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Uncle Oedipus and Ante Bellum

Patricide in the House Divided: A Psychological Interpretation of Lincoln and His Age

by George B. Forgie
Norton, 308 pp., $14.95

In his brilliant analysis of Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, Carl E. Schorske uncovered a patricidal and deeply anti-political impulse at the very origin of psychoanalysis. The death of a father, Freud said, is “the most important event, the most poignant loss, of a man’s life.” As Schorske probed the implications of this statement as revealed in Freud’s dreams, especially the “Revolutionary Dream” of 1898 (two years after the death of Freud’s father), he discovered that Freud had subtly renounced earlier fantasies of political defiance and revolution. Of the dream that Freud termed “revolutionary,” Schorske wrote, “patricide replaces politics,” and the resolution of the dream—pointing to his pursuit of fame as a scientific investigator—connects Freud’s “victory over his father with his victory over politics.” For the scenario of the dream moves “from political encounter, through flight into academia, to the conquest of the father who has replaced Count Thun [the reactionary minister president of Habsburg Austria]. Patricide replaces regicide; psychoanalysis overcomes history. Politics is neutralized by a counterpolitical psychology.”

Schorske goes on to argue that Freud sublimated Ferdinand Lassalle’s “latent forces of national revolution,” symbolized by the demonic fury, Allecto, into a universal sexual instinct; and that by accentuating the sexual aspects of the Oedipus myth, Freud diverted attention from Oedipus’ kingship and regal obligation to restore public order:

By resolving politics into personal psychological categories, [Freud] restores personal order, but not public order…. By reducing his own political past and present to an epiphenomenal status in relation to the primal conflict between father and son, Freud gave his fellow liberals an ahistorical theory of man that could make bearable a political world spun out of orbit and beyond control.1

George B. Forgie’s Patricide in the House Divided takes precisely the opposite approach from that of Schorske (whom Forgie acknowledges as an adviser but never cites). One of the most ambitious, ingenious, and sophisticated works of psychohistory yet to appear (it won the Allan Nevins Award of the Society of American Historians), Patricide is much indebted to Freud’s Totem and Taboo but also draws on some of the best recent psychoanalytic literature. To put it briefly, Forgie holds that Lincoln’s generation, having internalized a reverence for the founding fathers as inimitable exemplars of heroic virtue, could neither recognize nor resolve their own needs to destroy their parents. Instead of retreating from politics and projecting political symbols into the private sphere, as Freud apparently did, they affirmed the primacy of politics while projecting the symbols of family and domestic life into the public world:

…as society preempted functions that once were monopolized by the family, it looked for ways to model its performance on that of an idealized family, and described what it was doing in sentimental language. The effect was arguably to make society seem like the family writ large, embracing the whole country.

For Forgie, this psychological process shaped “not only the mentality of mid-century leadership but also the structure and style of the long struggle to preserve the Union and hence the origins of the American Civil War.” Indeed, Forgie argues that the sentimental flight from symbolic patricide prevented antebellum Americans from achieving cultural and political autonomy, and ultimately unleashed fratricidal impulses which a leader like Lincoln could exploit but not control. Although this approach enables Forgie to illuminate hidden levels of meaning in the debates that led to the Civil War, it also forces him to reduce public issues to an “epiphenomenal status in relation to the primal conflict between father and son.”

Forgie’s most forceful theme concerns the antebellum Americans’ own Revolutionary Dream—their virtual obsession with the “newness” of the experimental Republic, with the heroic sacrifices of the nation’s founders, and with the need for renewing “the bonds of political brotherhood” by perpetuating a reverence for the fathers: “begin with the infant in the cradle,” Rufus Choate exhorted his countrymen; “let the first lisps be ‘Washington.’ ” Anyone familiar with the documents of the period will recognize the pervasiveness of this filiopiety even among Americans who were in no sense “sons” or “daughters” of the Revolutionary heroes. Forgie convincingly argues that the psychological boundaries defining this “post-heroic generation” were wider than the boundaries of any chronological generation. They included, for example, both Henry Clay, who was born in 1777; and Stephen A. Douglas, who was born in 1813. Both were born “too late to experience the Revolution, but in time to be raised by the generation that had fought it,” or at least in time to acquire a deferential sense of “having been born with the Republic” and having inherited a “fortune of liberty” and the “duty to preserve it for those who come after us.”

