We Americans love Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln once said that he faced a task “greater than that which rested upon Washington”; by overcoming it, he has arguably obtained over Washington and all others the status of America’s most adored president. He is the namesake of our cities, schools, roads, parks, companies, and children, and we feature him in our marketing campaigns. One can still write a bestseller about his career (see Goodwin’s Team of Rivals), and one can still produce a blockbuster film on just a short segment of his life (see Spielberg’s Lincoln). Republicans still refer to themselves as the “Party of Lincoln,” and President Obama was sworn into office with his hand on Lincoln’s Bible.
Lincoln’s enduring popularity no doubt has several causes, but I want to focus on what we ought to admire about his political thought and statesmanship and how we might continue to emulate his example today. Any account of this brevity will necessarily be cursory, but I hope to provide a taste of what we can learn from Lincoln’s approach to political life.
For instance, Lincoln teaches us of the dangers and pitfalls of intensely felt sentiments and convictions like those possessed by the radical abolitionists of his time. He did not differ with these abolitionists in considering slavery to be a “monstrous injustice,” and he was certainly understating his opinion in his Second Inaugural Address when he said that “it may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces.”
Yet Lincoln understood the limitations imposed by his circumstances and by human nature, and he refrained from the hostility that abolitionists characteristically exhibited toward Southerners. That sort of disposition, as he had explained in an 1842 address about the Temperance Movement, was both counterproductive—you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar—and unjust insofar as it lacked an awareness of the finitude of human nature, including our own shortcomings and limitations. Hence Lincoln eloquently called for “malice toward none” and “charity for all” in his Second Inaugural, as the North and South approached a tenuous reunion.
Moreover, Lincoln was unlike those abolitionists who considered the Constitution to be an “agreement with hell” and a “covenant with death,” whose disdain for slavery induced them to risk the dissolution of the document and the Union which it had fashioned. To the contrary, Lincoln understood the worth of the Constitution, even when it restricted his scope of action and the pursuit of his conception of moral right. In short, Lincoln reminds us of the importance of prudence, charity, and the rule of law as restraints to our most impassioned convictions.
If such impassioned convictions pose certain challenges to our political prosperity, however, Lincoln also shows us that only a certain type of compromise and moderation ought to be endorsed. Specifically, Lincoln’s example brings to light that only a principled compromise or moderation should garner our commitment. His standard was never union or peace at any price. While other Unionists were inclined to make indefinite concessions to Southern demands in order to avoid secession and war, Lincoln drew a line in the sand on the extension of slavery into the territories. He did not simply desire to save the Union; he wanted to make the Union “forever worthy of the saving,” to maintain a hope that America could one day more fully live up to the principles encapsulated by the Declaration of Independence. As Lincoln argued, that required slavery to be placed on the course of ultimate extinction. On this issue, he was willing to risk war. The principles of the Declaration thus provided the parameters within which he was willing to seek compromise and to hazard conflict. As we search for elusive middle ground in our policy disagreements today, then, Lincoln’s example illustrates the need for a principled courage, guided by a political philosophy that endeavors to be in harmony with both the Declaration and the Constitution, to define our deliberations.
In the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln seemed to question whether any government “so conceived and so dedicated” as America could “long endure.” He implored his audience to recommit themselves to the principles of the Declaration to ensure that “these dead shall not have died in vain”—those dead who had perished in service to the American promise. It was the burden of the living to shore up the future of the American project. The dead had done their duty; they had made their contribution; they could do no more. This was not an isolated theme of his rhetoric: Two and a half decades earlier in 1838, he had explained that the Founders, who had either perished or were in the process of passing away, could not alone preserve the American experiment. As a result, the American people would need new props to reinforce their liberty. In a similar vein, in his 1865 Second Inaugural, reflecting on the tragedy of the Civil War, Lincoln would encourage those Americans who remained to press on “with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right.”
150 years later, we can still repeat the question Lincoln presented at Gettysburg—can a nation like America “long endure”?—and it falls to us to rededicate ourselves to the principles of liberty and equality as conceived in the Declaration, to government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” It is up to us to continue to reflect upon what true liberty and true equality really entail, and to act upon the product of our reflections in a humble but ceaseless pursuit of, as he concluded his Second Inaugural, a genuinely “just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
Zachary German is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Political Science, where he focuses on Constitutional Studies and Political Theory. His interests include American political thought generally and Abraham Lincoln’s political thought specifically. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.