Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Lincoln Looks West (Book Review)

Richard W. Etulain, ed., Lincoln Looks West: From the Mississippi to the Pacific (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2010).

In his novel Tancred (1847), Benjamin Disraeli casts doubt on an Englishman’s inevitable return from the East by having his character Coningsby remind the reader, “even Napoleon regretted that he ever re-crossed the Mediterranean. The East is a career” (p. 141). It is important to remember that in Victorian era America, the West was a career. The discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in California began a gold rush the year after Tancred appeared. The influx in population (which certainly included many Chinese immigrants) helped to push California toward Statehood. Its entrance into the United States as a free State would form a pivotal and controversial part of the 1850 Missouri Compromise as half the State was North of the “sacred” 36°30' line of the 1820 Missouri Compromise. In 1859, Lincoln gave a lecture in which he pointed to the “great difference between Young America and Old Fogy.” Young America thirsts for new territory, is complex and relies on “Discoveries, Inventions, and Improvements.” According to Lincoln, “yankees,” unlike Adam, “the first of all fogies”, and persons in Adamic conditions (“indians and Mexican greasers” who failed to find California’s gold “for centuries”) contain a “difference in habit of observation.” That Lincoln wanted to preserve the West as free territory for these same Yankees could be seen as early as his support of the Wilmot Proviso during the Mexican War.

When Lincoln was nominated as the Republican candidate for the Presidency in 1860, Illinois was a western State. Indeed, all the States that border the Mississippi River were seen as part of the West in the middle of the 19th century. The transcontinental railroad Lincoln’s party wanted to be built was actually an object of national desire. As Franklin Pierce’s Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis had selectively used topographical data to push for a railroad line on the 32nd parallel. The necessity of turning those western territories into States was also felt in both the North and the South. Refusal to compromise and verbal conflicts (and an armed one in Kansas) over how to carve up the American West into free and slave States were part of what drove the country toward Civil War. Besides the political appointments the Republicans and Democrats could hand out when in charge, various other types of careers could be made in the West as can be seen from the familiar names of Leland Stanford, George Hearst, Charles Goodnight, Bill Pickett, Bret Harte, Mark Twain, Wyatt Earp, Kit Carson, Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane, Billy the Kid and Buffalo Bill. Being from the West, Lincoln already had a deep connection to it and would do his best to develop it throughout his career.

In this new edited volume, Lincoln Looks West, Richard Etulain suggests that, “Like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James K. Polk before him, Lincoln reshaped the political-geographical map of the United States” (p. 49). He also notes that despite the existence of “more than fifteen thousand books written about Abraham Lincoln, none has sketched out the full dimensions of his important connections with the trans-Mississippi American West” (p. ix). This book then, is a step in that direction.

With his contribution (a highly detailed and nearly 60 page biographical essay) Etulain does more than give the standard editor’s introduction to a volume where a little bit about the content of the chapters is relayed to the reader. He handles that perfunctory task in the very brief Preface. Etulain’s essay is masterfully done and is bound to help the reader see Lincoln as a “virtual founding father of western politics” (p. 33). Lincoln was able to dole out patronage positions in the 11 western territories, three of which (Arizona, Idaho and Montana) were organized during his presidency, and four States, including Nevada which came into the Union in 1864. Etulain charts a course of Lincoln’s manifold engagements with the American West from the 1840s to the assassination in 1865. Whatever one thinks about Lincoln and the West as seen through this nexus, it is easy to agree with Etulain that “among Lincoln’s many designations, he deserves to be known as a Man of the West” (p. 58).

Each of the essays in the book discusses significant aspects of Lincoln’s relationship with the West. Only two of the chapters are newly written work (Michael S. Green on Lincoln’s views on western issues in the 1850s and Paul M. Zall on Lincoln’s friend and “junkyard dog” in the Pacific Northwest, Dr. Anson G. Henry). All of the other chapters have been reprinted so on the whole, if one is up to date on the scholarship regarding Lincoln and the West from the last two decades (note: two of the essays are much older and date back to the 1940s), this volume will be a disappointment. For everyone else, this book will be thought provoking. The contributions themselves deal with Lincoln’s views on Mexican War, Lincoln’s dealings with western territorial appointments, Lincoln’s differences with Mormons on equality, and Lincoln and the Indians.

The weakest chapter of the group is that of Earl S. Pomeroy on Lincoln, Nevada and the 13th Amendment. The piece is five pages long and is nothing more than a corrective note. It tells us that, beyond a story told in print in 1898 by journalist Charles Anderson Dana, there is no reason to believe that Lincoln wanted to tie the admission of the State of Nevada to the passage of the 13th Amendment.

