American Elephants


Comparisons Are Perhaps Inevitable! by The Elephant's Child

Wilfrid M. McClay, a professor of history at the University of Oklahoma is the author of a new history of the United States: Land of Hope: an Invitation to the Great American Story, which is receiving excellent reviews.

He just wrote a short piece for Hillsdale College’s Imprimis, an always interesting publication, with an essay from an important scholar, free on request from the college. The copy I just received contained this interesting portion of a longer essay.

A related lesson of history is that acts of statesmanship often require courage and imagination, even daring, especially when the outcome seems doubtful. Take the case of Lincoln. So accustomed are we to thinking of Lincoln in heroic terms that we forget the depth and breadth of his unpopularity during his entire time in office. Few great leaders have been more comprehensively disdained, loathed, and underestimated. A low Southern view of him, of course, was to be expected, but it was widely shared in the North as well. As Lincoln biographer David Donald put it, “Lincoln’s own associates thought him “a Simple Susan, a baboon, an aimless punster, a smutty joker” Abolitionist Wendell Phillips called him “a huckster in politics, a first-rate, second rate man.” George McClellan, his opponent in the 1864 election, openly disdained him as a “well-meaning baboon.” For much of that election year, Lincoln was convinced, with good reason, that he was doomed to lose the election, with incalculable consequences for the war effort and the future of the nation.

We need to remember that this is generally how history happens. It is not like a Hollywood movie i which the background music swells and the crowd in the room applauds and leaps to it feet as the orator dispenses timeless words, and the camera pans the room full of smiling faces. In real history, the background music does not swell, the trumpets do not sound, and the carping critics often seem louder than the applause. The leader or the soldier has to wonder whether he is acting in vain, whether the criticisms of others are in fact true, whether time will judge him harshly, whether his sacrifice will count for anything. Few great leaders have felt this burden more completely than Lincoln.


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