Happy Birthday, Abe
On Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, a new book explores the principles of equality and liberty and how they influenced the statesman’s political thought and action.
by Michael Zuckert (University Press of Kansas, 416 pp., $35)
Sunday, February 12 was Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. There are a few states—Illinois, Kentucky, New York, Texas, California, Missouri, Indiana, and Connecticut—that observe the day as a public holiday. But nationally, the anniversary is now subsumed into the all-encompassing Presidents’ Day, celebrated every third Monday in February. In 1971, at the urging of organized labor, private enterprise, and the service industry, Congress enacted the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, removing the holiday celebration of George Washington’s birthday from February 22 to whatever the third Monday’s date would be.
In the name of creating more three-day weekends, both the “father” of the country and its “savior” have been smooshed into a non-descript holiday that does little justice to the statesmanship of either one. With the nation already possessing too few examples of high civic behavior, one must wonder whether the convenience of the calendar change is worth the loss of their complementary examples.
The loss of Lincoln’s example is more keenly felt today because of the ongoing public debate over slavery, America’s “original sin.” Working through Lincoln’s efforts to address the problem of slavery (and to do so constitutionally, in the most polarized American era historically) is a bracing exercise both in the limits and possibilities of democratic politics. It’s a discussion that every educated American ought to have gone through—but that few today do.
This is especially odd given how many solid-to-excellent books on Lincoln we have at our disposal: David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln; Harry Jaffa’s Crisis of the House Divided; Lucas Morel’s Lincoln’s Sacred Effort; Lord Charnwood’s Abraham Lincoln; Lewis Lehrman’s Lincoln at Peoria; Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals; DavidLowenthal’s Mind and Art of Abraham Lincoln; Ronald C. White’s A. Lincoln; Diana Schaub’s His Greatest Speeches; and Allen Guelzo’s Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President, are just the obvious ones. We can now add to that list Michael P. Zuckert’s just-published volume A Nation So Conceived: Abraham Lincoln and the Paradox of Democratic Sovereignty.
Zuckert’s account of Lincoln is impressive in both its depth of analysis and in the breadth of its reach. Although not a soup-to-nuts biography, it nevertheless is a wide-ranging presentation of Lincoln’s political action and thought. The book is “an attempt,” Zuckert writes, “to bring together Lincoln’s political thought, holistically understood, and his political action in relation to his thought.” The core question tying the thought with the action throughout, Zuckert argues, is Lincoln’s attempt to come to grips with “one abiding question”: “Can the principle that liberates all and produces self-government remain disciplined and restrained enough in practice to retain self-government?” Or, to put it more bluntly, are the principles of equality and liberty—the very source of America’s free institutions—also a perpetual source of their potential undoing?
Zuckert begins with “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions,” Lincoln’s most notable early public address, delivered before the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, in 1838. As the title of the talk suggests, Lincoln raises the issue of how a democratic government, based on popular consent, can withstand the kind of populism (vox populi, vox dei) that ignores the very guardrails that make self-government effective and responsible. From there, Zuckert moves through all of Lincoln’s major speeches: the Temperance Address; the Peoria Address; the House-Divided debates; Cooper Union; the Gettysburg Address; and the Second Inaugural Address. Each speech retackles that core problem, with ever-deeper reflection by Lincoln as he confronts first, Stephen Douglas’s argument that the status of slavery is a matter to be left to a majority vote in new states, and later, secession and the consequences of the Civil War for democratic rule going forward.
Zuckert’s in-depth analysis of each of the speeches is well worth the time, even for those already quite familiar with them. One might occasionally quibble about some individual argument, as I do with his interpretation of Lincoln’s substitution in the Gettysburg Address of the word “proposition” for “self-evident.” But such instances invite us to reconsider even more seriously our own view—surely a mark of a good book.
To be clear, A Nation So Conceived is not just a compilation of Lincoln’s “greatest hits.” We are also given analysis of Lincoln’s days as a Whig, his time in Congress, the lesser-known address on the Mexican War, and of his eulogy of Clay; additionally, of Lincoln’s response to the Supreme Court’s decision in Dred Scott, his lecture on “Discoveries and Inventions,” his calculations as a rising Republican politician, his constitutional defenses of suspending the writ of habeas corpus and issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, and of his plans for reconstructing the Union. In short, Zuckert leaves unturned no important stone in Lincoln’s public life—with the notable exception of his specific role as a wartime commander-in-chief. We are confronted with Lincoln the politician, Lincoln the campaign strategist, Lincoln the constitutional lawyer, Lincoln the political theorist, and finally, Lincoln the political poet and theologian. Each iteration, in one fashion or another, wrestles with perpetuating “government of the people, by the people, for the people”—a triplet whose parts we easily assume are fully consonant with one another but that, in fact, can be in serious tension. In that regard, Zuckert’s discussion of Lincoln’s substantive and constitutionally nuanced response to the Dred Scott decision, in which Chief Justice Roger Taney declared that African Americans were not and could never be U.S. citizens, is alone worth the price of admission.
