The Lincolnian Myth

What is a myth? To many Americans, a myth denotes a lie, a fairy tale that cannot be proven.

Take for example the “Lost Cause” myth and how establishment historians use the term myth as a pejorative.

But myths are the foundation of much of our historical consciousness, and a recent piece in The Smithsonian Magazine wants Americans to subscribe to a certain myth about American history, the Lincolnian myth.

The author of the piece, Colin Woodard, understands that American nationalism is the most pervasive myth in its history. He wrote a decent book on the topic a few years ago (if you ignore the last portion of the book).

But instead of looking for a decentralist solution to an ongoing problem, Woodard doubles down on the fantasy that if Americans could just find common ground in a civic religion based on Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, the United States would be a great place.

We need more nationalism, not less.

His muse? George Bancroft and his multi volume History of the United States.

Bancroft’s Puritanism melded with Prussian nationalism and created a Hegelian monster upon his return to America in the early nineteenth century.

His newly discovered American nationalism helped build on Hamilton’s national greatness conservatism and in the process helped create a kind of state worship unrecognizable to the American founding generation.

After all, to a man, they all believed that the States could be independent, and the Constitution as ratified in 1788 did not create a national government. That much was made clear throughout the ratification debates.

Yet to Woodard, the South sabotaged the system that Bancroft wistfully sought through his romantic dive into American history.

They did not buy the proposition nation Lincoln and Bancroft sold through their myth-making.

This is where leftists like Woodard and neoconservative historians like Allen Guelzo and Larn Arn find common ground. If it wasn’t for that pesky South, American would have been a shining city upon a hill based on the idea that all men are created equal.

Most Americans at the time, however, fully recognized regional differences based on longstanding cultural norms. Political culture cannot be created. American imperialists have been trying that for years around the globe, as did the British, the French, the Spanish, and a host of other imperial powers.

Political culture is organic, a reflection of the people and the place, which is why American nationalism feels so forced. Woodard knows it, he just doesn’t want to say it.

And while Woodard doesn’t really understand the South–he is from Maine–he recognizes regional differences. This is why thinking locally and acting locally is more important than any Lincolnian dogma.

Lincolnian nationalism is the most pervasive (and fraudulent) myth in American history, and if we followed Woodard’s lead, we would see more, not less, anger and violence.

Americans are a provincial sort, a lasting impact of our longstanding political culture, particularly in the South and West. Being governed by a corrupt political class thousands of miles away didn’t suit the founding generation, and it doesn’t suit most Americans today.

It never should.

I talk about Woodard’s piece in Episode 409 of The Brion McClanahan Show.

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