Beware Elites Interpreting History
It has the slam-bang certitude of an indignant Tweet: “In an excerpt from his new book, Lincoln and the Fight for Peace, CNN’s senior political analyst and anchor [John Avlon] shows how racist elites clinging to power thrust the nation into violent conflict in the wake of a presidential election they refused to accept. Ring a bell?”
But it’s not a Tweet. It’s Vanity Fair using Trumpian hyperbole. And the only bells I heard after reading the article that followed were alarm bells, for the author twists history in a way that borders on harmless self-parody until he so profoundly distorts Abraham Lincoln’s stance on slavery that it deserves a correction—here, if not in the original publication.
So, let’s get started.
The author in question is John Avlon, and the case he attempts to make is that “a small band of slave-owning extremists was able to hijack American politics, divide the country, and start the Civil War.” Unfortunately for Vanity Fair readers, Avlon kicks it off with a statistical blunder so commonplace that History.com calls it Myth #3 in a piece debunking “5 Myths About Slavery” on its website:
“Secession was not a broad popular movement at first,” Avlon writes. “While white supremacy was ingrained in society, only a small percentage of Southerners actually owned slaves [emphasis added]—some 316,000 slave owners out of 5.6 million Southern whites, according to the 1860 census.”
But he’s wrong to suggest slaves were not widely held in the South. A Weber State University analysis of the same 1860 census data concludes that “about 36.7% of the white families” in the seven states that seceded prior to Lincoln’s inauguration owned enslaved persons.
That is no “small percentage.”
Avlon’s statistical blunder is simple enough, and belies his elitist education (Milton Academy, Yale and Columbia): by including women and children in the tally of Southern whites who might have owned slaves, he minimizes the percentage of slave-owners. But, of course, women and children generally did not own the slaves in their households. Husbands and fathers did.
Vanity Fair could have caught it with a quick Google search, but the mistake is made, and Avlon proceeds to buttress his faulty thesis by presenting another selective interpretation of facts:
“In 1860, the secessionist candidate [Vice President John C.] Breckinridge lost Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee and failed to win a majority of votes in Georgia and Louisiana,” he writes, again suggesting secession was not a popular idea in the slave states.
But in fact, Breckinridge won more states than anybody but Abraham Lincoln, and received the highest number of electoral votes after Lincoln. He may have been a racist and a secessionist, but an elite without popular support, Breckinridge was not.
Nor would he attempt to ‘cling to power’ by denying the election results, as we shall see.
Still, Avlon is not finished with his relentless effort to portray secession as an act of “racist elites.” He goes on to suggest that Lincoln’s opposition to slavery was exaggerated by those same elites:
“Southern Democrats tried to paint Lincoln as an extremist who stood for the unconstitutional abolition of slavery through executive power,” he writes, evidently not realizing that Northern Democrat Stephen Douglas also leveled the same charge against Lincoln during the campaign.
Then Avlon drops his bombshell:
“Lincoln said, and the record showed, that he only [emphasis added] opposed the expansion of slavery as a means of keeping the nation united, though he opposed slavery personally.”
Here, Avlon is flat-out wrong.
In fact, “the record” showed that Abraham Lincoln opposed the expansion of slavery, period—no qualifiers needed. Six years before the 1860 election, Lincoln spoke out against the Kansas-Nebraska Act (which repealed the Missouri Compromise and would have permitted slavery in those territories, subject to popular sovereignty), in very plain language:
“I hate it [the expansion of slavery] because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself.”
Four years later, in his first response to Stephen Douglas, Lincoln said, “I have always hated slavery. I think as much as any Abolitionist.”
Certainly, Lincoln often softened his rhetoric, assuring Southerners that he did not intend to abolish the institution of slavery “where it already exists.” But Lincoln was trying to maintain the Union by keeping the fires of secession from burning down the house, not pretending he only “opposed slavery personally.”
By the time the 1860 presidential election came around, Lincoln was viewed, quite accurately, as events would show, as the abolitionist candidate, which is why, after his election, seven slave states bolted from the Union without waiting to hear what he would say at his inaugural. They did not secede, as Avlon has attempted to show, because a handful of “racist elites” misrepresented Lincoln’s stance on slavery.
Vanity Fair and John Avlon are not the first “to twist facts to suit theories rather than theories to suit facts,” as a famous, fictional detective said many years ago, nor will they be the last—on either side of the political spectrum.
But it’s a particular shame in this case, because Avlon could have ameliorated the damage of his fanciful take on American history with an upbeat coda to his downbeat story of secessionist elites “clinging to power.”
You see, following his loss to Abraham Lincoln in the 1860 presidential election, Vice President John C. Breckinridge put aside his personal views on slavery and secession—and whatever personal animosity he might have felt towards Abraham Lincoln—and returned to Washington to fulfill his role as president of the Senate. There, on February 13, 1861, he announced that “Abraham Lincoln, of Illinois, having received a majority of the whole number of electoral votes, is elected President.”
Whatever terrible motives might be ascribed to him and his secessionist peers by Mr. Avlon in Vanity Fair, John C. Breckenridge did his duty that day.
As would another vice president 160 years later.