Saving President Lincoln

Andrew Ferguson, The Weekly Standard, January 26, 2015.


Ten years later Jaffa published Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Issues in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates. It was not only his best book (he wrote several very, very good books, on Aquinas and Shakespeare as well as Lincoln), it was also, in the words of the Civil War historian Allen Guelzo, “incontestably the greatest Lincoln book of the century.”

To understand its greatness, and the strange bravery of its author, it helps to consider the intellectual climate in which it appeared. After half a century cast as an unblemished hero by amateur authors, well-meaning folklorists, and researchers of uneven gifts and reliability, Lincoln had by the 1930s fallen into the icy hands of professional historians—scientific historians, they called themselves, who applied their clinical, pristinely objective methods to a president that most schoolchildren were still being taught to revere as the Great Emancipator.

Scientific history required its practitioners to dig for the reality beneath the deceiving surface of Lincoln’s words and actions. When they did so, they discovered—to everyone’s surprise but theirs—that Lincoln wasn’t much of an emancipator and he wasn’t so great either, at least by common measures.

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