Forgie might well have added that in 1820 the median age of the American population was 16.7 (compared to 28.1 in 1970), and that one-third of the white population was under the age of ten. Since in 1820 barely 12 percent of the white population would have been older than six at the time of the Battle of Yorktown, one can understand the impression made by President Monroe when he appeared in his old Revolutionary War uniform; the shock created by the almost simultaneous deaths of Jefferson and Adams on July 4, 1826; and the desperate sense, in the 1820s, that only a concerted effort at patriotic indoctrination could preserve the immortality of America’s immortals.

But preservation is a notably unheroic assignment, especially for youth imbued with classical ideals of winning immortal fame for themselves. Forgie slights this classical heritage—which was as important in the Europe of Wellington, Wilberforce, Palmerston, Mazzini, and Louis Napoleon as in the America of Clay, Lincoln, and Douglas. But he brilliantly elucidates the problem of ambition for America’s “post-heroic generation.” Unlike their European counterparts, these “good sons” had been taught to venerate a selfless achievement of their fathers that could never again be equaled. While other historians have drawn attention to this “everlasting presence” of the Revolutionary generation, Forgie is the first to show that the rituals of apotheosis carried a double message: “on the one hand, the fathers are gone, and a new generation has succeeded them to power; on the other, the fathers are immortal and they will always rule.”

Forgie’s thesis challenges an entire tradition of American historiography, derived in part from Tocqueville and Frederick Jackson Turner, which finds the key to early American experience in the freedom from traditional authority, social structure, and prescribed identities along European lines. For according to Forgie, the ubiquitous belief in America’s boundlessness, fresh beginnings, and self-made men simply reinforced the illusion that the past was dead and that there was nothing to rebel against. Our motto, novus ordo seclorum (“a new order of the ages”) has never been far removed, as Forgie might have added, from an image of the deified Washington. Our confident assertion that our history has been free from limits has always revealed “an at least half-acknowledged sense that these limits were still quite strong.” As Forgie shrewdly points out, it was precisely this continuing dependence and sense of inferiority that had to be disguised: “The strange calculus of patricidal desires did not require that they remain repressed—only that they be understood and dealt with as anything but what they really were.”

Unfortunately, serious difficulties arise with Forgie’s second major theme, “sentimental regression”—by which he means more than the persistent exploitation of nostalgic impulses in antebellum society. 2 His use of this concept blurs and even equates two ideas: an emotional withdrawal from the responsibilities of mature public life, a narcissistic regression to the bosom of the mother; and the projection into the public sphere of family models, metaphors, and sentiments. No one can doubt that a blurring of domestic and political imagery was a significant characteristic of the Victorian era—and Forgie is superb in his description of the campaign to preserve Mount Vernon as a symbol of the Union and as a “house” to which all Americans should “come home” on curiously Mecca-like pilgrimages.

But this question of sentiment and politics is too complex for the cruder instruments of Freudian surgery, especially when the surgeon becomes so absorbed with his American patient that he forgets that the British were equally inclined to merge politics with domestic sentiment, and to invoke the passage from Saint Mark: “If a kingdom be divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand.” It is symptomatic of Forgie’s neglect of British sources that he attributes to Charles Eliot Norton a well-known line—about nature as being “careless of the single life”—from Tennyson’s In Memoriam.

Forgie bases much of his thesis on the conservatism of the second meaning of “sentimental regression”—the “enlargement of the family” into the sphere of public life. But he never acknowledges the fact that only seasoned conservatives insisted on maintaining a sharp distinction between domestic and public life. In 1840, for example, Heman Humphrey, the neo-Calvinist president of Amherst College, quoted the “house divided” passage to support his appeal for a parental united front when dealing with “little culprits” who had misinterpreted political rhetoric “about liberty and equality, and…how glorious it is to be “born free and equal.”’ Like other American conservatives, Humphrey defended the patriarchal family as a divinely instituted model of government “for all times and all places,” a realm of unchanging order that should never be confused with the fluctuations of national governments and constitutions.

