George Will, ignoring my public congratulations to Dr. William Bennett upon the White House announcement that he would be nominated chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, has made a moral issue of the fact that at one point a number of Republicans both within and without Congress had suggested my name for that post ("A Shrill Assault on Mr. Lincoln," op-ed, Nov. 29). Furthermore, he has grounded his perfervid assault on my supporters in the charge that no proper Republican could possibly tolerate an appointment in the Reagan administration of a scholar with my view of the American past. It will serve no purpose to complain of the unseemliness of the advantage he has taken of a private person no longer involved in any public question. I will not speak of his moral sensibilities as he has spoken of mine. But because my opinions are made an issue of his attack on other men, I am obliged to make some answer to his post hoc fusillade.
Will's justification for his philippic is that he "smolders with indignation" concerning the politics of the 1850s. In Puritan rectitude, he adopts the posture of righteous indignation. Then he quotes out of context a few of my observations on Lincoln and his era, and follows this farrago with an imaginary inquisition into my commentary before a committee of the U.S. Senate. In this hypothetical melodrama, I am challenged for saying (in a review of an important book that undermines the accepted view of the life of blacks held in slavery) that one man's right to "have property in another" raises questions of an ethical nature and belongs to the logical category of the argument from definition. Then I am asked to explain what I meant in saying that the southern social system was "as good or bad as the people who administered its regimen." I suspect that the senators would easily understand the distinction made in these remarks on the book "Time on the Cross," puzzling as they may seem to Will. For, however odious in theory, the ordinary course of day-to-day life in the Old South was going to be better or worse, depending upon the character of the persons responsible for it. Obviously, Englishmen should have known better than to introduce slavery with its concomitant evils into their North American settlements. My point was that the book I reviewed described these day-to-day operations as being more humane than the myth implied.
Will also doubts that senators entangled in debates over voting regulations, fair housing, affirmative action and busing would hear the suggestion that debates concerning the rights of Negroes sometimes strain the limits of the Constitution. Once again, I think he underestimates their tolerance--just as he oversimplifies the great issues of the 1850s.
Most of his quotations from my work on Lincoln are reflections of academic commonplaces--the books and essays of Edgar Lee Masters, Donald W. Riddle, Willmoore Kendall, Edmund Wilson, Gottfried Dietze and Will's one-time editor, the late Frank Meyer. My contribution to the critique has been an analysis of Lincoln's rhetoric, an idiom that contributed to the death of 600,000 American boys. I have also spoken of Lincoln's use of troops to win elections, the graft of his administration, his abuse under the war powers of his political opponents in the North, his claims to intimacy with the divine will (a limited link to such political demigods as Napoleon, Lenin and Hitler) and his willingness to waste Northern lives in search of a Republican general to command his armies. Fortunately, I have not defended the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854--else who knows what "the better angels" of Will's noble nature might have led him to write.
The deeper question raised by Will's attack is not, however, my scholarly credentials. Instead, we should be more disturbed (if not "indignant") at the notion of a litmus test based on required attitudes toward the "noble past" of our great political parties. If to affirm the character of Thaddeus Stevens, the Credit Mobilier and the impeachment of Andrew Johnson is a precondition for being a "good Republican," then many of us inclined toward the present version of the GOP will have a problem. I had thought that Republicans had come together in 1980 to support Ronald Reagan and his platform. To ask more, given the variety of the American political inheritance, is folly.
Finally, I must mention how regrettable it is that the national discussion of the chairmanship for the National Endowment for the Humanities has been conducted at the level of personal abuse and character assassination. I believe that my supporters recommended me, not because they agreed or disagreed with my opinion of Lincoln, but rather because they shared my view that some drastic rethinking of the role of the national endowments is in order. NEH should become a core around which to organize a pattern of private support for the humanities--not to continue as a source of general largess. But on this issue we have had a remarkable silence.
As to whose arguments are "shrill and eccentric," I leave the question to calm heads that do not "smolder."