Welcome to Scribd, the world's digital library. Read, publish, and share books and documents. See more
Download
Standard view
Full view
of .
Look up keyword
Like this
2Activity
0 of .
Results for:
No results containing your search query
P. 1
Bradford, The Gnosticism of Lincolns Political Rhetoric

Bradford, The Gnosticism of Lincolns Political Rhetoric

Ratings: (0)|Views: 8|Likes:
Published by lomaxx21

More info:

Published by: lomaxx21 on Sep 24, 2012
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial

Availability:

Read on Scribd mobile: iPhone, iPad and Android.
download as PDF, TXT or read online from Scribd
See more
See less

09/12/2013

pdf

text

original

 
Dividing the House:
The
of
Lincoln’s Political
M.
E.
BRADFORD
AFTER
VER
one hundred years it continues tobe almost impossible for us to ask certain basicquestions about the role of Abraham Lincoln inthe formation of
a
characteristically Americanpolitics. At every appropriate point of inquirythe Lincoln myth obtrudes. Since
1865
no onehas denied the extraordinary purchase of thatimaginative construct upon the idiom andcharacter of our public life. Yet few Americansof any influence have attempted to counter thiseffect, even though in the works of the biog-raphers and historians, material for such
a
negation has long been available. The truthabout the life and death of Lincoln seems tomatter very little when it is confronted by themyth. Indeed, the iconic presence of theEmancipator, wrapped up in religious im-agery, tends to swallow up any simple narrativeof the facts. Writes Don
E.
Fehrenbacher:Lincoln’s symbolic importance transcendshis own life and time. He has beenabstracted from history to serve
as
the rep-resentative American, and
as a
conse-quence, much of the nation’s self-image isvisible in the image of Abraham Lincolnthat successive generations havefashioned.The poet James Russell Lowell
called
him our“first American.”2 And for his devoted
secre-
tary John Hay-in this speaking formillions-he was “the greatest character sinceChri~t.”~n the life and death of Lincoln therest of our common experience
as
a
peoplefinds its sanction and authority. Father Abra-ham overshadows our perception of the legiti-mate origins of the Republic in the
era
of theRevolution. He is also the measure applied
to
..
Gnost
zczsm
Rhetoric
all
of
our leaders who have appeared on thenational stage since the violent conclusion ofhis
career,
which makes of him the only viablesymbol of authority in our politicaldiscourse-plus something
else
beyond merequestions concerning policy and the best
re-
gime. Yet all of this “inflation” has come topass even while we were beginning to recognizethe dangers inherent in such quasi-religiousmyths, the abuses and disruptions in our civiclife which have found in their hegemony
a
magic for converting reflexive disorder into
a
“positive good,or perhaps even into an obli-gation. It is thus fortunate that
recent
ntiidies
nf
the nature and origin of millenarian thoughthave put into our hands the rhetorical andtheoretical instruments necessary to
a
belatedreduction or “defusion” of
Mr.
Lincoln’s bale-ful example to its rightful proportions-instruments which enable us to ask what he hasreally “done for his country.There is of course
a
part of the Lincoln mythwhich is, on its face, harmless enough: thelegend of the shy young man who did his read-ing by firelight, who was unlucky in love, andwho learned from his grief.
In
this version thereis some truth and much fancy.4 But what sig-nifies is its relation to the basic American storyof the youth who “made something of himself,”
on
the model of Horatio Alger, with
a
lostsweetheart included for sentiment’s sake. Theremainder of the Lincoln narrative draws muchof its authority from some of these homely ma-terials. But the legend of the poor boy who isself-transformed becomes another kind ofmodel when it is generalized in
a
certain way:when it is merged with other, essentially
gnos-
tic myths of “self-invention,” and detached
10
Winter
1979
 