Finally, Zuckert’s account of Lincoln is somewhat unique in two respects: first, by highlighting Lincoln’s progressive bent and, second, his apparent willingness to gamble with the very existence of the Union itself.
Lincoln’s progressive inclination is, according to Zuckert, tied to the emergence of the idea of human equality—or more exactly, its increasing recognition driven by the advent of the printing press and the subsequent spread of literacy. As the American Revolution had showed, and as Lincoln understood, the idea of equality could profoundly change the very idea of politics. And with that freedom, Lincoln saw that genuine advances in the arts, sciences, and in general, the human condition, were now possible.
However, as Zuckert also notes, Lincoln’s progressivism was still hemmed in by an unblinking awareness of human nature; passions and prejudices would always remain a limiting factor. And, indeed, Lincoln understood that reforms that ignore such limits provide the opportunity for the most ambitious to use a population’s hopes (and associated dissatisfaction with the existing state of things) to overturn the existing political order gradually—or even suddenly. For Lincoln, the answer to the potential problems of liberty and equality cannot rest behind the safety of American institutions alone, but rather, Zuckert concludes, it must be anchored by “a dedication by the citizens to something—to the substantive idea of right.” And to square the circle of hope with reforming modesty, Lincoln proffered a formula that directed those hopes to furthering and extending the country’s political creed (Gettysburg Address: “a new birth of freedom”), while tempering (Second Inaugural Address: “with malice toward none…”) the kind of overweening self-righteousness that might arise in conjunction with that moral imperative.
But none of this would be possible if slavery continued to exist in the United States. And while Lincoln was for the longest time (as Zuckert shows) constrained by politics, public opinion, the Constitution, and his own imagination on how to end the practice, after Dred Scott, Lincoln upped his attacks on the existence of slavery in the United States by declaring “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” Of course, as Zuckert notes, the Union had in fact existed in this divided state since its inception. But in the aftermath of Taney’s opinion, the South’s hardened view that slavery was a positive good, and Douglas’s argument for governmental indifference to it, what Zuckert describes as the founding generation’s distinction between slavery’s (existing) legality versus its (moral) legitimacy had dissolved. There was no putting the toothpaste back in the tube. Sides had been drawn, and any possible compromise that prevented the extension of slavery into the West was now dead in the water.
In Lincoln’s House Divided Speech (1858), Zuckert proposes that Lincoln’s insistence on ending slavery’s expansion and his condemnation of slavery altogether was intended not to put the public’s mind at ease—but rather, to bring on the very crisis that was not only inevitable but also necessary if the nation was to regain its principled footing. Accordingly, both Lincoln’s rejection of possible last minute compromises aimed at preventing secession, and his initial passivity in the face of secession, were part of what Zuckert suggests was “a subtle but risky policy” to bring on that crisis. Lincoln was undoubtedly shocked, as were most, by the terrible cost that resulted from that confrontation—a cost that could only be justified by ending slavery not just in the new territories but the whole of the country.
Lincoln’s gamble was huge. It certainly equaled, if not surpassed, the one Washington took when he, along with other Americans, broke with Great Britain. Both political leaders were engaged in democratic statesmanship of the highest order: one, helping to found a nation grounded in the revolutionary principle of equality; the other, giving that principle new life in what was effectively a second founding. They both belonged, as Lincoln put it in the Perpetuation Address, “to the family of the lion, or the tribe of the eagle.”
Both deserve their own national holidays.
Gary J. Schmitt, a contributing editor of American Purpose, is resident scholar in strategic studies and American institutions at the American Enterprise Institute. He is editor of the recent publication, A Hard Look at Hard Power: Assessing the Defense Capabilities of Key U.S. Allies and Security Partners (2020).
Image: President Abraham Lincoln and Gen. George B. McClellan in the general's tent at Antietam, MD, 1862, by Alexander Gardner. (U.S. Library of Congress)
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