Deal W. Hudson
January 12, 2018
Ken Burn’s documentary masterpiece, “The Civil War,” premiered in September 1990. Its depiction of the isolation of Abraham Lincoln is strikingly similar to that of President Trump.
As hauntingly narrated by David McCullough, Burn’s “Civil War” traces the rise of Lincoln from his 1847 election to Congress to his surprise election to the presidency in 1860, which immediately set off the call to succession in South Carolina — sound familiar?
Also, all too familiar, was the public scorn and ridicule that Lincoln and his wife, the southerner Mary Todd, endured from the moment they arrived at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. A short carriage ride away was the unfinished dome of the United States Capitol, started in 1793, burned to the ground in the War of 1812, was rebuilt in 1815, expanded in 1850 with the new, cast-iron dome, double in size and three times the weight, but far less than the weight born by Lincoln through the course of the Civil War and his tumultuous re-election in 1864. His assassination on April 15, 1865, at age 56 would put an end to an experience he described as more painful than “hell.”
The documentary describes Lincoln as a man without any support, either from his party, his own cabinet or from the generals he deployed along the “1,000-mile front.” His Emancipation Proclamation of 1862 was met with disapproval in the North, abolitionists thought it was too weak, thousands of Yankee soldiers deserted, and only two members of Congress supported him. “Lincoln was isolated and alone. . . . there were only two men in the House who defended him.” One visitor to Washington in February 1862, lawyer Richard Henry Dana, reported: “As to the politics of Washington, the most striking thing is the absence of personal loyalty to the President. It does not exist. He has no admirers, no enthusiastic supporters, none to bet on his head. If a Republican convention were to be held tomorrow, he would not get the vote of a State.”
The epithets aimed at Lincoln from his being an “imbecile” to having become a “dictator” have become the daily memes of the mainstream media toward President Trump. This is not to say that Trump is Lincolnesque, but it makes the larger point that such violent attitudes and commentary about an American president is the product of the age, not the man. Lincoln faced a “nation divided.” President Trump faces a division just as deep but subtler and more complex to tease out in all its facets.
In his novel War and Peace (1867), Leo Tolstoy often comes back to the issue of whether Napoleon “caused” the invasion of Russia, or “caused” any of his many triumphs. Tolstoy presses the point that no single man can be said to be responsible for human events. Each man and woman, he explains, have freedom of will that in times of war are caught up in a dynamic larger than any one of them, even Napoleon himself. It’s worth thinking about Tolstoy’s point, as we point our finger in blame or raise our hands in salute towards any one person.
“Man’s mind cannot grasp the causes of events in their completeness, but the desire to find those causes is implanted in man’s soul. . . . It may seem to be a matter of indifference whether we understand the meaning of historical events this way or that; yet there is the same difference between a man who says that the people of the West moved on the East because Napoleon wished it and a man who says that this happened because it had to happen, as there is between those who declared that the earth was stationary and that the planets moved round it and those who admitted that they did not know what upheld the earth, but knew there were laws directing its movement and that of the other planets. There is and can be, no cause of a historical event except the one cause of all causes. But there are laws directing events, and some of these laws are known to us while we are conscious of others we cannot comprehend. The discovery of these laws is only possible when we have quite abandoned the attempt to find the cause in the will of some one man, just as the discovery of the laws of the motion of the planets was possible only when men abandoned the conception of the fixity of the earth. (War and Peace, 188.8.131.52)