progressive like themselves.

In its quest to document the gap between legacy and reality, Claiming Lincoln is a must for historians, political scientists, and students of national memory. In a time when the Left demonstrably exerts the strongest influence on the way most Americans conceive of the founding fathers and Abraham Lincoln, Jason Jividen's work on the sixteenth president's commitment to the founders' political ethos is eminently welcome.

--Barry Schwartz

University of Georgia
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Author:Schwartz, Barry
Publication:Presidential Studies Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 1, 2012
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