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The Right Lincoln, The Wrong Lincoln

Jonathan Schwartz rebuts another rightwingnut’s sloppy acccusation with a screenshot.

This is a perfect example of where the Internet can get at the truth. This rightwinger does possess a little knowledge and perhaps the cited book did contain a spurious quote , but the screenshot itself is a perfect rebuttal of the factual assertion that Gore’s book does not contain any footnotes (it contains 20 pages!) . Perhaps the cited Lincoln Encylopedia had it wrong; who knows? But the rightwinger never apparently needs to explain the discrepencies: why was the 1950 book citation inadequate? How does it gibe with his alleged explanation for where the fake quote came from?

If this man were a blogger, then a few dozen comments from historians would probably establish what the commentator really meant or whether his analysis was correct. The accusation could have turned into a dialogue, and humanity would become the better for it. Instead, what we have is an Op-ed piece where the communication is only one way.

I am not qualified to assess the historical analysis here. But I am qualified to comment on the unfairness of the rhetoric:

  • “not using footnotes”wrong. Gore’s book has 20 pages worth of notes!
  • “a sprawling, untidy blast of indignation, and annotating it with footnotes would be like trying to slip rubber bands around a puddle of quicksilver.” This is not reasoned analysis; this is polemic. And he simply has not made his case–especially not in the first paragraph.
  • “The quote is a favorite of liberal bloggers, which is probably how Gore came across it. And as a description of how many on the left see the country seven years into their Bush nightmare, it’s pretty much perfect.” Why does the fact that it’s the favorite of liberal bloggers have anything to do with the alleged accuracy of the statement itself? Is he objecting to the statement because it is not Lincoln or because it contains the wrong political ideas?
  • Words such as “enthroned” and “aggregated” are a bit too fancy for his plain, unclotted prose, and the phrase “money power” suggests a conspiratorial turn of mind that would have been foreign to him. Indeed, these words don’t show up anywhere else in “The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln” (which, thanks to Gore’s Internet, are now searchable at http://quod.lib.umich.edu/l/lincoln/). For this statement to be meaningful, Ferguson would have to demonstrate that the website did in fact contain the complete collected works of Abe Lincoln. Ferguson did not do this. (Update: Anonymous Liberal asserts that the same Lincoln database did contain several uses of the word aggregate).

Ferguson could have simply begun the essay by saying that several books about Lincoln contain a spurious quote by Lincoln and Gore made the mistake of citing one of them. Then, he could have presented his evidence and arguments for why the quote was inaccurate. Instead, he implied that Gore had deliberately presented a false quote to further his political agenda. But is the veracity of this quote common knowledge? How many educated people think it is a legitimate quote? How many books still use this quote? Did the 1950 book suggest that the quote may be spurious?

The way he used this alleged controversy was to undermine the credibility of Al Gore’s book itself. Ferguson began with an accusation and then really failed to present any evidence that an outsider like myself can verify and analyze. But the writer has undermined his own credibility in the first paragraph by using polemical rhetoric. If he had removed that sentence, I probably would have given his argument a fair shake. But when he includes that incendiary sentence in the first paragraph, the writer asserts his right to make derogatory comments before he has made the case for his negative assessment. Furthermore,even if Ferguson’s argument about the spurious quote were 100% correct, he still has not demonstrated that Gore’s book is in fact a “sprawling untidy mass of indignation.” Instead, he has simply called into question his own reliability as an analyst.

Finally, we have to remember that Gore was not writing a book about the Lincoln Administration or even about American history (except in the broadest sense). He was making a political argument about current society and its ills (with a touch of historical perspective).

Does the fact that Gore cited a spurious quote from a history book undermine Gore’s basic arguments? Gore has frequently contended that those who manipulate political opinions do so by using “distractor arguments” against opponents (i.e., points that are of tangential importance when compared to larger issues). Ferguson needs to persuade me that his “correction” is not anything more than a distraction issue . So far, Ferguson has failed to do this.

Later thoughts: A flurry of blog responses has indicated that I am not the only one riled. Right now, though, nobody except professional historians would have a sense about how to weigh the validity of the evidence. However, I expect that by week’s end an answer (or at least a credible analysis) would have emerged on the net. Stay tuned. I’ll google in a week and analyze the fallout.

Update #2: Wow, it looks like Snopes already covered this questionable Lincoln quote 5 years ago. My general point still stands about the way he presented this argument. Perhaps he just didn’t read to the end of the book (and thus missed the end notes?) A blogger can link to the Snopes page; a op-ed writer cannot.

Update #3: Jonathan Schwartz, while conceding the quote’s fabrication, has some interesting commentary on Lincoln’s rhetoric in general.

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