Forgie approvingly quotes Alexander Sims, who in 1845 protested against the widespread confusion of family government with civil government. The latter, Sims said, had been founded to secure justice within the “stern reality of actual life” and should never be contaminated by “the feelings of the heart” or “the sickly dream of childhood recollections” associated with the family. But it should be stressed that Sims was a Democratic congressman from South Carolina. Although the question at issue was the naturalization of immigrants, Sims was exploiting rhetoric that had been used for many decades against both British and American abolitionists.

That conservatives have often profited from an idealization of the family proves very little. Forgie forgets that Freud’s political theory assumes that the primal family contains the psychological seeds for all political action—that the “regressive” quest to recover an “oceanic feeling” of harmony can be a source of creativity, experiment, and revolution as well as a motive for defensive retreat and rigidity. With regard to the actual historical record. Forgie never explains why the leading radicals between the 1830s and 1860s—the various utopian and communitarian socialists, the abolitionists, the pacifists, the leftwing artisans, the militant free blacks—all appealed at times to the “sentimental” feelings of the heart, to the values of hearth and home, and to the intimate, fraternal bonds that should somehow replace the “stern reality of actual life.” It is hardly convincing to label all Americans as “conservative” or to claim that “the arrested development” encouraged by “sentimentalist rhetoric” served “to infantilize Americans generally.” If there is something regressive about nostalgia based on maternal, familial, and face-to-face relations has it ever been absent from a “progressive” movement, or from any religious or secular revitalizing of moral vision?3

One can even argue, taking a cue from Schorske, that nothing could be more conservative or regressive than reducing to psychological categories the stern realities of Lincoln’s age, particularly black slavery. The cult of sentiment, however distasteful to our own antiromantic prejudices against mixing love with justice, at least enabled Lincoln’s generation to express outrage over a form of injustice that had long been protected by culturally imposed boundaries—the “spheres” appropriate for Caesar and Christ, for men and women, for hard-headed statecraft and “sickly” domesticity. Since Forgie bravely joins the perennial debate over the origins of the Civil War, it is not unfair to read his “psychological interpretation” as an imaginative reformulation of the old “revisionist” thesis that America’s greatest historical trauma had less to do with objective and “irrepressible” conflicts than with psychological defects and cultural illusions. According to Forgie, these self-destructive impulses finally became personified in Abraham Lincoln, whose ambition required a contemptuous rejection of his own father; who covertly longed to supersede the founding fathers; and who successfully displaced his patricidal aggression onto Stephen Douglas, whom Lincoln stalked and ultimately “killed” as the long-awaited betrayer of the founding fathers’ legacy: “To confront and defeat such a villain—to save the temple of liberty the fathers had built—would not that deed be rewarded with immortality?”

As befits the conservatism of their craft, historians have been wisely skeptical about attempts to use the terminology of individual psychology for the diagnosis of collective behavior. Yet Forgie’s central argument, however marred by exaggeration, cannot be dismissed out of hand. Indeed, Schorske’s seeming demolition of Freud’s Oedipal concept may in fact provide clues for reformulating Forgie’s thesis and for liberating Freud’s heroic Complex from its imprisonment in the depths of individual psychogenesis. The meaning at this point can only be suggested by three observations. First, Schorske’s own analysis is wholly dependent on a “Freudian” mode of thought, which indicates that Freud’s discovery dialectically transcends its individual “political” or psychological origins. Second, Schorske never explains why a theory arising from unique circumstances of Jewish life in late nineteenth-century Austria should have had such continuing resonance in modern Western societies. Finally, Schorske’s analysis points to a possible multi-lane flow of influence—a complex interchange where political conflict is neutralized and reduced to personal psychological symbolism and where, as Freud argued, familial conflict is projected into the political world. In other words, one can argue that Schorske’s “reduction” of Freud’s Oedipal theory to particular historical and political circumstances opens the way to a new range of possibilities freeing the Oedipal concept from any rigid or universal dependence on individual psychogenesis.

