Abraham Lincoln's relationship to the Founding Fathers might appear, at first glance, neither to require nor even to invite reconsideration. Even casual students of the Sixteenth President would seem to know the relevant facts. As Lincoln said time and again throughout his career, publicly as well as privately, he greatly admired, indeed, reverenced, the Revolutionary generation of American leaders and for that reason modeled his own political principles and policies after theirs.

Of course such veneration of his ancestors hardly distinguished Lincoln from his contemporaries, virtually all of whom professed the same admiration and commitment even when their assessment of the Founding Fathers and their principles differed substantially from his. But conventional wisdom has generally been that Lincoln's reverence of the Founding Fathers was no less real or sincere for being conventional, and that the substance of his claim to being their disciple or legatee was on the whole persuasive—in other words, that Lincoln did, in fact, honor their earlier commitment to a particular set of republican beliefs and principles, or as the great Lincoln scholar James G. Randall once succinctly put it, "His basic ideas were those of Thomas Jefferson."[1]

Professional scholars are generally not content to let even simple matters rest, however. During the past two decades there has emerged in Lincoln scholarship a number of new approaches to the subject that tend to call these apparently simple truths into serious question. Taken together, these revisionist studies—which come from a remarkably wide range of academic disciplinary perspectives—invite us to reconsider not only Lincoln's relationship to the Founding Fathers but also the larger related question of the relationship between the American Revolution and the Civil War.

Consider, for example, two scholars whose bold characterizations of Lincoln's career rest squarely on their assessment of his psycho- Page  [End Page 1] logical relationship to the founding generation. Both the historian George B. Forgie and the political scientist Dwight G. Anderson depict Lincoln as an extraordinarily ambitious man driven by profoundly conflicting urges—torn between his admiration of the Founding Fathers and their great deeds on the one hand and, on the other, his personal frustration and even rage at their having preempted the opportunity for someone of his "postheroic" generation to earn comparable fame. [2] Forgie belives that Lincoln largely repressed his resentment of the Founding Fathers but on some level of consciousness understood that his own longing for distinction could be satisfied only if the Republic had to be saved from the hands of a disloyal son. During the 1850s Lincoln attacked popular sovereignty as heretical, thus casting his great political rival Stephen Douglas in the role of that bad son who must be stalked, cornered, and then politically killed. By conjuring up both a consummate villain and a profound threat to the Founding Fathers' Republic, Lincoln helped set the stage for a national crisis in which he might play the role of the loyal, heroic son. Forgie emphasizes that Lincoln never consciously intended to bring on a civil war of catastrophic proportions. Ironically, the fame that Lincoln actually won came about only when and because the cultural and psychological ritual he was performing in his vendetta against Douglas in the 1850s misfired, outrunning his (or anyone's) control.

The script of political scientist Anderson unfolds rather differently. Anderson's Lincoln knew precisely what he was doing and, in fact, orchestrated the events that brought about the American Civil War in order to satisfy his colossal lust for fame. Anderson's Lincoln was driven by a number of urgent passions rooted in his obsessive anxiety about death. After his efforts to play the role of the dutiful son in national politics brought him nothing but obscurity and humiliation, Lincoln became a demonic presence in the Founding Fathers' Republic, a defiant son who willfully tore down the house they had built and then, during the Civil War, refashioned a very different kind of Union in his own image. As the ultimate act of revenge Page  [End Page 2] against the Founding Fathers, he even supplanted them all, including George Washington, as first in the hearts of his countrymen.

In attempting to shed new light on Lincoln's relationship to the Revolutionary generation of leaders, the pyschobiographers have been joined by at least a few intellectual historians. In John P. Diggins's The Lost Soul of American Politics, for instance, Lincoln's towering greatness stems from his having self-consciously distanced himself from his illustrious predecessors. The historian Diggins clearly believes that the Constitution of 1787 was a reactionary document, designed by its framers to contain and even thwart the more radical impulses of 1776. He is also convinced that his hero Lincoln in effect held the same "Progressive" interpretation of the Constitution and therefore felt, as Diggins describes it, "an acute estrangement" from the Founding Fathers of 1787 and their principles. [3] Dissatisfied with the house they had built, he razed it; which is to say, Diggins's Lincoln sought and ultimately achieved a major reconfiguring of the Republic and its ideological scaffolding.

