Sunday, September 3, 2023

Comments On Gore Vidal's Lincoln


Comments on Gore Vidal’s Lincoln

Peter Schultz


            At end of his book, Lincoln, Gore Vidal has John Hay, once Lincoln’s secretary, redeeming both the Civil War and Lincoln, ranking Lincoln even higher that Washington as president.


            “Mr. Lincoln had a far greater and more difficult task than Washington. You see, the Southern states had every Constitutional right to go out of the Union. But Lincoln said, no. Lincoln said, this Union can never be broken. Now that was a terrible responsibility for one man to take. But he took it, knowing he would be obliged to fight the greatest war in human history, which he did, and which he won. So, he not only put the Union back together again, but he made an entirely new country, and all of it in his own image.” [656]


            And then again: “… Hay, who was now more than ever convinced that Lincoln, in some mysterious way, had willed his own murder as a form of atonement for the great and terrible thing he had done by giving so bloody and absolute a rebirth to his nation.” [657]


            Here’s the thing. Lincoln had once spoken about those men who “hunger and thirst for distinction” and disdain any beaten path in seeking political greatness, either by enslaving freemen or freeing slaves, in their pursuit of fame or the only kind of immortality humans can be sure of. Such men were the “founding fathers.” So, one may wonder if Hay’s take on Lincoln’s death being “a form of atonement for the great and terrible thing he had done” is the whole story. Perhaps, Lincoln, “in some mysterious way,” willed his own murder in order to ensure that he would achieve fame and, therewith, a kind of immortality. Like the deaths of Socrates and Christ, Lincoln’s death via assassination would seal his sanctification.


            Moreover, given how American history played out after the Civil War, with the eventual reintroduction of slavery in the form of peonage for southern blacks and the long history of racial apartheid, one may also wonder about Hay’s assertion that Lincoln had succeeded in making “an entirely new country…. all of it his own image.” And even if he did succeed in that task for a while, it may be said that this “new country” disappeared after the presidential election of 1876, when Rutherford B. Hayes was awarded the presidency by agreeing to allow the South to recreate both a kind of slavery and racial apartheid.


            So, one may wonder, despite Hay’s attempt at redeeming both Lincoln and the Civil War, whether the war and Lincoln are redeemable. Does the arc of history bend toward justice or does it bend toward madness? It is hard to say.

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