from the traditional pattern in which
a
prov-identially given set of talents is developed andemployed. We should remember that the ma-ture Abraham Lincoln was a man who hadabolished his past. He cut his ties with family,kept always from his father’s house, and re-fused with nauseating unction to
go
there whensummoned
at
the time of Thomas Lincoln’sdeath.5 Very early he
set
out to join anothertribe.6 And, as he moved forward, there weremany of his friends who noticed that he some-times “forgot the devotion of his warmest parti-sans as soon as the occasion for their serviceshad passed.”’ As his biographer and law part-ner tells us, Mr. Lincoln was a cool customer,“led mankind
by
a
profound policy,” and“would have lost-lost all,
all,
f he had had aheart.8 From the shadowy records and recollec-tions of the Illinois years
we
can infer nothingless, though, as must be admitted, he usuallyconcealed these gifts of calculation under
a
modest rustic exterior. The great common de-nominator in his pre-presidential career
was
simple ambition, the little “engine” whichknew no rest. By it he was propelled to
act
upon
a
larger and larger stage, and not by the Chris-tian rectitude which requires
us
to
be goodstewards
of
our given abilities or to answer
a
special “call.For it
was
not to serve God thatthis Abraham put the Lincolns out of his way,sought office, moved to Springfield, and
set
outto practice law.There is
God‘s
plenty of evidence to assist usin developing an image of Lincoln asbackcountry philosophe, as “secularist intel-lectual” and “rational, progressivist super-man” of the variety described in ProfessorVoegelin’s The
New
Science
of
Politics.
But in
a
study of this scope there is
a
convenient locusfor treating this phase of his development. Theaddress which Lincoln delivered
to
theSpringfield Young Men’s Lyceum in January
of
1838
is
a
summary statement of his thought asWhig progressive and moderate disciple ofPaine
and
Hamilton, Volney
and
HenryClay.l0 In it he introduces the theme of a“political religion” or civil theology
so
impor-tant to the rest of his career. He anticipates arefounding of the Republic. He assigns
a
par-ticular role to reason and language in this pro-cess, and he sketches out in brief
a
theory ofAmerican history and of its probable consum-mation in the appearance of
a
new “leader”
or
“towering genius” of
a
particularly dangerousvariety. That is, unless the nation followssomething like his advice, and, by implication,summons to leadership a man of his views.The great theme of the Springfield Lyceumspeech is the “preservation
of
our politicalinstitutions.” Or
at
least that is its “official’’theme. As we must learn to recognize, Lin-coln’s habit of rhetorical duplicity is presentfrom the beginning
of
his public life. WhatLincoln here declares is that the establishedthings are now in peril. After only fifty years ofindependent existence, the nation has alreadypassed through phases convenient and thenconventional, is approaching its “third age”and therefore its crisis of development. How-ever, the young legislator, speaking to the citi-zens of
a
town whose future he has helped tosecure, adds to his version of the familiar
gnos-
tic formula
a
special neo-Puritan twist.’l
For
the stage to come, according to his politicaleschatology, may augureither
a
final perfection
or
an apocalypse, a complete inversion of thefortunate American unfolding already accom-plished. That which comes soon may be eitherthe kingdom or the beast. Lincoln mentionsriots and social irregularities which point to-ward the latter prospect. They are the occa-sions of his remarks. But his strategy in exploit-ing this antithesis raises the question of his truepurpose for speaking on this subject at thisparticular time. Upon examination of his entiretext, it becomes quite clear that what the oratorattempts through the
arts
of language is notpreservation but change: radical alterations inthe basis and organization of American society.His deliberative procedure at this point is onethat he will practice with greater and greaterskill in the decades to come. First of all heerects a false dilemma, this time using
as
a
bugbear the likelihood that the enemies of“government” will prevail and that, in re-sponse to the excesses of local self-expression,an “Alexander, Caesar
or
a Napoleon” willcome to power.12 That is, unless
we
agree toput behind us our anterior devotion to nomocra-tic politics, to leave the collapsing shelter of
Modem
Age
11
 
