Monday, April 27, 2009

Lincoln vs. Localism

As many of you are aware, 2009 is the quincentenary of John Calvin's birth, but it is also the bicentenary of Abraham Lincoln's birth. Given that our new President has been going out of his way to compare himself and his vision for his administration to Lincoln, it would seem important to become more familiar with Lincoln.

John Fea has a great little blog post on Lincoln over at Front Porch Republic that is definitely worth reading. Lincoln is certainly the central figure of one of the most complicated times in American history, and as such, there are many different interpretations of him and his administration. Fea seems to provide a well balanced perspective that one does not often see or hear. He attempts to provide both a postive and negative critique to highlight some of his accomplishments as well as being honest about his faults. But like so often, an uncritical embrace of something we consider good can become negative when we see the effects that come with it.

The thrust of the post is to critique Lincoln's Whig nationalism and its effect on post bellum America and American values especially with regards to localism, "Lincoln's real legacy was the promotion of an American nationalism that has resulted in the slow erosion of local places and an agrarian way of life." Fea's assessment of the effects of Lincoln's nationalism on localism can be summed up in this excerpt:
The Northern victory, which Lincoln secured by resorting to total war against southern civilians, unleashed a devastating assault on a Jeffersonian version of agrarianism that connected happiness and human well being to real communities and real places. Liberty, as defined in terms of “improvement” and “mobility,” has resulted in a rootless cosmopolitanism that has produced millions of people who claim to “love humankind,” but who do not live in one place long enough to know, let alone “love,” their neighbor. Moreover, the national infrastructure built to connect people and unify the nation economically and culturally has come at the expense of the environment. The result of a “Whig” economy has produced an ever-expanding commercialism that tempts people with products to fulfill their every desire, all in the very American quest to “pursue happiness.” Such consumer capitalism makes it all the more difficult for Americans to practice virtues of self-restraint.
If you have never read anything critical of Lincoln, this is a good place to begin. Fea knows its risky to say something negative about a man that did accomplish many good things, and that such criticism "must be advanced with great care and caution," but as Fea concludes, "it is important for any student of American history to 'come to terms' with Abraham Lincoln."

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