Sinclair Lewis on the Civil War: Thoughts on Lincoln’s Birthday

Seventy-five years after the Civil War began, Sinclair Lewis, America’s first Nobel laureate for literature, feared another national cataclysm: a Fascist takeover. In the course of It Can’t Happen Here (1935) he pondered what could lead to it.

One source was the misreading of the Civil War’s import. Some paragraphs from Lewis make good texts for thinking about our future on this Abraham Lincoln’s Birthday.


Slavery had been a cancer, and in that day was known no remedy save bloody cutting. There had been no X-rays of wisdom and tolerance. Yet to sentimentalize this cutting, to justify and rejoice in it, was an all together evil thing, a national superstition that was later to lead to other Unavoidable Wars — wars to free Cubans, to free Filipinos who didn’t want our brand of freedom, to End All Wars. [1 cites below.]

William McKinley, the last Civil War veteran to serve as president, so freed the Cubans and the Filipinos. By means of an ‘Unavoidable War’ – the Spanish-American War in 1898 — he launched the US as a transformative international power and the last country to enter the race for colonies.

McKinley’s election in 1896 came at an anxious time. The country had suffered a severe recession and was very slowly emerging from it. The labor movement fueled by a great influx of eastern and southern Europeans roiled politics and the growing cities.

The country’s view of itself was profoundly uncertain. In 1893, the nation’s pre-eminent historian, Frederick Jackson Turner, had declared the frontier America’s defining challenge, one that was now closed. What would define the US going forward? His speech at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago – a world’s fair celebrating the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s first voyage – rang through American politics and culture for two generations.

President McKinley had a vision. The combat veteran, who rose over four years from private to captain, described his decision to take the Philippines some weeks after he made it in 1898:

And one night late it came to me this way — I don’t know how it was, but it came…. There was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them as our fellowmen for whom Christ also died. Then I went to bed, and went to sleep, and slept soundly. [2]

Lewis’s characterization of the ‘national superstition’ is then surely right.


Lewis found little to celebrate in the conduct of the war:

Let us … not throb again to the bugles of the Civil War, nor find diverting the gallantry of Sherman’s dashing Yankee boys in burning the houses of lone women, nor particularly admire the calmness of General Lee as he watched thousands writhe in the mud. [3]

On this the haunting photographs taken by Mathew Brady crews of battlefields littered with corpses speak eloquently.

In contrast, the ‘unavoidable’ Spanish-American war seemed an easy victory. But it took more than a decade to stamp out an insurrection by Filipinos who saw little advantage in swapping one colonial master for another. That insurrection, my friend Alfred W. McCoy has argued, taught our forces the use of torture – specifically, waterboarding – and the techniques of counter-insurgency, neither of which has served us well in Iraq.


Lewis’s ambivalence toward the war, its aftermath and the men who profited from it rendered him almost incoherent.

A generation and a half … of the sturdiest and most gallant killed or crippled in the Civil War or, perhaps worst of all, becoming garrulous professional heroes and satellites of the politicians who in return for their solid vote made all lazy jobs safe for the [Union veterans organization, the Grand Army of the Republic]. The most valorous, it was they who suffered the most, for while the John D. Rockefellers, the J.P. Morgans, the Vanderbilts, Astors, Goulds, and all their nimble financial comrades of the South, did not enlist, but stayed in the warm, dry counting-house, drawing the fortune of the country into their webs, it was Jeb Stuart, Stonewall Jackson, Nathaniel Lyon, Pat Cleburne, and the knightly James B. McPherson who were killed … and with them Abraham Lincoln. [4]

Ultimately richer than anyone on Lewis’s list of ‘financial comrades’ was Andrew Carnegie. His path to great fortune began with Civil War contracts. Like many of his peers, he legally avoided service. But his fierce, public opposition to the Spanish-American War and his strenuous efforts to avert World War I may have earned him a pass from Lewis.

The irony of a man who’d made so much from arming the US struggling desperately, futilely to keep the US from becoming a colonial power would have struck Lewis. After all, Nobel had contributed to the killing power of artillery and received for his innovation the ample wealth that funded Lewis’s prize.

Lewis’s phrase ‘financial comrades’ had a sting to it in 1935. His allusion to the Communist affectation of solidarity reminded readers then of the monopolies and collusions at the turn of the 20th century ‘drawing the fortune of the country into their webs’. In our age of banks ‘too big to fail’, the socialization of risk and the individualization of profit among ‘financial comrades’ has new vitality.


On this Lincoln’s birthday, it is worth recalling that our Civil War president did not, in Lewis’s phrase, ‘sentimentalize this cutting, to justify and rejoice in it’. To the contrary. With victory just four weeks away, on March 4, 1865 he concluded his Second Inaugural Address:

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and orphan — to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations. [5]




[1] Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here (New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1935), pp. 139-40.

[2] Eric Rauchway, Murdering McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt’s America [2003] (New York: Hill & Wang, 2004), p. 7.

[3] Lewis, op. cit., p. 140.

[4]. Id., p. 139.

[5] Abraham Lincoln, “Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865,” as reprinted in Abraham Lincoln: Speeches & Writings 1859-1865 (New York: Library of America, 1989), p. 687.

Lincoln’s Birthday