[Marxism] Eric Alterman-James Oakes exchange on Lincoln

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Aug 4 09:12:57 MDT 2019

Lincoln The Hack?
Eric Alterman, reply by James Oakes AUGUST 15, 2019 ISSUE
In response to:
The Great Divide from the May 23, 2019 issue of New York Review of Books

To the Editors:

James Oakes writes, “It is a commonplace among historians that…in his 
early career [Lincoln] was something of a Whig Party hack” [“The Great 
Divide,” NYR, May 23]. I find this statement amazing. How in the world 
do those words apply to the brave, eloquent, and politically costly 
words and actions undertaken by the first-term congressman Lincoln in 
opposition to James K. Polk’s mendaciously undertaken war of conquest 
against Mexico?

Congressman Lincoln was lonely and indefatigible in his defense of both 
Congress’s role in the decision to go to war and in attempting to hold 
Polk accountable for the lies he told to justify the conflict. Rarely 
has any representative risen to such heights of eloquence as when 
Lincoln accused the president of having

trusted to avoid the scrutiny of his own conduct by directing the 
attention of the nation, by fixing the public eye upon military 
glory—that rainbow that rises in showers of blood—that serpent’s eye 
that charms but to destroy; and thus calculating, had plunged into this 
war, until disappointed as to the ease by which Mexico could be subdued, 
he found himself at last he knew not where.

Warned by his closest political advisers that he was risking his career 
in doing so, Lincoln persisted:

Allow the President to invade a neighboring nation, whenever he shall 
deem it necessary to repel an invasion, and you allow him to do so, 
whenever he may choose to say he deems it necessary for such purpose—and 
you allow him to make war at pleasure. Study to see if you can fix any 
limit to his power in this respect.

Given the jingoistic times, his views proved so unpopular with his 
constituents that he decided to forego a campaign for reelection, and so 
retired from Congress. In his 1858 debates with Stephen Douglas for the 
Illinois senate, the latter tried to mock his opponent by accusing him 
of trying “to dodge the responsibility of [the Republican Party] 
platform, because it was not adopted in the right spot.” He teased him 
as “Spotty Lincoln.” Douglas also deployed the same tactics that Polk 
would use against his critics: insisting that Lincoln had “distinguished 
himself by his opposition to the Mexican war, taking the side of the 
common enemy, in time of war, against his own country.” Douglas said it 
“is one thing to be opposed to the declaration of war, and another thing 
to take the side of the enemy against your own country, for the war 
commenced and our army was in Mexico at the time.”

If this is Mr. Oakes’s view of hackery, I say this country could surely 
use more such hacks as Congressman Abraham Lincoln.

Eric Alterman
CUNY Distinguished Professor of English
Brooklyn College
Brooklyn, New York

James Oakes replies:
I assure Mr. Alterman that I admire Lincoln’s stance against the 
Mexican-American War as much as he does. But when historians speak of 
Lincoln as a Whig Party hack in his early years, the years they refer to 
are the four terms he served in the Illinois legislature beginning in 
1834. Though he had few legislative achievements, Lincoln nevertheless 
earned a reputation as a brutal partisan attack dog. He published 
pseudonymous letters and anonymous editorials satirizing the religious 
convictions of his opponents or belittling their manhood. Worst of all 
was Lincoln’s penchant for race-baiting. He implied that Democrats would 
give blacks the vote and that Illinois would “be overrun with free 
negroes.” He described Martin Van Buren’s running mate as “the husband 
of a negro wench, and the father of a band of mulatoes.” He published 
fake letters endorsing Democrats in “negro dialect.” That’s the early 
Lincoln who was, by my standards at least, a partisan hack. The Lincoln 
who went to the House of Representatives in 1847 was a very different 
man. In addition to his courageous criticism of Polk’s war, Lincoln 
voted repeatedly for the Wilmot Proviso, which would have banned slavery 
from all the territory snatched from Mexico. He also drafted the first 
statute I know of that would have abolished slavery in Washington, D.C.

More information about the Marxism mailing list