Clashing Generalizations

Speaking to a small audience of peers and fellow historians, Professor Joseph J. Ellis was taped delivering a presentation at the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston. It was carried on C-SPAN 2's 'Book TV' a short while ago. Professor Ellis, on the faculty of Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts, received the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for his book, Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation.

Ellis was promoting his most recent book, His Excellency: George Washington. Professor Ellis enlivened his brief discussion of Washington with delightful anecdotes and brilliant philosophical insights regarding the man both he and I believe to be America's greatest patriotic icon.

But having just finished Professor Thomas J. DiLorenzo's The Real Lincoln, I was hoping that somehow, and in some way, his interesting talk would wend its way to a discussion of Lincoln. After all, both Washington and Lincoln were indeed Federalists, having as their primary political objective a strong central government.

A consideration of Lincoln in terms of a comparison to Washington was brought to the fore by the question and answer period that followed Ellis' talk. A member of the audience asked Ellis to opine as to who was the greatest American president, and Ellis clearly indicated that the choice could only be between either Washington or Lincoln. Ellis chose Washington.

It is doubtful that DiLorenzo and Ellis are totally right or wrong in all instances when deducing their respective subjects' political motives. But clearly, there is a world of difference in the political worldview of the authors. Ellis can be described as a strong centrist and a firm believer in big government, a philosophy usually termed 'left-liberal.' DiLorenzo, on the other hand, is best described as a free market/free trade proponent of very small government, or an outright anarchist. Either way, once both authors' basic political biases are known, a truer sense of their subject's mindsets and motives can be more meaningfully reflected upon.

The most poignant observation offered by Ellis as regards the Founders was that 'bringing Thomas Jefferson and George Washington forward in time to 1861, Jefferson would have joined the Confederacy while Washington would have signed up on the side of the Army of the Potomac. Ellis and DiLorenzo would both agree with this assessment. Ellis denigrates Jefferson's concept of a loose confederation of individual sovereign states maximizing individual liberties as 'Jeffersonian utopia.' DiLorenzo, in his treatment of Lincoln, has noted therein the 'Lincoln myth,' created and protected by legions of historians, authors and academicians.

Ellis offered that while Jefferson and Adams were formally educated and learned members of the elite upper echelons of American society at the time, Washington carried himself with a far greater reserve, reinforcing his immediate aristocratic ascension to great wealth by having married Martha. Ellis briefly sketched out Washington's rise in America's revolutionary ranks via his practical, hands-on military experiences. He describes the Continental Army as a joke and only an insurgency at best, and pointed out that the British routed Washington at the outset of armed conflict on Long Island and could have totally destroyed the remaining 3,000 Continentals if only British General Howe had pursued them into New Jersey. He offers that while Washington was a brilliant military strategist, he was unable to effectively command multiple troop deployments over a wide area, which is requisite for a great commander.

Ellis then offers a telling and refreshing assessment of those 'insurgents' who fight seemingly futile battles to rid their nation of foreign invaders: 'The British needed to win the war ' Washington and his insurgents only needed not to lose it.' Isn't that the situation in Iraq today? Insurgents and revolutionaries, when throwing off the yoke of foreign invasion, need only to avoid total capture and defeat and simply outlast the invaders.

As DiLorenzo details the horrors of the Lincoln administration and the fallacious moniker of 'Honest Abe,' Ellis similarly discounts the 'cherry tree' incident regarding Washington. But where Ellis asserts the left-liberal tack, that of ascribing all humans as inherently evil and needing coercion by government to do the right thing in society, DiLorenzo chooses the more humanistic approach in offering that people are basically good, and their goodness can be magnified all the more via little or no government.

As Ellis decries humanity as inherently bad, he ignores historical fact, which confirms government, as always, displays a much greater evil than individuals and criminals, even mass murderers. And considering the damage Lincoln and his Republicans had done to our former freedom-ensuring republic, it is our own government during the War Between the States that has killed more of our own citizens and has been more destructive to our nation than any foreign dictator and his large and powerful military, including Hitler, Tojo, Mussolini and Stalin.

We went after dictator Saddam, but now we are torturing and killing his people with a much greater bloody efficiency than was ever the case during his reign of terror. And DiLorenzo demonstrates and elaborates upon Lincoln's war on unarmed, non-combatant American citizens, which documents the Union Army's Lincoln-sanctioned war on civilians, a brutal policy which showed no mercy to old men, women and children of the ravaged South.

This classic clash between generalizations is now clear once again before our very eyes and currently played out by the Bush administration. Lincoln dominated the press, suspended habeas corpus, arrested whom he pleased (thereby silencing his opponents), and employed wrongful torture, imprisonment and murder. How can anyone, especially a learned professor of history such as Ellis, be so intellectually insensitive to documented fact?

The evidence is there, yet 'professional historians' refuse to accept it because it is at odds with their preconceived notions. Said another way, they lie to themselves! The state has always perpetrated greater horror and evil than even the most dangerous of serial killers, as Laurence Vance has pointed out.

And Thomas DiLorenzo takes deliberate care to expose such 'historians' as being deliberately misleading and overly forgiving of such tyrants as Lincoln. As historians such as Ellis learn to justify lying to themselves, a brief examination of the man himself discloses that he also lied to his students, embellishing his non-existent 'military career' in Vietnam. Professor Ellis was disgraced for this fib by Mount Holyoke and suspended from teaching for one year.

Realizing that Ellis was exposed as a liar, and has himself admitted to being such, it thereby puts a tremendous burden on his readers in accepting any historical assessment he offers. But understanding his political generalizations and proclivities, I find him to be an excellent speaker and an excellent writer and researcher as well. By knowing the biases of talk radio hosts, those in the so-called mainstream media, or the biases of authors and historians, a perspective presents itself that is always helpful to the consumer of such bias-filtered history. And this perspective is vital if one really desires a shot at the truth.

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Ted Lang's picture
Columns on STR: 6

Ted Lang is a political analyst and freelance writer.