Glenn W. LaFantasie is the Richard Frockt Family Professor of Civil War History at Western Kentucky University. He is working on a book about Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant. He is the author of Gettysburg Requiem: The Life and Lost Causes of Confederate Colonel William C. Oates. Be sure to read his other great OUPblog posts.
Ever since April 1865, when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, most Americans have come to think of him as the nation’s greatest president. In the 143 years after his assassination, Lincoln continues to be mourned, but for reasons quite different than the ones that made his contemporaries weep at his passing. In our own time, Americans lament the fact that we lack leaders of Lincoln’s caliber, especially whenever the country finds itself in a time of an acute or dangerous crisis. Why don’t we have politicians like Lincoln to guide us, inspire us, and lead us out of our desperate circumstances? Why can no one—including the most popular of our modern presidents—measure up to Lincoln’s greatness?
Lincoln, as it turns out, was one of a kind. He was very much a man of his time and place. The personal ingredients that made him Lincoln, the forces and influences that molded his political talents and produced his genius as a leader, no longer exist in our modern society. Lincoln was a poor, self-educated product of the frontier who raised himself up, taught himself how to be an attorney, and, considered himself a lawyer first and a politician second. He was born in a very different age than our own. We know well that Lincoln came into the world on February 12, 1809, and few can miss the fact that the nation is now celebrating the bicentennial of his birth. But what we readily forget is that when he was born Thomas Jefferson had just finished his second term as president, James Madison was just beginning his first, and a third Virginian, James Monroe, would be sworn in as president eight years later. All three of these presidents—just like the first two, George Washington and John Adams—were fully products of the American Revolution and of the Enlightenment, that remarkable intellectual movement that had given the revolutionary generation its greatest impetus and its most powerful ideas, including the ones so memorable expressed by Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Lincoln, too, was influenced by the Enlightenment, especially by its insistence on natural right and self-evident truths, but we don’t often think of him in that way. The American Enlightenment was, after all, an eighteenth-century movement, and the Lincoln we know was a man who appears to be fully at home in the more rough-and-tumble circumstances of the nineteenth century than in the stately drawing rooms of Mount Vernon or Monticello. Yet it was those very Enlightenment ideas—and particularly the notion of innate rights—that shaped Lincoln’s political philosophy and his fundamental principles as an American.
Calling members of his own generation “the legal inheritors” of the Founders’ “fundamental blessings,” Lincoln praised the Revolutionaries in his first major speech (the famous “Lyceum Speech”), delivered in 1838. The heroes of the Revolution, he said, were “a once hardy, brave, and patriotic, but now lamented and departed race of ancestors.” It was now left to Lincoln and his contemporaries to inhabit and protect the “political edifice of liberty and equal rights.” The fact that the bonds between Lincoln’s own generation and the Old Revolutionaries “must fade, is fading, had faded,” only made Lincoln all the more anxious about the future of the republic. It was inevitable, he asserted, that the Founders’ “influence cannot be what it heretofore has been.” Yet Lincoln’s very remarks made plain that his own ties to the Founding Fathers had not faded at all; indeed, they were as strong and as vibrant as ever. They would remain so for the rest of his life.
“All honor to Jefferson,” Lincoln declared in 1859, despite the fact that Jefferson’s slaveholding tarnished the legacy of liberty that the Virginian had bequeathed to his countrymen. On the eve of his own inauguration, Lincoln explained succinctly to the American people, “I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence.” Later, after taking on the mantle of the presidency and leading the nation through the strife of civil war, Lincoln continued to ponder the Enlightenment values he had inherited from the Founding Fathers. The rebellion of the southern states, Lincoln said in a brief speech delivered a few days after the victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in 1863, was nothing less than “an effort to overthrow the principle that all men were created equal.” He would elevate the Declaration of Independence to an even higher plane in his Gettysburg Address later that November.
