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Learning from Lincoln

Learning from Lincoln

Allen Guelzo's latest Lincoln biography warns against the seductions of charismatic leadership and the weaponization of grievances to gain power.

Michael Kimmage
Our Ancient Faith: Lincoln, Democracy, and the American Experiment
by Allen C. Guelzo (Penguin Random House, 272 pp., $30)

In 1948, historian Richard Hofstadter published The American Political Tradition, which contains a famous essay on Abraham Lincoln. Hofstadter regarded Lincoln with a skepticism that bordered on contempt. Lincoln, he argued, had been a myth maker. Lincoln had invented himself as a self-made man and cultivated that image while trafficking in the political ugliness of his times. His real success, Hofstadter concluded, was as a shape shifter. Hoftstadter’s essay was shocking in 1948  when it appeared, upending decades of Lincoln worship. It was as if Hofstadter had set out to defy the enormous Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., erected some twenty-five years before the appearance of Hofstadter’s essay. 

The recent book on Lincoln by Allen Guelzo, a distinguished historian of 19th-century America, is anything but outrageous. Yet in its rediscovery and reconfiguring of Lincoln’s career—as thinker and as political actor—Our Ancient Faith: Lincoln, Democracy, and the American Experiment goes against the contemporary grain. Lincoln is no Robert E. Lee nor Woodrow Wilson, whom many Americans revile for their racism, but nonetheless, the cult of Lincoln has diminished greatly today. Lincoln’s equivocations on race and his preference for preserving the Union over enacting racial justice have undone his reputation on the progressive side of the political spectrum. But neither does Donald Trump’s Republican Party lionize Lincoln, the ur-Republican. Trump’s role model is not Abraham Lincoln, or George Washington, or Thomas Jefferson. Rather, it is Andrew Jackson, a self-styled populist and a slave owner.

Guelzo’s eloquent book on Lincoln is not a veiled polemic about Trump. Nor is it an assault on the politics of progressive memory. Through a fine-grained analysis of Lincoln, Our Ancient Faith is both a rethinking of the American political tradition and a reclamation of the political center. Without connecting too many dots, Guelzo warns against those who would accept demagoguery; against the seductions of a charismatic leader; and against the emotive grievances that demagogues use to acquire and hold power. At the same time, Guelzo laments identity politics—without ever employing the phrase. For it to flourish, democracy must limit the leader and disregard the group, while embracing reason and rule of law. Democracy’s natural medium is either the individual or all humanity. With democracy, it is citizens who are are sovereign; it is citizenship that gives them their sovereignty.

Guelzo’s Lincoln is almost a philosopher—though a philosopher who found himself enmeshed in the bruising political crises of the 1850s. Lincoln’s own attitudes toward race betrayed certain deep-seated prejudices, and he was willing to trim and cut corners to navigate the fraught political landscape of his time. When civil war broke out, Lincoln curtailed some civil liberties. Guelzo recounts all of this—with seeming regret. Guelzo also imagines a Lincoln who would live beyond 1865. Guelzo argues that this unassassinated Lincoln might have dedicated himself more directly to the plight of Black Americans than the Lincoln who ran for president in 1860. Yet Guelzo’s Lincoln shines less as president than as someone who reflected deeply on the presidency, on the promise of citizenship, and on the American experiment in self-government begun four score and seven years before Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address. 

Often depicted as mournful, Lincoln was something of a pessimist. He had inherited “the sense that political orders tend downward, toward decay and degeneration, rather than evolving upwards into something different and improved,” Guelzo writes. Lincoln worried about oligarchy, about hierarchy, about mob rule and about the political passions. Such worries did not disabuse him of his faith in democracy; rather, they made him into a particular kind of democrat. For Lincoln, “what mitigated the baleful tendency of passion in democracy was law,” and Guelzo notes that Lincoln did not confine himself to the letter of the law. He believed in natural law, in rights that were intrinsic to being human, which mattered when he had to contend, as president, with the questions of slavery and of how to end it.

