The Spectacle Blog

Lincoln vs. Olbermann on Lincoln

By on 7.10.10 | 4:07PM

For those of you who haven't been following, earlier this week, Keith Olbermann mocked Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle for saying of Abraham Lincoln, "He lost quite a few. But he won the big one." For this, Olbermann called her "obtuse" and insisted Lincoln only lost one election. Yesterday on this blog, Jeffrey Lord patiently explained why Olbermann was wrong, and his post was picked up by National Review's Daniel Foster. At this point, it caught Olbermann's eye, and the MSNBC host named Foster the "Worst Person in The World." Rather than acknowledge his error, Olbermann took the weasel's way out with a semantic loophole, embarrassingly insisting that he really meant that Lincoln only lost one popular election. As you know, at the time, there wasn't direct election of U.S. Senators.

But while Olbermann would like to discount several of Lincoln's losing political campaigns to bolster his case against Angle (including the 1858 Senate campaign), that's clearly not how Lincoln himself viewed those defeats at the time.

Here's how Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Herbert Donald summed up Lincoln's mood after losing his 1858 Senate bid, in the acclaimed biography, Lincoln:

Though Lincoln was not surprised by the outcome of the election, he was bitterly disappointed. Once again, he saw victory escape his grasp. With one more defeat added to his record, he had received yet another lesson in how little his fate was determined by his personal exertions.

I also gazed through the Library of America's two-volume collection of Lincoln's speeches and writings.

It included a November 4, 1858 letter to John J. Crittenden, in which Lincoln graciously forgives the former Whig for endorsing Stephen Douglas, which was believed to have badly hurt Lincoln. His words clearly reflect the disappointment conveyed by Donald. Lincoln wrote to Crittenden that:

"The emotions of defeat, at the close of a struggle in which I felt more than a merely selfish interest, and to which defeat the use of your name contributed largely, are fresh upon me; but, even in this mood, I can not for a moment suspect you of anything dishonorable."

A few weeks later, in a November 19 letter, Lincoln tried to cheer up his friend Henry Asbury, in language typical of a losing candidate addressing supporters:

"The fight must go on. The cause of civil liberty must not be surrendered at the end of one, or even, one hundred defeats."

Angle, in her remarks, never said anything about Lincoln's won-loss record in "popular elections." She said that, "He lost quite a few. But he won the big one." Her point was clearly a more general one, that Lincoln came back from a number of political defeats. It's a statement that's completely rooted in history. That is, if you choose to get your Lincoln history from reading respected biographers and Lincoln's own words, as opposed to watching the rantings of a TV talk show host.

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