By Andrew Ferguson
Sunday, June 10, 2007
You can't really blame Al Gore for not using footnotes in his new book, "The Assault on Reason." It's a sprawling, untidy blast of indignation, and annotating it with footnotes would be like trying to slip rubber bands around a puddle of quicksilver. Still, I'd love to know where he found the scary quote from Abraham Lincoln that he uses on page 88.
In a chapter entitled "The Politics of Wealth," Gore argues that the ancient threat to democracy posed by rich people run amok has finally been realized under the man who beat him in the 2000 presidential race. Even Lincoln, Gore says, saw the age of Bush coming in 1864: "I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. As a result of the war, corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed."
The quote is a favorite of liberal bloggers, which is probably how Gore came across it. And as a description of how many on the left see the country seven years into their Bush nightmare, it's pretty much perfect.
Too perfect, in fact. If you're familiar with Lincoln's distinctive way of expressing himself, you'll hear the false notes the passage strikes. For one thing, Lincoln just wasn't the "trembling" kind -- or if he was, he kept his trembling to himself. Words such as "enthroned" and "aggregated" are a bit too fancy for his plain, unclotted prose, and the phrase "money power" suggests a conspiratorial turn of mind that would have been foreign to him. Indeed, these words don't show up anywhere else in "The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln" (which, thanks to Gore's Internet, are now searchable at http://quod.lib.umich.edu/l/lincoln/).
Moreover, the point of the passage is very un-Lincolnian. A corporate lawyer whose long and cunning labor on behalf of the railroads earned him a comfortable income, Lincoln was a vigorous champion of market capitalism, even when it drifted (as it tends to do) toward large concentrations of wealth. Many of his administration's signal initiatives -- the transcontinental railroad, for example -- amounted to what liberals today would condemn as "corporate welfare." Lots of speculators got rich under Lincoln, as Gore notes. As Gore does not note, Lincoln seemed not to have minded.
Unless, of course, Gore's quote from a trembling Abe was evidence of his real thinking.
It isn't, though. It's a fake.
Writing in 1999 in the Abraham Lincoln Association's newsletter, the great Lincoln historian Thomas F. Schwartz traced the bogus passage to the 1880s, about 20 years after Lincoln's death. One theory is that it first appeared in a pamphlet advertising patent medicines. Opponents of Gilded Age capitalism -- Gore's forerunners -- found the quote so useful that Lincoln's former White House secretaries felt compelled to launch a campaign "denouncing the forgery," Schwartz said. Robert Todd Lincoln, who was the president's only surviving son and himself a wealthy railroad lawyer, called it "an impudent invention" that ascribed to his father views that the former president would never have held.
"I discovered what I think is the true and only source of this supposed quotation," Robert wrote in an unpublished letter, probably tongue-in-cheek. "It originated, I think, at what is called a Spiritualist Séance in a country town in Iowa, a number of years ago, as being a communication by President Lincoln through what is called a Medium." Even bloggers might think twice about trusting such a source.
It goes without saying that Gore isn't the first politician to enlist Lincoln, however spuriously, in a pet cause. In 1992, Ronald Reagan used his last appearance at a GOP convention to warn of a liberal ascendancy that threatened Lincoln's cherished Republican principles. Reagan quoted a litany of these, supposedly in Lincoln's own words: "You cannot help small men by tearing down big men"; "You cannot help the poor by destroying the rich"; and so on. As the New York Times immediately and gleefully pointed out, the lines were written by a Baptist preacher in 1916. Reagan's speechwriter found them, under Lincoln's name, in a book called "The Toastmaster's Treasure Chest."
I was reminded of the Great Toastmaster's mistake not long ago while reading "Why Lincoln Matters" by former New York governor Mario Cuomo. "Claiming the mantle of Lincoln," Cuomo wrote, "has been part of the fabric of political discourse practically from the moment Lincoln was assassinated." True, though it didn't stop Cuomo from writing his book to "prove" that if Lincoln were alive today, his political views would be indistinguishable from Cuomo's.
And of course, it's not just politicians who look to Abe for their scripture. In 2005, a young journalist who has struggled with depression wrote "Lincoln's Melancholy" to show that the president's greatness was fueled by his struggle with depression. And that same year, a gay activist wrote "The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln" to show that Lincoln was gay, too -- or, as another activist put it, "He's ours."
Well, sure: He is ours, but who we think "he" is seems to depend, to an alarming degree, on who we think "we" are. A more interesting question for us -- whoever we are -- is whether there isn't some real, plausible, universal Lincoln that we (all of us) can lay claim to and learn from, regardless of our prejudices. For a century or more, Americans have told themselves that they wanted to be like Lincoln: brave, resolute, patient, kind. But as Gore has just demonstrated all over again -- in perhaps his book's most useful lesson -- what we've really wanted is for Lincoln to be like us.
Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at the Weekly Standard and the author of "Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe's America."