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Loathing Lincoln

An American Tradition from the Civil War to the Present

Winner of the The Jules and Frances Landry Award

While most Americans count Abraham Lincoln among the most beloved and admired former presidents, a dedicated minority has long viewed him as not only the worst president in the country’s history but also as a criminal who defied the Constitution and advanced federal power and the idea of racial equality. In Loathing Lincoln, historian John McKee Barr surveys the broad array of criticisms about Abraham Lincoln that emerged when he stepped onto the national stage, expanded during the Civil War, and continued to evolve after his death and into the present. 
 
The first panoramic study of Lincoln’s critics, Barr’s work offers both an analysis of Lincoln in historical memory and an examination of how his critics—on both the right and left—have frequently reflected the anxiety and discontent Americans felt about their lives. From northern abolitionists upset about the slow pace of emancipation, to Confederates who condemned him as a “black Republican” and despot, to Americans who blamed him for the civil rights movement, to, more recently, libertarians who accuse him of trampling the Constitution and creating the modern welfare state, Lincoln’s detractors have always been a vocal minority, but not one without influence.
 
By meticulously exploring the most significant arguments against Lincoln, Barr traces the rise of the president’s most strident critics and links most of them to a distinct right-wing or neo-Confederate political agenda. According to Barr, their hostility to a more egalitarian America and opposition to any use of federal power to bring about such goals led them to portray Lincoln as an imperialistic president who grossly overstepped the bounds of his office. In contrast, liberals criticized him for not doing enough to bring about emancipation or ensure lasting racial equality. Lincoln’s conservative and libertarian foes, however, constituted the vast majority of his detractors. More recently, Lincoln’s most vociferous critics have adamantly opposed Barack Obama and his policies, many of them referencing Lincoln in their attacks on the current president. In examining these individuals and groups, Barr’s study provides a deeper understanding of American political life and the nation itself. 

John McKee Barr is a professor of history at Lone Star College–Kingwood.

Praise for Loathing Lincoln

“[An] exhaustive examination of this historical phenomenon. . . . Barr is a careful scholar who never overreaches or mocks his evidence, however loopy. . . . He has provided the definitive clearinghouse of anti-Lincoln lore. For that reason alone this book becomes essential to any Lincoln library.”—Journal of American History

“Barr’s thoughtful reassessment of the anti-Lincoln tradition is thorough, tenacious, and timely. Above all, Loathing Lincoln opens a critical window into an increasingly potent and popular dimension of the Lincoln image that Civil War scholars have for too long preferred to keep shuttered.”—Journal of the Civil War Era

“Barr is a conscientious writer, demonstrating a firm command of the large and sometimes contentious literature he studies. He quite commendably avoids infusing his work with an overly polemic or partisan tone. Loathing Lincoln is a calm work, restrained in its tone and careful in its conclusions—qualities that give this book great value, not only to Lincoln scholars but American historians generally.”—Civil War History

“The author is refreshingly bold in his assessments of the motivations of the Lincoln loathers, and he turns some beautiful and humorous descriptive phrases. . . . This is a well-written and original book that helps round out any discussion of the legacy of Abraham Lincoln.”—American Historical Review

“John McKee Barr has constructed a detailed, deeply analytical, and persuasively argued narrative that connects these instances of Lincoln loathing. . . . Barr’s work fairly summarizes the views of the Lincoln loathers and also devastates them.”—Christian Century

“Barr describes this loathing with exhaustive research, meticulous organization, and elegant presentation. . . . [An] excellent analysis of the perceptions of Lincoln covering a span of a century and a half. Historians coming across Lincoln criticism can look to this book to find out how detractors rose up, and why. In Lincoln scholarship, Barr’s book is a signal contribution.”—Journalism History

“Barr’s work is a large-scale intellectual history. . . . Loathing Lincoln is a welcome addition to the growing shelf of books on Abraham Lincoln’s memory in American culture.”—Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

“The struggle over Lincoln’s legacy has therefore never been just about the past, but also about America’s future. John McKee Barr’s Loathing Lincoln reminds us just how uncertain that future is. For those concerned to preserve Lincoln’s vision of a more just, fair, and inclusive America, the struggle to secure his legacy is far from over.”—Claremont Review of Books

“Along with George Washington, Abraham Lincoln has stood foremost in the minds and hearts of most of his countrymen during the century and a half since Lincoln's death.  But as John McKee Barr demonstrates in this revealing study, an undercurrent of anti-Lincoln loathing has always existed, serving political agendas from post-Civil War Confederates to modern neo-Confederates and libertarians who use Lincoln as a whipping boy to promote their own causes. This is an important contribution to the history and memory of the Civil War.”—James M. McPherson, author of Battle Cry of Freedom

“Paradoxically, America’s most revered president has also been its most reviled. As John McKee Barr shows in this meticulous, comprehensive survey of the anti-Lincoln tradition, detractors of the Rail-splitter have been a variegated crowd of strange bedfellows: white supremacists, Black Panthers, libertarians, neo-Confederates, agrarian romantics, Southern chauvinists, states’ rights advocates, and anti-imperialists, among others. Barr describes and analyzes their arguments, demonstrating that many of Lincoln’s critics have overlooked (or denied) the Confederacy’s central aim: to preserve (as Barr puts it) ‘the right to own, exploit, and rape African Americans and their descendants—forever.’”—Michael Burlingame, Chancellor Naomi B. Lynn Distinguished Chair in Lincoln Studies, University of Illinois–Springfield

“Americans and the world accept, so it is alleged, that Abraham Lincoln is the best president in U. S. history and he is uniformly first on every presidential poll. But, as John Barr amply demonstrates, appreciation for Lincoln is not universal. In this superb volume, the author cites almost every instance of the hatred by many, and the reasons therefore, for the 16th president. Loathing Lincoln is a must read for anyone interested in Lincoln or our democracy.”—Frank J. Williams is founding Chair of The Lincoln Forum and retired Chief Justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court

“In Loathing Lincoln, John Barr focuses on the major themes and works in what might be termed the 'anti-Lincoln tradition.' The result is a fascinating excursion through the American political, intellectual, and cultural landscape. With care, balance, and often penetrating insight, the author explores an impressive array of critics from across the political spectrum. The result is a book filled with wonderful examples of anti-Lincoln argument and invective. This is a gem of scholarship that sheds great light on both the past and the present."—George C. Rable, Charles Summersell Chair in Southern History, University of Alabama

"In this impressive and deeply researched book, John Barr has explored the surprisingly long and vibrant history of Lincoln-hating in American life.  Most importantly, he shows how deeply entwined the anti-Lincoln tradition has been with some of the central threads of American political culture,  including a persistent hostility to federal authority; anti-imperialism; a strain of anti-modernism; and a firm belief in white supremacy."—Nina Silber, Boston University

Extras for Loathing Lincoln

Learn more about the book and the author at the Loathing Lincoln website!

VIDEO: John Barr discusses his book on C-SPAN's BookTV.

AUDIO: John McKee Barr talks to KPFT's Politics Done Right about a century and a half of Lincoln-haters.

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