Since Forgie is remarkably successful in interweaving Lincoln’s personal history with the collective experience, needs, and mythology of the antebellum era—and there can be no doubt that Lincoln rebuilt his political career by casting Douglas, his arch rival, in the role of the patricidal son who had broken the fathers’ sacred compact prohibiting the unlimited extension of slavery into the territories—two other criticisms are worth considering. First, the “cult of the fathers” was not nearly so monolithic and restrictive as Forgie suggests. The rebels and reformers who idolized the Declaration of Independence also found strategies for superseding the authority of the founding fathers. David Walker, the free black who in 1829 wrote a revolutionary Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World, mocked and challenged Jefferson while appealing to the precedents Jefferson had established: “See your Declaration, Americans!!! Do you understand your own language?” Addressing whites, Walker asked whether their fathers’ sufferings had been “one hundredth part as cruel and tyrannical as you have rendered ours under you?” In 1833, the American Anti-Slavery Society’s “Declaration of Sentiments” exploited the same theme, insisting that the founding fathers’ “grievances, great as they were, were trifling in comparison with the wrongs and sufferings of those for whom we plead.” In a succession of declarations, antimasons, abolitionists, pacifists, communitarians, radical artisans, feminists, and anarchists submitted “to a candid world” their own “assemblage of horrors,” their own histories of “repeated injuries and usurpations.” However imitative, these were radical declarations of sentiment that rebuked the fathers for limited moral vision: not only had the fathers condoned Freemasonry, black slavery, alcoholic beverages, and male tyranny; they had sought to win their physical independence, as the Anti-Slavery Society put it, by spilling “human blood like water.”

There was a patricidal element, over-looked by Forgie, in the widespread affirmation that a new moral era or “dispensation,” had begun, one based on the historical promise of the Revolution but transcending the fathers’ dependence on physical violence, much as the New Testament had supposedly transcended the Mosaic law. Thus in their 1833 “Declaration,” the abolitionists claimed that their purpose, “for its magnitude, solemnity, and probable results upon the destiny of the world, as far transcends theirs [the founding fathers’], as moral truth does physical force.” Lincoln himself, addressing the Spring-field Washingtonian Temperance Society on Washington’s birthday, 1842, said that while Americans were justly proud of their fathers’ political revolution, they should remember that “it breathed forth famine, swam in blood, and rode in fire; and long, long after, the orphan’s cry and the widow’s wail continued to break the sad silence that ensued.” In contrast, Lincoln was confident that the “temperance revolution” would result in “a stronger bondage broken, a viler slavery manumitted, a greater tyrant deposed…. By it no orphans starving, no widows weeping.” Everyone could hail such a moral revolution leading to the happy day when “all appetites [would be] controlled, all poisons subdued, all matter subjected—mind, all conquering mind…monarch of the world.”4

The second criticism is that Forgie remains curiously oblivious to Europe, the original paternal (and maternal) authority from which Americans claimed independence.5 A number of historians have analyzed the British denunciation of the American rebels as ungrateful “parricides,” and the colonists’ condemnations of England as an unnatural parent “red with the blood of her children.” Winthrop D. Jordan has described rituals of “political eucharist,” during the Revolution, in which Americans symbolically killed and ate “the Royal Brute of Great Britain,” the title Thomas Paine assigned to George III.6 Extending this Freudian view of “familial politics,” one can see the nation’s founders not as “fathers” but as the triumphant brothers of a fatherless “primal horde,” who ritualistically establish a compact defining the rules—and taboos—governing their future exploitation of a virgin continent.

This version of the parricidal myth would help to explain the recurring fear of degeneration and anarchy; the obsession with the need to make sectional and other compromises that would reaffirm the “fathers”’ compact. It would also help to explain the basic political style, which had emerged by the 1820s, of portraying opponents as a self-serving, privileged interest that had secretly consolidated power and had begun to shut off equal access to the rewards of national growth. To a striking degree, Americans when they backed a new coalition of interests sought to make it legitimate by picturing their opponents as heirs of the British and Tories—as an un-American elite whose systematic encroachments demanded, on the model of the Declaration of Independence, a proclamation of grievances proving “a long train of abuses and usurpations.”