the grove in order to escape the anger of themob, and to relocate the seat of our “politicalreligion” in another sanctuary-a house unlikeany
we
have known.
I
emphasize the part played by certain im-ages in the progression of Lincoln’s effects, forthese tropes are behind the thrust of Lincoln’srhetorical dilemma, and explain the especialsignificance assigned to “reason” in the norma-tive system by which it is informed. The forestof “great oaks” which made for
a
“living his-tory,” a compact society first generated bycommon enemies and fed subsequently bycommon tasks and shared memories, is toogothic and passionate a source for patrioticfeeling and public virtue. Furthermore, it ishere defined as frail. Lincoln asserts that apolity connected to its forms by nothing morethan the knowledge of what “our people,” fam-ily and friends, have accomplished will lose itscohesion once its heroes die. That their exam-ple might be kept alive through emulation, orthrough the poet’s song, seems to him un-likely.13 The idea that it could survive underthe pressure of untrammelled democracy is a
notion
hc
rcfi;scs
c:’cn
:G
ccnsider.
But !here
is
more
to
this posture than
at
first
appears, sinceLincoln must have recognized that such a tradi-tional, old-fashioned republicanism wouldstand in the way of the evolution which he hasin mind. Probably for this reason he makes of itthe unacknowledged antagonist of his entireargument. The political antichrist of the follow-ing passage has his importance through associ-ation with the unstable arrangements that willgive him scope:Many great and good men sufficiently qual-ified for any task they should undertake,may ever
be
found, whose ambition wouldaspire to nothing beyond a seat in Congress,a gubernatorial or
a
presidential chair;
but
such
belong
not
to the family
of
the lion,
or
the
tribe
of
the
eagle,
[.]
What! think youthese places would satisfy an Alexander, aCaesar, or a Napoleon? Never! Toweringgenius disdains a beaten path. It seeks re-gions hitherto unexplored. It sees
m
dis-
tinction
in adding story to story, upon themonuments
of
fame, erected to the memoryof others. It
denies
that it
is
glory enough toserve under any chief. It
scorns
to tread inthe footsteps of
any
predecessor, howeverillustrious. It thirsts and.burns for distinc-tion; and, if possible, it will have it, whetherat the expense of emancipating slaves,
or
enslaving freemen.
Is
it unreasonable thento expect, that some man possessed of theloftiest genius, coupled with ambition suffi-cient to push it to its utmost stretch, will atsome time, spring up among us? And whensuch a one does, it will require the people to
be
united with each other, attached to thegovernment and laws, and generally intelli-gent, to successfully frustrate his designs.Distinction will be his paramount object;and although he would
as
willingly, perhapsmore
so,
acquire it by doing good as harm;yet, that opportunity being past, and noth-ing left to be done in the way of building up,he would
set
boldly to the task of pullingdown.14It is the speaker’s plan that, in terror of such
a
radical threat,
a
transformation more extremethan ihe inriovaiiori
w:iic:i
canit:
with
iiatioiid
independence, his audience will
agree
to
re-
place
a
regime of experience informed by pietywith “pillars hewn from the solid quarry ofsober reason.
. . .”
The remembered “blood ofthe Revolution” will not suffice: “Reason,cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason, mustfurnish all the materials for our future supportand defence.”15 It is true that he also draws
a
very positive portrait of the millennium whichhis version of the “Faustian intellect” can ac-tualize, once it is obeyed. It is a fine housemade of
words.
But he not expect that thisimage will persuade. Only through a connec-tion of the customary with the onset
of
a tyrannycould his countrymen be drawn to forsweartheir natural preference for an essentially pre-scriptive, familiar order, for building uponwhat their immediate predecessors haveachieved, and tolled
away
from their inheritedplace to live under the auspices of Enlighten-ment speculation, symbolized here by thespare classical temple. Yet that is the appealwhich Lincoln employs. It is, of course, ironicthat this rhetoric does nothing to preserve the
12
Winter
1979

You're Reading a Free Preview

Download
scribd
/*********** DO NOT ALTER ANYTHING BELOW THIS LINE ! ************/ var s_code=s.t();if(s_code)document.write(s_code)//-->