abraham lincolnNear the end of 2009’s Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, he suddenly appears, deus ex machina, in the form of that gargantuan white marble statue by the Potomac to defeat the armies of darkness and save our heroes. He is goodness incarnate, a super-sized action hero who swats aside evil ancient Egyptian warriors as he had once stamped out those nasty Southern slaveholders. Now Hollywood has taken the Lincoln Myth even further, portraying the sixteenth president of the United States as Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (directed by Timur Bekmambetov, produced by Tim Burton, and starring Benjamin Walker).

Though its self-explanatory title might cause some to dismiss it as mere harmless silliness, the film, in combining the genres of historical fiction and monster tale, promotes a starkly black-and-white view of history: Lincoln good, vampires bad. And who are the vampires in the movie? Well, American slaveholders, of course.

Yes, the premise of the movie is that slavery existed in America so that people who were secretly vampires could feast on human flesh. Lest one laugh this off as ridiculous, it seems that some critics—and undoubtedly some viewers too—have no trouble equating American slaveholders with such fictional monsters. The New York Times reviewer, for instance, expressed his delight in watching the axe-wielding Lincoln decapitate “slave-holding ghouls.”

The troubling fact about Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is that the average moviegoer will have difficulty separating on-screen fact from on-screen fiction. It will be easy for many viewers to presume the vampire story to be the film’s sole fictional element and assume that the rest is pure history. In other words, the movie’s silly premise makes its false assertions about Lincoln’s biography seem like solid history. For example, the movie depicts Lincoln as an enemy of slavery from boyhood and portrays his 1860 campaign for the presidency as an open crusade against slavery. Both are terribly misleading characterizations. Sadly, few moviegoers will question these simplistic depictions of Lincoln, given the long-standing elevation of Lincoln to God-like status in the nationalist narrative of American history that dominates high school textbooks, academic scholarship, and the culture at large.

How many Americans will know that Lincoln used the “n-word” three times in the Lincoln-Douglas debates, an epithet whose use was characteristic, even among nineteenth-century Americans, of someone with an unusually racist bent of mind? Will any moviegoer be aware that Lincoln advocated the mass deportation of blacks to Africa, believing that the two races could never live side-by-side? Will they know of Lincoln’s many documented racist statements, such as his comment that he was content “to having the superior position assigned to the white race” in society as long as the two races had to co-exist?

Lincoln stands almost alone among the icons of American history as untouchable. To criticize him is to invite ridicule and even accusations of hidden racism. Such was the fate of the great historian M.E. Bradford, who was nominated by President Reagan to be chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Neoconservatives torpedoed the nomination by insinuating that Bradford’s criticism of Lincoln was motivated by racism. In the 2008 presidential contest, Ron Paul got into trouble with mainstream media journalists when he criticized the sixteenth president. They interrogated him as if he were another Al Campanis, openly and blithely spouting racist opinions.

“In America,” Tocqueville observed, in a judgment that has proved timeless, “the majority raises formidable barriers around the liberty of opinion; within these barriers an author may write what he pleases, but woe to him if he goes beyond them.”

It is sad but true that the vast majority of conservatives embrace, every bit as eagerly as those on the Left, what might be called The Nationalist Narrative of American History. This is an astounding development given conservatism’s traditional animus against centralized power and its historical championing of localism and of society’s “little platoons,” as Edmund Burke, the godfather of Anglo-American conservatism, called the mediating institutions of family, church, and voluntary associations.

The nationalist reading of the country’s history embraces the consolidation of political power achieved by the enactment of the Constitution, sees that document as a holy text, and lauds the centralized economic system of national banks, paper money, and government regulation. It bemoans the South’s “unconstitutional” attempt to dissolve the “sacred” Union and lauds Lincoln’s use of any and all means to “preserve the Union.” This narrative praises militarism, nationalism, and the idea of progress. Secular at its core, it has attained the status of a national religion in the hearts and minds of most Americans.

Abraham Lincoln is the Christ-figure of the Nationalist Narrative, and the Lincoln gospel goes something like this: God led English Puritans to the City Upon the Hill on the Banks of Massachusetts Bay, but these budding Americans ruined paradise by allowing slavery to gain a foothold in North America. After many years of wandering in the Great American Desert and watching slavery flourish among the Southern descendants of Cain, Americans were awakened when John “The Baptist” Brown burst onto the scene, preparing the way for the Lord, who appeared, lying in a log cabin, in the little town of Somewhere, Kentucky. Honest Abe defied his humble beginnings and became a leader of his people, exposing the hypocrisy of the Pharisaical slaveholders and their sympathizers, one of whom put the king to death on Good Friday. Father Abraham gave his life to open the gates of freedom to all, slave and free, Jew and Gentile. He left for us inspired scripture: his Emancipation Proclamation, his Gettysburg Address, his Second Inaugural Address; and he transformed the meaning of that Old Testament of America, the Declaration of Independence. And though he died, he is a living god. We worship him in museums across the land, in front of countless statues of his likeness, and most dramatically, at that national shrine/Greek temple in Washington in which he is enthroned in all his glory.

