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Gore Vidal on Lincoln

June 08, 1988

Gore Vidal displays his talent for distortion and deception in "Passing the Word of History and Hagiography" (Opinion, March 24).

In the Journal of Southern History (February, 1986) I pointed out a number of historical errors in Vidal's "Lincoln: A Novel." He now denounces me but evades responding to any of my criticisms except one. In my review of his novel I said there was "no convincing evidence" for his assertion that as late as April, 1865, Lincoln was still planning to colonize freed slaves outside the United States. He replies with the ad hominem argument that I am a "professional saint-maker" and that "going on here is a deliberate revision" to "serve the saint in the '80s" when "no national saint can be suspected of racism." He even claims that I am his authority for the very statement in question!

To try to make this point, he takes a passage out of context from my book "The Lincoln Nobody Knows" (1958). That book did not pretend to be a biography of Lincoln but, as the foreword made clear, was intended to "set forth several enigmas of his life, several issues which historians and biographers still dispute." One of the disputed issues was (and is) the development of Lincoln's attitudes and policies with respect to blacks.

In the passage that Vidal quotes from my book, I said that Lincoln "seemed" to cling to the idea of colonizing freedmen. The quotation ends: "As late as March of 1865, if the somewhat dubious Ben Butler is to be believed, Lincoln summoned him to the White House to discuss the feasibility of removing the colored population of the United States."

Now, I did not there state it as my opinion or as an agreed-upon fact that Lincoln remained a colonizationist to the end of his life. I said this would appear to be so "if the rather dubious Ben Butler is to be believed"--a big "if."

A few pages later, however, I stated as my opinion that "Lincoln does deserve his reputation as emancipator," and I concluded that same chapter with this as my personal judgment: "Lincoln, as a symbol of man's ability to outgrow his prejudices, still serves the cause of human freedom. He will go on serving as long as boundaries of color hem in and hinder any man, any woman, any child."

During a long career I have, in the process of learning, changed my mind on a number of historical questions. But Vidal, who falsified the evidence and misled his readers in his Lincoln novel, does so once again when he accuses me of "deliberate revision."


South Natick, Mass.

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