For Lincoln and his own generation, the American Revolution was not an event in the distant and hazy past. It was the nation’s founding moment, and memories of the Revolution and of those who had led it remained vitally strong and clear in the minds of Lincoln and the generation of Americans who fought the Civil War. The legacy of the Revolution was, for Lincoln and his contemporaries, a living legacy. Today our political leaders hearken back to the Revolution using a patriotic rhetoric that seems hackneyed, stilted, or shrill. Occasionally, in Fourth of July or campaign speeches, they sputter words that quote or mimic the Declaration of Independence; but they do not articulate its essence, as Lincoln so often did. Somehow our current politicians never sound like they really mean it. In Lincoln’s time, his own stirring echo of the Declaration of Independence in the Gettysburg Address fell on the alert ears of Americans who could feel, as well as hear, the power of his words. They could also immediately understand—without the help of a Rush Limbaugh or a Chris Matthews—the full import of what he was saying.
We have lost our touchstone with the American Revolution and with the Enlightenment, a touchstone that Lincoln had readily at hand. To a great extent, we have also lost some of the innocence that, in Lincoln’s era, helped him to become a leader of enormous stature by appealing with great sincerity to the people and by trusting them as the true source of the country’s strength. “I expect the people to sustain me,” he said in 1861. “They have never yet forsaken any true man.” Our era of political cynicism and distrust prevents us from seeing even the most talented leaders as bearing any of the special qualities that made Lincoln who he was. The nation’s loss of innocence, which, in fact, came about as a consequence of the Civil War, doesn’t let us believe anymore that our politicians are as sincere—or as honest—as Lincoln seemed to be.
But there is also another stark difference between Lincoln and our modern politicians. Our modern leaders are nearly all professional politicians. Many of them begin their careers in other professions, like the law, but once elected they regard their office and their running for office as an occupation. They earn their livings in politics, moving up from one office to the next, as high as the ladder will take them. As a result, they take few risks, since they fear being fired by their constituents. They tend not to be motivated by what’s right or what’s for the common good as opposed to whatever position will get them reelected or, perhaps, elected to a higher office.
Their profession developed gradually over time, springing forth more fully as the nation moved farther and farther away from the era of the Founding Fathers. Lincoln was not entirely immune to the rising reality of professional politics. He overflowed with ambition, not at all unlike our modern scramblers who nearly fall over one another in their effort to win elections. Indeed, Lincoln’s formidable talents as a politician are celebrated in many circles; Americans applaud him for his vast political genius. Yet Lincoln, despite his pronounced ambition and his instinct for playing the game of politics, was political in the way that citizens of ancient Athens or the Roman republic—or even, especially, the Founding Fathers—were: all citizens were political beings and achieved their highest moral satisfaction by participating, and actually serving, as an office-holder, in a self-governing republic. For Lincoln, this idea of civic virtue was a beacon in the night, the course by which self interest could be left behind. In his famous debates with Stephen A. Douglas in 1858, Lincoln declared that he hated slavery because “it forces so many really good men . . . into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty—criticizing the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self interest.”
During Lincoln’s lifetime, the modern politician began to emerge more fully. After the Civil War, party bosses and their offspring (i.e., professional politicians) became more prevalent in an increasingly industrialized, urban, and modern America. Lincoln was repelled by professional politicos like New York’s Thurlow Weed and Fernando Wood, although he found it necessary at times to cozy up to them. But the extent to which our modern political culture is defined and managed by professional politicians (and their ancillaries in the press) would astound him.
With the professionalization of politics and its emphasis on elected office as a full-time occupation, we have lost some of the luster (and some of the electric spontaneity) that came from ordinary Americans rising to the height of their abilities and possessing, as Lincoln so eminently did, the talent and the self-sacrificing character to solve our national problems, to lead us toward brighter days. There is no turning back to Lincoln’s time; there is little chance that we will ever see a Lincoln step forward out of our modern maelstrom of professional partisan politics. But we can, at the very least, still heed Lincoln’s words. “The struggle of today is not altogether for today—it is for a vast future also,” he reminded the nation in 1862. “The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present.” But then he revealed—as only Lincoln could do—a way out: “We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”