In historical terms, this may be correct. We don’t mind the ends precisely because the acts themselves were so mighty — and so moral. But we are able to make this judgment because of our ability, as it were, to look up the answers in the back of the book.
We minimize Franklin Roosevelt’s role in the Japanese internment, because of our reverence for the New Deal and the victory in World War II. We don’t tear down the Jefferson Memorial because of the third president’s dalliance with a slave (bearing in mind that due to the power relation, we could use a stronger word than “dalliance”).
We are less forgiving of politicians we see before us, especially in this era of all-politics-all-the-time. Daily we seek out cable outlets and bloggers who will catalog every flaw of those with whom we disagree — a process, as the economist Arnold Kling has noted, of closing our minds further to any disagreement. Naturally today’s leaders seem smaller than the supposed giants of the past.
Ian Watt pointed out half a century ago in The Rise of the Novel that before the advent of modern literature, fictional characters tended to have names that made them identifiable types — because, to the audience, seeing the type was more important than seeing the individual. To see the individual was to partake of complexity; to see the type was to partake of simplicity.
The irony of our day is that we style ourselves modern, and yet we want people to be simple again. Depending on political preference, Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or liberals, are simply bad guys — no individuality, simply types. The complexity that sustained U.S. politics through most of the 20th century is dead: In our politics, at least, we have rejected modernity, in search of more primitive models. And it is our growing primitivism that causes us to revere the great figures of the past.
But the end of the book that is the current era has not been written — and won’t be written, in fact, until almost everyone now living is long dead. We should try to remember what Lincoln knew, for he rarely cited other politicians as authority. Rather than invoking the greats of the past, Lincoln preferred to give reasons for his actions, and to leave judgment to the American people.
I am an enormous fan of Lincoln, and read everything I can get my hands on. Like so many writers before me, I have even yielded to the temptation to write a novel about him. But we mustn’t pretend that he possessed some secret magic — as politician or as vampire hunter — that we lack. We won’t solve today’s problems by imagining a Golden Age in which those elected to lead the nation were tougher and wiser than they are today. Invoking the great names of history is more often a way of avoiding our challenges, not resolving them.
Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist and a professor of law at Yale University.