In stark contrast, David A. Nichols’ chapter on “Lincoln and the Indians” will likely startle general interest readers and deserves an overview here. Lincoln historians of course know all about Lincoln’s Indian policies—the fact that they are almost altogether mum on the policies, notwithstanding. Nichols’ piece is a summation of his underappreciated book from 1978, Lincoln and the Indians. Nichols details Lincoln’s unfamiliarity with the Indian System, his initial abandonment of the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) which led to Confederate intervention and a refugee situation in Kansas, and his management of the aftermath of the Dakota War of 1862 in Minnesota. Lincoln handled Indian affairs patronage positions as if they were any other political plums he had at his disposal to issue. Some of his Indian agents had never even met an Indian. In the Indian Territory, Lincoln did nothing to combat the rumor spread by the Confederates that the Federal Government would take the Indians’ slaves. The Cherokee Nation, for instance, split in two. Some Cherokees followed Stand Watie in joining the Confederacy and others led by John Ross supported the Union. Still, there were others who fled the Indian Territory altogether for Kansas. The other issue was the uprising by a branch of the Sioux who were cheated out of their annuities in Minnesota. Three hundred and three Sioux had been convicted of rape and murder in trials “averaging only ten to fifteen minutes per case” (p.216). The Minnesotans wanted to purge their State of all the Indians within their borders whether they had taken part in the violence or not. After trying to delegate the authority over the death sentences, Lincoln reviewed each of the cases personally. He ultimately reduced the number of executions to 38—which is still the largest mass execution by the government in United States history. Lincoln agreed to have Indians in Minnesota and Kansas removed to reservations. This policy resulted in the deaths of far more Indians than the 38 Sioux men who were executed at Mankato, Minnesota in 1862. Indian suffering and death were also implicit in Lincoln’s three major western policies: the transcontinental railroad, the Homestead Act and mineral development. All three plans for developing the West took place on lands where Indians lived and it was the policy of the government through the creation of reservations to get the Indians out of the way of “progress.” The same Lincoln who was engaging in total war in the South “was obsessed with a goal and would use violence to resolve problems when Indians, or anyone else, forcibly got in the way of his highest priorities” (p. 227).

Mark Neely’s essay gives us a Lincoln who was not precluded from a chance of reelection to the House of Representatives by opposing the Mexican War, but instead a Lincoln who was tired of the office. Neely tries to demonstrate Lincoln’s criticism of President Polk could not have hurt his career because his constituents never heard about it. This lack of recognition in turn frustrated Lincoln who was then ready to return to his law practice in Illinois.

Michael Green gives us a glimpse of how the West formed Lincoln politically as he tried to determine its future. Green focuses on the crucial decade of the 1850s where Lincoln would develop and refine the antislavery arguments he would use in the Cooper Union Address—the speech Harold Holzer said made Lincoln President.

Vincent Tegeder, Deren Kellogg, Robert Johannsen and Paul Zall all deal with Lincoln and the territories. Handling requests for the territorial patronage was probably Lincoln’s most direct and time consuming engagement with the West during his presidency. Tegeder’s contribution is the shortest but most wide-ranging of the four. He attempts to show how the Radical Republicans tried to make the West solidly Republican territory and “used the territories as ‘pilot plants’ for the later reconstruction of the South” (p. 131). Kellogg portrays the New Mexico Territory and Lincoln’s use of the patronage there as being more akin to a border State than that of a western territory. Johannsen gives us a Lincoln who is unknowledgeable about the Far West and uses the patronage in the Washington Territory as a way to reward his friends, not as a way to give the far flung settlers what they wanted. In this sense, Lincoln did not differ from his predecessors. Zall’s chapter deals with one of those friends whom Lincoln rewarded through the Pacific Coast patronage: Dr. Anson G. Henry. Henry was a medical doctor who had known Lincoln for many years and prescribed the narcotics Lincoln took for his “hypo.” The doctor was also a thoroughly political man and acted as Lincoln’s eyes and ears in the Pacific Northwest. Lincoln had wished to appoint Henry to the governorship of Washington Territory for his years of service and loyalty. Andrew Johnson honored this commitment after Lincoln’s assassination but the Brother Jonathan sank (taking Henry down with it) off the coast of northern California before Henry could be confirmed by the Senate and take office.

Larry Schweikart’s chapter about Lincoln’s engagement with the Mormons is the least straightforward of the bunch as he is influenced by but not wholly in agreement with the West Coast Straussian Harry Jaffa. Like Jaffa, too much of what Schweikart writes is tangential to Lincoln. For example, he discusses the extent to which Lincoln was an Aristotelian—no major Aristotelian philosopher, let alone Aristotle himself, is mentioned in Lincoln’s Collected Works. By contrast, Euclid, the Greek thinker Lincoln was most familiar with, appears only six times. Schweikart’s emphasis is on the distance between and Lincoln’s views and that of the LDS Church on equality and slavery. Lincoln’s strategy was to cut off Mormon antipathy by leaving them (and Brigham Young in particular) alone. This move greatly improved relations between the Utah Territory and the Federal Government. Lincoln’s policy extended as far as not enforcing the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act of 1862 in Utah.

Lincoln Looks West is an important contribution to Lincoln scholarship and deserves a wide readership. The essays in it will aid even general readers in understanding how important the Trans-Mississippi West was to Lincoln and how he tried to shape the West during his presidency. Lincoln’s obvious connections to the West have been not been given enough attention over the years which necessitated the creation of this book. Lincoln Looks West does us a great service in moving us toward a more complete image of Lincoln.

Contributor List and Essay Titles

Richard W. Etulain “Abraham Lincoln and the Trans-Mississippi American West: An Introductory Overview”

Mark E. Neely, Jr. “Lincoln and the Mexican War: Argument by Analogy”

Michael S. Green “Lincoln, the West, and the Antislavery Politics of the 1850s”

Earl S. Pomeroy “Lincoln, the Thirteenth Amendment, and the Admission of Nevada”

Vincent G. Tegeder “Lincoln and the Territorial Patronage: The Ascendancy of the Radicals in the West”

Deren Earl Kellogg “Lincoln’s New Mexico Patronage: Saving the Far Southwest for the Union”

Robert W. Johannsen “The Tribe of Abraham: Lincoln and the Washington Territory”

Paul M. Zall “Dr. Anson G. Henry (1804-1865): Lincoln’s Junkyard Dog”

Larry Schweikart “The Mormon Connection: Lincoln, the Saints, and the Crisis of Equality”

David A. Nichols “Lincoln and the Indians”

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