Keepers of the Lincolnian Flame

Keeper of the Flame is the title of a controversial film released in 1942. Ostensibly, it is the story of a newspaper reporter’s attempt to obtain information about a deceased war hero. The reporter’s efforts to research the famous man’s life are frustrated by a lack of cooperation from the man’s friends and relatives. Ultimately, the reporter uncovers a history of radical right wing political activity; an unsavory aspect of the man’s life that his associates concealed to protect his reputation.

Underlying the basic story was a not-so-subtle attack on right wing political views. This caused some of the actors to have reservations about appearing in the film and almost a decade later its screenwriter was blacklisted, this film being one of the pieces of evidence used against him.

Regardless of the merits of the film, the phenomenon it portrays is very real. Associates and organizations often become “keepers of the flame” by concealing or denying facts that might jeopardize reputations of famous people. A current example is the Claremont Institute’s militant stewardship of the Abraham Lincoln mythology.

This organization has begrudgingly been forced to defend its icon; something it thought it would never have to do. Abraham Lincoln was for decades held in high esteem, occupying an almost sacrosanct position. But in recent years, scholars, who are no longer willing to kowtow to the flamekeepers, have subjected the legend surrounding Lincoln to intense scrutiny. And they have discovered the proverbial feet of clay.

For some odd reason, the Claremont Institute’s defense of Lincoln brings to mind Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ book, On Death and Dying. In this landmark book, Dr. Kubler-Ross describes the five stages of grief that a person goes through when they are told they are dying: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. As the Claremont Institute fights to prevent the demise of its icon, it seems to be passing through these very same stages.

To protect the Abraham Lincoln mythology, the Claremont Institute frequently engages in less than professional behavior. Reviews of works critical of Lincoln are not always refuted with scholarly arguments, but often dismissed with deprecating epithets as though the authors were defacing a sacred shrine. On the other hand, the Institute’s praise of Lincoln idolaters frequently borders on religious fervor, using terminology more appropriate for devotional services than book reviews.

Claremont Institute member, Harry Jaffa, recently released his long awaited Lincoln book: A New Birth of Freedom. This new work lifts the Lincoln mythology into the ethereal zones. It is a spiritual labor of love by a man smitten by the “mythic proportions,” the almost Christlike attributes of the Great Emancipator. Ever since the publication of Jaffa’s book, fellow Institute members have been busily churning out favorable reviews, and, to put it mildly, they’re just wild about Harry.

If the book is judged solely on the number of famous people quoted, it should receive high marks. In the pages of Jaffa’s homage to Lincoln one encounters Shakespeare, Thomas Aquinas, Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Dante, Pascal, Rousseau, Tocqueville, Kant, Spinoza, Locke, Galileo, Edmund Burke, and a host of others including, of course, Jesus Christ. In fact, reading this book reminded me of the extravagant films of Federico Fellini. Upon leaving the theater, I often felt I’d witnessed something profound. But as days went by, I came to realize I’d only been exposed to a spectacular series of visual images, leading nowhere.

Applying a semantic sleight-of-hand, Jaffa tries to graft onto Lincoln everything that is good and noble from this exhaustive cast of luminaries. But it doesn’t work, so Jaffa’s excessive allusions to the wisdom of celebrated people become little more than pedantic droppings.

Not only does the book lack any semblance of objectivity, but Jaffa also makes frequent use of the double standard. To illustrate, consider this quote from a speech by Alexander Stephens, vice-president of the Confederate States: “The Negro, by nature, or by the curse against Canaan, is fitted for that condition which he occupies in our system. The substratum of our society is made of the material fitted by nature for it, and by experience we know that it is best, not only for the superior, but for the inferior race that it should be so.” Jaffa’s evaluation: “This remarkable address conveys, more than any other contemporary document, not only the soul of the Confederacy but also of that Jim Crow South that arose from the ashes of the Confederacy.”

Interestingly, Lincoln made a somewhat similar statement in his debates with Stephen Douglas: “There is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will for ever forbid the two races from living together in terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I, as much as any other man, am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.” Does this “remarkable” comment convey the soul of the North?

This is Jaffa’s reference to Lincoln’s statement. “In the debate with Douglas, Lincoln reiterates that he is not, and never has been, in favor of bringing about a perfect social and political equality between blacks and whites.” Note Jaffa’s rationalization. “He (Lincoln) never says he will not be — Lincoln’s (deference) to ordinary American prejudices, in no wise proves that (he) shared those prejudices.” What we see here is Jaffa’s incessant search for “hidden meanings” in Lincoln’s words, but only those that will confirm his hypothesis.

Following the current “politically correct” trend, Harry Jaffa and the Pharisees at the Claremont Institute frequently judge people from prior centuries, especially Confederates, by current political beliefs. But they exempt Lincoln from this practice knowing that their hero could never escape the label of racist.

Another example of Jaffa’s sophistry: ” We will see Lincoln in the 1850s disclaiming any intention to make voters or jurors of Negroes. Given the vast mass of prejudice with which Lincoln was confronted, it would have been destructive of the antislavery cause for him to say anything else.” Does Mr. Jaffa seriously believe that a comment by a relatively unknown senatorial candidate “would have been destructive of the antislavery cause?” Surely not. This is obviously a strained attempt to convert a purely political stance into a moralistic one.

And then Jaffa makes this extraordinary claim: “Negroes have voting rights and serve on juries today owing in large measure to the fact that Lincoln in the 1850s disavowed any intention to make them voters or jurors.” How Lincoln’s opposition to Negro voting rights in the 1850s significantly contributed to the ultimate enactment of such rights is a reason known only to God and Harry Jaffa.

Not only does Jaffa apply a double standard when he interprets Lincoln’s statements; he also denigrates anyone who doesn’t share his opinion, especially those who doubt Lincoln’s commitment to the antislavery cause. In 1854, Lincoln said: “Much as I hate slavery, I would consent to the extension of it rather than see the Union dissolved, just as I would consent to any great evil, to avoid a greater one.” Jaffa’s comment: “A morality governed by prudence is largely beyond the ken of our latter-day abolitionist historians.”

“Prudence” is a more charitable description than “politics.” But does it accurately describe Lincoln’s motives? In this instance Lincoln’s words are not oblique. He firmly states that the institution of slavery could be justified under certain circumstances especially when there were valid political reasons for not opposing it. However, if we take Lincoln’s comment verbatim, Jaffa will claim that it is beyond our ken to understand Lincoln’s true strategy. Yet Jaffa himself always employs a verbatim interpretation of comments by Confederate sympathizers.

Throughout his 500-page work, Harry Jaffa usually imputes moralistic rather than political considerations for Abraham Lincoln’s actions. However, in those cases where there was no political mileage to be gained, Lincoln’s conduct was not always admirable. For example, there was no influential group advocating humane treatment for American Indians. Consequently, in the conduct of its westward expansion program, the Lincoln administration pursued policies that impoverished and decimated several Indian tribes; policies that included forced removal from sacred lands, incarceration in concentration camps, resettlements, massacres and public hangings.

But Jaffa willfully ignores all actions and statements by Lincoln that do not conform to his messianic portrait. His book; A New Birth of Freedom is described as an attack on “attempts to diminish the cause of Lincoln in the American mind” and it ends with this curious call to arms: “We must take up the weapons of truth and go forth to battle once again for the cause of Father Abraham, of Union, and of Freedom, as in the olden time.”

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