All week on the OUPblog we will be celebrating the Lincoln Bicentennial. Be sure to check in daily for posts from Jennifer Weber, author of Copperheads: The Rise and Fall of Lincoln’s Opponents in the North, James M. McPherson, author of Abraham Lincoln, and Craig L. Symonds, author of Lincoln and His Admirals. In the original post below Allen Guelzo, author of Lincoln: A Very Short Introduction, answers some FAQs about Lincoln. Be sure to check back for part two and three of this series with Guelzo.
OUPblog: What is the most important aspect of Lincoln’s legacy today?
Allen Guelzo: That he saved the idea of popular government, both politically and morally. In the first place, he showed that democracies are willing to fight to save themselves, that they are not forever doomed to divided and sub-divide over one issue after another until they have whittled themselves down into helpless political miniatures. The essence of popular government is that people come together to govern themselves; when they disagree, the form majorities and minorities over the disagreements; but the majority has the privilege of ruling, and the minority has the responsibility to yield to that rule, and not stage armed resistance or attempt to walk away. At the same time, though, the majority does not have the right to retaliate against, or persecute the minority; and both understand that at the next election, the balance of majority and minority can freely change.
In the second place, he showed that popular government is not the same thing as “everybody gets to do whatever they want.” There are certain fundamental truths which cannot be changed by any popular government, or by any majority or minority – chief among being the right everyone has to eat the bread they earn by their own hands, instead of being forced, as slaves, to feed another. Popular government is the pole-star in Lincoln’s firmament, but it does not abolish natural law.
OUP: Lincoln hoped for a “new birth of freedom” in America. What would that mean today?
Guelzo: It’s interesting that a man of such meager public religious profile should resort to religious language in his most famous speech, but that’s exactly what this “new birth of freedom” is. In fact, the Gettysburg Address is shot full of religious language. What a “new birth” meant since the two great religious Awakenings in America (in the 1740s and again in the 1820s) was a complete spiritual renewal – literally, being “born again.” Lincoln borrows the terminology, and lifts the energy, the transformation, and the dedication to God that this new birth implies, and transfers it to a renewal of our commitment as citizens to popular government.