“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”(F. Scott Fitzgerald)
“The worst thing to happen to Lincoln – aside from the unfortunate incident at Ford’s Theatre – was to fall into the hands of Carl Sandburg.” (Gore Vidal)
I maintain that the issues around the Civil War are complex, involving power centers, economics, Great Britain and geopolitics. While slavery was also an important issue, it was not something anyone would fight a war about. Abraham Lincoln virtually tore apart the Constitution, invaded the South, and when all else failed engaged in a scorched earth campaign to bring the area into submission.
He did not do that for the sake of the slaves, any more than NASA runs a Mars mission for the sake of science. Something unstated and much bigger was in play.
But historians in this country fulfill a state propaganda function, so that we get the Band of Brothers – Team of Rivals treatment of history. Complex men like Lincoln get Spielberged, that is, reduced to soap opera players.
We know from the Church Committee hearings that CIA keeps journalists and pundits on its payroll to give us our news. But in addition, Church also told us that CIA hires “independent scholars” and secretly finances their work. It’s a safe bet that Barnes and Noble shelves are littered with charlatans paid to walk backwards through time with us, rearranging the past more to CIA’s liking.
But that’s cynical. People want to make a living, enjoy some comfort and a little fame. In the history trade, diligence, openness and honesty do not get it done. So most historians occupy slots in colleges and universities, or do something more productive to pay the bills.
I suspect that Doris Kearns Goodman was at some point faced with a career choice: to present us with a complex but far-sighted Machiavellian character named Lincoln – a man who judged that the ends justified his means – or to give him the Spielberg treatment.
She took the path of least resistance, which includes the Georgetown cocktail circuit, TV appearances, visits to the White House, a Spielberg movie, and private shelves all over the country prominently featuring her unread books.
Dave McGowan is not a trained historian. Consequently, he notices things. He’s done a fascinating series on Lincoln, and like his Laurel Canyon series, it just might be a book someday. In the meantime, he makes his living as a psychologist in Los Angeles. He is disrespectful of official verse, and has a wonderful sense of humor.
I eagerly await each installment of his Lincoln series. Here’s but one morsel: On the night that Lincoln was murdered, an intruder in the home of Secretary of State William Seward attempted to murder him too. So it appears. In this installment, McGowan delves into the matter and finds the story fraught with inconsistencies.
Was the attack on Seward staged? Why? It could be because he was one of the plotters behind Lincoln’s murder, and needed deflection.
As Fitzgerald said, there is nothing wrong with walking about holding contradictory ideas as possibilities. Each might lead to something productive.
So the next logical question: Thousands of people all over the country had motive to murder Lincoln. But even in those days, presidential security was good. To get to him required inside assistance, just as with JFK and Reagan. So cast aside all of the motives of all of the others who wanted Lincoln dead, and ask an important question: Why would Seward want him dead? He had means and opportunity. What would be the motive?
Follow that thought, see where it leads. You’ll be thinking like a historian. A real one.
And don’t quit your day job.