Kristina Flathers, Staff Writer

Notre Dame professors and students packed the Andrews Auditorium of Geddes Hall to hear a lecture given by Professor Steven B. Smith of Yale University on Tuesday, February 12.

Smith is the Alfred Cowles Professor of Political Science and former director of Graduate Studies in Political Science at Yale.  He discussed President Abraham Lincoln as a “constitutional leader” who served as president within his presidential rights granted by the Constitution.  The talk was entitled “Lincoln’s Constitution” and was fittingly sponsored by the Constitutional Studies Minor to commemorate the sixteenth president’s 204th birthday.
Smith, a political philosopher by training, contrasted Lincoln’s leadership style to three different models: those of Machiavellian leadership, charismatic leadership and progressive leadership.  Smith said Machiavellian leaders “must value glory, fame and honor above all else” and are realistic and pragmatic.

He associated the second model, charismatic leadership, a faith-based model that prizes passionate leaders who maintain a sense of responsibility, with the German philosopher and founder of sociology Max Weber.

Third, the progressive model of leadership requires a leader to go beyond the law and above politics to lead a people: “The idea that politics should be removed from the messy process of democracy and becomes a science has been embraced by progressives,” Smith said.

Although Lincoln embodied some qualities of each of the three models, Smith said his constitutional leadership style differs from other leadership models.  A constitutional government by definition is limited and cannot seek to micromanage aspects of private lives, traits that are not addressed by the other models.  Lincoln wrestled with the problems posed by the limitation of powers.  This struggle became a theme throughout the lecture.
The talk was followed by a question-answer session, which involved several objections regarding some of Lincoln’s more historically controversial decisions.

The topic most aired was his suspension of the writ of habeas corpus and whether this supported Smith’s thesis that Lincoln was a constitutional leader or showed that Lincoln was a tyrant.

Smith, who published an anthology of Lincoln’s writings in 2012, responded to a particularly pointed set of objections regarding the suspension of habeas corpus by quoting Lincoln: “‘Must a government, of necessity, be too strong for the liberties of its own people, or too weak to maintain its own existence?  Government must fulfill the function of protecting each person’s right to use or misuse their freedom as they see fit.’”

He maintained that this quote proves that Lincoln was a constitutional leader who valued the letter of the law above his own beliefs.  He further mentioned that “Lincoln rejected the idea that politics is the domain of following one’s own private, moral commitments. He always submitted his commitments to the priority of law.”

The idea of valuing the Constitution first and foremost was further discussed when freshman David Boothe asked about the most important lesson modern politicians could take away from Lincoln. Smith replied, “Constitutional leadership; politicians these days must put aside their own beliefs and party allegiances and uphold the Constitution. It is important that leaders understand the importance of invoking the Constitution and showing the constitutional authority for what they are doing in even the most radical moments.”
The night itself, though focused on a serious historical and philosophical subject, was highlighted by bits of humor. Freshman Class Vice-President Jake Grefenstette introduced the speaker by noting that Smith “votes for the Irish when he is not rooting for Yale or the Yankees.”

Smith himself showed a penchant for historically-significant jokes, saying that “a giant of Lincoln’s stature needed to know how to take it easy, and one of Lincoln’s greatest characteristics was knowing how to relax and replenish, especially at the theater.” He also suggested that audience members all take a class on Lincoln in college or graduate school and read Lincoln’s Cooper Institute Speech (1860) and his Letter to General Joseph Hooker for further insights into the man’s character.

Kristina Flathers is a sophomore economics major. She enjoys all the sweet things in life, namely drinking Dr. Pepper and eating too many Oreos. Contact her at