Forgie is surely wrong in dismissing Anglophobia as derivative, as “the language of sons who obscure conflict with their fathers by displacing it onto their fathers’ enemies.” From the 1790s to the Civil War, the Great American Enemy was always a renegade brother working either deliberately or unwittingly as an agent of Old World despotism, aiding a conspiracy to wreak retributive vengeance on a fatherless horde who had imperiled all patriarchal authority. As Burton Spivak has recently shown, Jefferson’s own attitude

toward the Federalist party and its patron—toward ‘anglomen’ and England—was a dramatic reenactment of the fears, suspicions, and antagonisms of the American Revolution…. The Republican and Federalist were reincarnations of the domestic antagonists of the American Revolution: the loyal patriot and the apostatetory.7

Andrew Jackson was always convinced that the most dangerous renegades, whether Indian-lovers, bankers, or abolitionists, were in the service of English conspirators intent on encircling and containing what Jefferson had called America’s “empire for liberty,” and then fomenting sectional discord leading to disunion and civil war. Similar convictions underpinned the expansionist policy of James K. Polk and other Democratic leaders.

For abolitionists and even for Lincoln and his fellow Republicans, the southern Slave Power was no less alien to America’s heritage and mission. Based on a system of labor originally imposed by British mercantilists, sustained by the British demand for cotton, the Slave Power had spread like an evil fungus, blighting republican institutions in the South and threatening to kill the dream of equality, which Lincoln termed the “central idea” of America.8 If Lincoln’s determination to crush the southern “rebellion” was partly patricidal, as the Confederates in their own way claimed, it was also a reenactment and resolution of the “good brothers”’ long struggle to purge America of the last remnant of Old World despotism. In other words, Forgie’s argument that fratricide displaced patricide, neutralizing a psychological problem with a political and military holocaust, is too simple. It can be argued that, even psychologically, the Civil War was less the result of an unconsummated patricide than the completion of the uncertain regicide begun in 1776, the burial of fears, guilt, and contradictions that had haunted America since its proclamation of independence from the Old World.

  1. 1

    Politics and Patricide in Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams,” American Historical Review, vol. 78, 1973, pp. 328-347. To be reprinted in Schorske’s forthcoming book Fin-de-siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture (Knopf, 1979).

  2. 2

    In developing this theme, Forgie acknowledges his indebtedness to Ann Douglas, The Feminization of American Culture (Knopf, 1977).

  3. 3

    See especially, Hans W. Loewald, Psychoanalysis and the History of the Individual (Yale University Press, 1978). In a footnote, Forgie quotes a psychoanalytic definition of “regression” as “the re-emergence of modes of mental functioning which were characteristic of the psychic activity of the individual during earlier periods of development.” In theory, such a morally neutral “re-emergence” could be creative. In practice, Forgie, like most Freudians, sees regression as a negative, retrograde movement which impedes normal growth; indeed, Forgie sees regression as the source of fratricidal violence in the Civil War. Similar ambiguities arise from Forgie’s use of “conservative,” which sometimes refers to the morally neutral conservation of any tradition, but which usually implies opposition to change, especially to “the centrifugal and atomistic tendencies of an amorphous and rapidly expanding democracy.”

  4. 4

    The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Roy P. Basler, ed. (Rutgers University Press, 1953), vol. I, pp. 271-279. Forgie never mentions this immensely revealing speech.

  5. 5

    For example, Forgie devotes much attention to the “Young America” movement of the 1840s, but never mentions Mazzini’s earlier La Giovine Italia and “Young Europe,” or the “Young England” movement associated with Disraeli and Lord John Manners. These transatlantic phenomena were obviously related, but Forgie never considers whether the differences or similarities support his thesis that the imagery of “Young America” was “post-Oedipal.”

  6. 6

    Winthrop D. Jordan, “Familial Politics: Thomas Paine and the Killing of the King, 1776,” Journal of American History, vol. 60, Sept., 1973, pp. 294-308; Edwin G. Burrows and Michael Wallace, “The American Revolution: The Ideology and Psychology of National Liberation,” Perspectives in American History, vol. 7, 1972, pp. 167-306; David Brion Davis, Homicide in American Fiction, 1798-1860: A Study in Social Values (Cornell University Press, 1957), pp. 239-313.

  7. 7

    Jefferson’s English Crisis: Commerce, Embargo, and the Republican Revolution (University of Virginia Press, 1979), pp. 212-225.

  8. 8

    G.S. Boritt, Lincoln and the Economics of the American Dream (Memphis State University Press, 1978), p. 158. In this unfortunately neglected study, Boritt illuminates Lincoln’s understanding of “equality” as well as the meaning of the concept in Lincoln’s political economy.

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