Lincoln is indeed the true American Idol, and this idolatry—for it amounts to nothing less—ought to trouble Christians in general and Catholics in particular. “To adopt idols and invest them with fictitious attributes,” the nineteenth-century Catholic writer and diplomat Robert Walsh opined, “belongs to the barbarous or servile nations.”

Others have detailed Lincoln’s wartime violations of civil liberties: his suspension of habeas corpus, his arrest of the Maryland legislature and thousands of dissidents, his closing down of scores of opposing American newspapers, his deportation of a congressman who dared criticize the war against the South. But there is an even greater charge against Lincoln: he initiated a war against his own people that fell far short of the just war principles expounded by Saint Augustine.

This alone should give Catholics pause. A war that was justified on the questionable good of “preserving the Union” caused the deaths of 750,000 Americans and the maiming of countless others. The idea that Southerners “started it” by firing on Fort Sumter does nothing to buttress the argument for war, for it is ludicrous to think that Lincoln would have refrained from invading the South had this minor military action not taken place. Lincoln indeed cleverly maneuvered South Carolina forces into bombarding the fort by sending a supply ship to provision Sumter. Just war theory mandates that the use of force be proportionate in response to the “evil” committed; no Union soldier died during the bombardment of Sumter, and the action of calling up 75,000 volunteers to subdue by force a whole region of the country seems an incommensurate response indeed.

It is just as fruitless to point instead to the end of American slavery at war’s end as justification for Lincoln’s inauguration of the bloodshed. The fact that the war became a crusade also to end slavery at its midway point cannot be used to justify the conflict ex post facto. 

The issue of slavery clouds an understanding of Lincoln and his war. The conflict, it must be remembered, did not pit “free” states against “slave states”; in fact, the Lincoln Administration protected slavery in four states during the war (Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, and Missouri), and Lincoln himself promised in his First Inaugural Address that he would favor a constitutional amendment to protect slavery in perpetuity. This is not to mention the fact that the wealth of the North was largely built on the backs of Southern slaves, as Northern factories relied on raw materials provided by slave labor. Southern slave owners did the dirty work for Northern industrialists. The despicable slave trade itself—portrayed in Vampire Hunter as the realm of Southerners only—was in truth dominated by Yankees; little Rhode Island had a near-monopoly on the filthy business in America. Slavery was indeed a national sin, but modern Americans like to blame it on those supposedly racist, backward, inbred, hillbilly Southerners. It’s a convenient way to absolve oneself and one’s country of blame, so that the Nationalist Narrative is not disrupted.

The Northern victory of arms also resolved the inherent tension of federalism, which had attempted to divide power between the central government and the states. Might made right, and the principle was established that no state could defy Washington without the risk of invasion and bloodshed. Federalism entered its death throes after Appomattox, and with it went the Catholic principle of subsidiarity. The power of the central government has grown unabated ever since, at the expense of the states and mediating institutions. Indeed, the health care mandate is simply the latest act of state tyranny made possible by the demise of federalism.

From 1865 on, Washington would rule from sea to shining sea—and indeed beyond American shores, as Washington directed its attention in the decades to come to securing an empire, largely by defeating and conquering brown-skinned people, many of them Catholics (a process actually begun in the 1840s in Mexico, and then continued post-war in places like the Philippines, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico). As Jeffrey Rogers Hummel has written, Mr. Lincoln’s War may have emancipated slaves, but it has also enslaved free men.

The present essay is not an apologia for the Confederacy, an attempt to replace the morality tale of the nationalist narrative with a similarly simplistic interpretation that sees Lincoln and Yankees as the vampires of the American story. Rather, it is an admonition to all to look to our secular history not for perfect saints, but only for flawed heroes. “Put not your trust in princes,” the Psalmist advises, “in the children of men, in whom there is no salvation.”

This fall, Steven Spielberg’s new biopic of Lincoln, starring Daniel Day-Lewis, will appear in movie theaters. Though wrapped in secrecy, it will apparently detail his alleged efforts in the final weeks of his life to end slavery in America forever. And so it goes in Hollywood and across America, which has become Illinois writ large, The Land of Lincoln, where all must worship the nation’s god—or face the consequences.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreReprinted with the gracious permission of Crisis Magazine.

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