Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Loathing Lincoln: An American Tradition from the Civil War to the Present

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Loathing Lincoln: An American Tradition from the Civil War to the Present

Article excerpt

Loathing Lincoln: An American Tradition from the Civil War to the Present. By John McKee Barr. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2014. Pp. [xvi], 471. $39.95, ISBN 978-0-8071-5383-3.)

Merrill D. Peterson published Lincoln in American Memory (New York, 1994), an intellectual study of the sixteenth president's reputation over time. John McKee Barr's monograph Loathing Lincoln: An American Tradition from the Civil War to the Present also examines Abraham Lincoln's representation, but it shares nothing else with Peterson's book. First, Barr deals only with negative representations of the president. Second, in contrast to Peterson's breadth, Barr focuses exclusively on Lincoln's loathers' politics, making their political ideology the central theme of the text. Third, abandoning Peterson's scholarly neutrality, Barr joins the very contest he describes by criticizing the loathers as consistently as they denounced Lincoln. As moralizing as it is partisan, the book evolves into a kind of jeremiad against "neo-Confederate" goats on the one side versus the redeemed Lincolnian sheep on the other.

As for the sheep, Barr's Lincoln embodies justice, equality, democracy, civic order, modernity, even truth itself. Lincoln exemplified the virtues of "a racially plural, commercial, corporate, and industrial America" (p. 181). His loathers represent the antithesis. They "served a counterrevolutionary purpose in [their] nostalgic, antimodern, illiberal, and narrowly democratic outlook" (p. 141). They advocated "a reactionary, antimodern strain of thought, dripping with nostalgia," and were "disgruntled and dissatisfied Americans, who included a diverse mix of anarcho-capitalists, radical libertarians, and traditional conservatives ('paleoconservatives') sympathetic to the antebellum South, the Confederacy, and the worldview of the Vanderbilt Agrarians, [who] sought to 'repeal the twentieth century'" (pp. 151, 260). Bar also writes that over time Lincoln loathers "degraded American political discourse" and "contributed to Americans' cynical discontent with the political system" (pp. 329, 286). They practiced a "disturbing methodology," distorted data, and rejected conclusions that differed "even slightly with their own viewpoint" (pp. 303, 304). Like some fifth column even in contemporary America, they formed a coherent movement "defined by its antagonism toward modernity, equality, democracy, and the secularization of American society and [were] well connected to many leading conservative figures and Republican politicians" (p. …

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