Hostname: page-component-5d59c44645-k78ct Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-02-29T11:45:48.197Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

Professor Neely Goes Fishing

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 October 2011


As “Lincoln and the Politics of Union” is the only thing that Michael Holt has ever written with which Mark Neely entirely disagrees, I can understand his impatience with the arguments of The Politics Presidents Make. Each of us has a fish of this sort waiting to be fried, and the opportunity afforded by my reference to Holt's essay must have been hard to resist. At least Neely took enough care in seizing this opportunity to acknowledge his “reductionist rendering” of my thesis.

Copyright © The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA. 1996

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)



1. Holt, Michael, The Political Crisis of the 1850s (New York, 1978).Google Scholar

2. Holt, Michael, “Lincoln and the Politics of Union,” in Abraham Lincoln and the American Political Tradition, Thomas, John L., ed. (Amherst, 1986), 137 n. 3.Google Scholar

3. Donald, David, The Politics of Reconstruction 1863–1867 (Baton Rouge, 1965). All quoted passages are from pages 817Google Scholar.

4. Ibid., 15.

5. Ibid., 16.

6. Yankee Leviathan, the book by Richard Bensel that Neely refers to, provides a fresh analysis of the profound organizational and ideological changes that actually took place in the Republican party in the course of resolving the structural dilemmas of Reconstruction. This reference points to an interesting twist in the historiographic tangle into which Professor Neely's remarks draw us, for it turns out that Bensel and Holt found inspiration in a common source. Both began with serious reservations about Eric McKitrick's well-known “post-Revisionist” thesis that during the war the North gained an important political advantage over the South through the continuation of intense party competition in the region. In different ways Bensel and Holt both question the idea that an entrenched twoparty system in the North was an unmitigated plus for Lincoln. Again the question arises: Is Holt an outlier in a post-Revisionist consensus or a participant in an ongoing post-Revisionist debate? See McKitrick, Eric, “Party Politics in the Union and Confederate War Efforts,” in The American Party Systems: Stages of Development, ed. Chambers, William Nisbet and Burnham, Walter Dean (New York, 1967), 117–52Google Scholar; Holt, “Politics of Union,” 111–12; Bensel, Richard, “Southern Leviathan: The Development of Central State Authority in the Confederate States,” in Studies in American Political Development, vol. 2 (New Haven, 1987), 126–33.Google Scholar

7. Neely, Mark, The Last Best Hope on Earth: Lincoln and the Promise of America (Cambridge, Mass., 1993), 174.Google Scholar

8. Oates, Stephen, With Malice Toward None: The Life of Abraham Lincoln (New York, 1977), 433–34.Google Scholar

9. Belz, Herman, Reconstructing the Union: Theory and Policy During the Civil War (Ithaca, 1969), 234.Google Scholar

10. Cox, La Wanda, Lincoln and Black Freedom: A Study in Presidential Leadership (Urbana, 1985)Google Scholar. This work was at least as influential in my thinking about Lincoln as Holt's. Cox's analysis goes as far as any I know in dissolving differences between Lincoln and “the Radicals” and turning the conflicts over Reconstruction policy into misunderstandings that might well have found a less explosive resolution had Lincoln lived out his second term. She succeeds brilliantly in dispelling doubts about the trajectory of Lincoln's ideological commitments and in locating the policies later taken by his Union-party running mate on an entirely different track. At the same time, Cox holds the door open to the larger structural concerns raised by Donald and Holt. Hers is a rigorous exposé of the strategic, organizational, and institutional “constraints” that prompted Lincoln to “dissemble” in his public posture on the great issues of his day. She shows how his determination to “keep his options open” sowed “mistrust and confusion” into his relations with his fellow partisans (7).

11. Skowronek, Stephen, The Politics Presidents Make: Leadership from John Adams to George Bush (Cambridge, Mass., 1993), 19.Google Scholar

12. Ibid., 209–15. As it turns out, these linkages form the central theme of the wonderful new book by Philip Paludan, cited by Professor Neely. I regret I did not have the benefit of reading The Presidency of Abraham Lincoln until after my book had appeared.

13. The book contrasts these reconstructive leaders with two other types: the orthodox innovators (presidents who have come to power affiliated with a robust set of established commitments and promised forthrightly to continue along the established course); and the late-regime affiliates (presidents who have come to power promising to rehabilitate a faltering set of commitments). By most effectively joining order-shattering and order-affirming elements in their basic leadership stance, reconstructive leaders tend to build new parties and establish new standards of legitimate national government. Orthodox-innovators, in contrast, have a more exclusively affirmative, almost purely constructive, leadership posture. Lacking any authority to repudiate their inheritance, they have more difficulty accounting for the disruptive effects of the changes they actually bring about, and they tend to fracture the establishment they came to power to celebrate. Late-regime affiliates can neither forth-rightly repudiate nor forthrightly affirm their inheritance, and their efforts at rehabilitating the old order tend to send it deeper into a crisis of legitimacy.

In rounding out this analysis, the book identifies a fourth group of leaders, a preemptive type who heads the opposition to a relatively resilient set of commitments. An elaboration of the politics that these presidents make was reserved for another volume. Neely mentions two of the most interesting cases, Wilson and Nixon, and I look forward to following up on his call for more attention to them.