Guelzo’s Lincoln is not simply the orator; neither is he the tragic hero. He is a philosopher enamored of limits. He thought that “there need be no slaves and no masters except the self-driven and the self-mastered.” For Lincoln, self-government depended on the limitation of self or on the self’s capacity to control passion. It was not contradictory of Lincoln to be an advocate of temperance: it was an extension of his general commitment to discipling the passions. Perhaps the Civil War itself can be construed as something similar—as an effort to discipline the South militarily for having succumbed to its passion for secession. Certainly, the preservation of a constitutional order was the essential concern of his presidency. Whether fighting for the Union or finding some way to terminate slavery, he wanted to prove that democracy could be reconciled to the rule of law. The pessimist in him knew that this would never be easy.

Guelzo’s Lincoln is clearly a Lincoln for our times. Much as he admires Lincoln, however, Guelzo avoids constructing yet another monument. His Lincoln is the protagonist of a cautionary tale, and not just about the collapse of American democracy into civil war in 1861. It is a cautionary tale about democracy and human nature. Lincoln’s ideal was the rational, charitable, compromise-ready self and citizen. In the very word citizen, Guelzo argues, “the hierarchies of race, blood, and soil erected by the Romantic nineteenth century shrink to irrelevance.” But can citizens, American or otherwise, shrink their own attachments to race, blood, and soil to irrelevance? Can the attachment to reason and law be sustained over time? Or will the attachment to fury and grievance prove stronger?

Our Ancient Faith is as good a primer as there is in the ideals and preconditions that democracy demands. Although Lincoln is a wonderful subject for a book, Our Ancient Faith suffers from being a book about a president. Lincoln is hard to emulate. He is too brilliant, his background too improbably humble, his accomplishments too spectacular. He cannot be easily separated from his greater-than-life image. Hofstadter tried to enact this separation by turning Lincoln from demi-god back into just another conventional politician—mincing words, angling for personal gain, constantly picturing the paragraphs that would be written about him in the “history books.” Hofstadter’s Lincoln is all too human. Guelzo’s Lincoln is, by contrast, made of marble, a bust carved from philosophic stone.

Paying heed to Guelzo’s study of Lincoln could cure any number of contemporary ills. It could balance out the depredations of political passion, burnish respect for the rule of law, and encourage constructive norms of citizenship. That all of this runs, in Our Ancient Faith, through the figure of Lincoln, though, is a shortcoming. Presidents are not the sum of the American democratic order. “Only I can fix it,” Donald Trump affirmed at his 2016 nominating convention. If Joe Biden is not reelected in 2024, any number of pundits declare, American democracy is finished. But this is manifestly untrue. The United States has endured countless crises of governance since the founding of the republic, and it has had many bad presidents. The key factor is less the occupant of the White House than the health of the country at large.

One can approach the Lincoln Memorial in two ways. Up the steps one can walk into the darkness of its interior, the words from Lincoln’s Second Inaugural and from the Gettysburg Address dimly visible, a seated Lincoln looming over the chattering tourists—the Athena of this American Parthenon, imperturbably wise. His gaze is fixed on the National Mall, as if to keep the White House and the Houses of Congress in line. Or down the steps, one can walk into the city, refreshed perhaps by a reckoning with Lincoln and with Lincoln’s cogent phrases but not confined to dwelling with the gods. The gradually-written story of 2024 will be the story of a vast, populous country, and less so the story of its elite politics and its presidents, whether they match the high standard Lincoln set or whether, as has been the case with most presidents after Lincoln, they fall short.

Michael Kimmage is a professor of history at the Catholic University of America and a senior non-resident fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. His book, Collisions: The War in Ukraine and the Origins of the New Global Instability, is due out with Oxford University Press in March 2024.

Image: Commemorative print with the Gettysburg Address by William Pratt after Anthony Berger's photographic portrait of Abraham Lincoln, 1865, lithograph on paper. (National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)

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