More recently, Garry Wills, in his brilliant study of Lincoln at Gettysburg, agrees that Lincoln redefined and thus reinvented both the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Wills rejects completely all claims that Lincoln was in any way hostile to the Founding Fathers, but he is no less convinced that Lincoln and Jefferson had substantially different beliefs and that at Gettysburg especially Lincoln picked the intellectual pockets of his listeners, performing "a giant (if benign) swindle" that reinvented the Revolutionary past. [4]

As Wills observes, some present-day American conservatives see the same Lincoln swindle but find it anything but benign. Consider, in this light, the writings of M. E. Bradford, who was a professor of literature and rhetoric at the University of Dallas, which fit squarely into what the historian Don E. Fehrenbacher called a submerged but shrill "Anti-Lincoln tradition" in American culture.[5] Bradford's Lincoln is a master of deception and demagoguery, a country hustler Page  [End Page 3] of immense intelligence and rhetorical genius whose guiding principle was personal ambition, pure and simple. Bradford finds little in Lincoln's writings to dignify with the label of political philosophy, but he believes that Lincoln's powerful rhetoric, with its emphasis on human equality, initiated a "derailment" of the noble political tradition established by the Founding Fathers. Bradford is convinced that Lincoln's distortion of their teachings was calculated and deliberate. As he announced to an unreceptive gathering of Lincoln scholars in Gettysburg, "In appealing to an imaginary history," Father Abraham was rankly "duplicitous." [6]

Each of these revisionist interpretations has its own distinctive shape; no single, common thread unites them. But taken together, they suggest a composite portrait of Lincoln's relationship to the Founding Fathers worth pondering. They appear to suggest, first, that Lincoln's political principles were significantly different from those of the founders of the American Republic; second, that his admiration of the Founding Fathers was at best ambivalent and perhaps little more than rhetorical contrivance; and, finally, that on some level of consciousness, and for reasons connected to his consuming ambition, Lincoln manipulated the politics of the 1850s in order to bring down the Founding Fathers' house so that he might rebuild it on a better foundation.

Do the revisionists' theories actually make sense? On the whole I think not, although I also believe that we have something important to learn from them. As a historian who has worked primarily with the Founding generation and who has recently begun to take a closer look at Lincoln, I propose to venture a tentative summary of my assessment of these propositions and of the composite image of Lincoln they present. In doing so, I shall direct particular attention to a comparative assessment of Lincoln and the Founding Father I know best, James Madison.

Were Lincoln's political principles significantly different from those of the Founding Fathers? Obviously there were differences; given the important shifts in both circumstance and culture between their time and his, there had to be—but on the whole I remain considerably more impressed by the similarities and continuities, especially on the level of fundamental belief. As a number of scholars (most notably Harry Jaffa) have suggested, Lincoln correctly understood, as Stephen Douglas and Chief Justice Roger B. Taney among many Page  [End Page 4]

 James Madison
James Madison
others did not, that the political thought of the Revolutionary generation was grounded in the logic of natural right and that natural rights inhered in all members of the human species. Lincoln was absolutely correct to attribute to the Founding Fathers the belief not only that slavery was wrong—that it challenged the very logic of republican government—but also that its presence in the United States could be tolerated and defended only in terms of temporary necessity imposed by circumstance. [7] James Madison said as much Page  [End Page 5] throughout his long public career; especially in view of the posture he assumed during his twilight years of the 1820s and 1830s, there can be little doubt that the "Father of the Constitution" would have understood, accepted, and embraced Lincoln's formulation of these fundamental matters throughout the crisis of the 1850s.

Did Lincoln feel any significant degree of estrangement, or alienation, from the Founding Fathers? Like Wills, I have found no persuasive evidence to substantiate such recent claims, which rest entirely on contrived inferences from some of what Lincoln said, especially in the now-notorious lecture he delivered to the Young Men's Lyceum in Springfield in 1838, and what he did later during the Civil War. Inferring belief from action—in the absence of confirming evidence and in the presence of ample contradictory evidence—seems worse than farfetched.

Did Lincoln's ambition, comparable in degree and kind to that of the Founding Fathers, prompt him during the 1850s to help precipitate a national crisis in which he might achieve greatness? Here we must first acknowledge the important contribution of the revisionists, especially Forgie, in clarifying and enriching our understanding of the precise character of what William Herndon memorably referred to as that "little engine that knew no rest," Lincoln's ambition.[8] In this area, in fact, Lincoln may have had much more in common with the Founding Fathers than many of the revisionists explicitly allow. In an essay first published more than twenty-five years ago, the historian Douglass Adair brilliantly described the distinctive passion that animated so many leaders of the Revolutionary generation: a lust for fame, or the immortality earned through the remembrance of a grateful posterity.[9] Adair of course made no mention of Lincoln, but this quest for fame, in Adair's eighteenth-century heroic sense of the term (as opposed to that of present-day People magazine), formed a significant bond between the Illinois railsplitter and that earlier generation, a bond that sets Lincoln apart from virtually all of Lincoln's contemporaries, including his great rival Douglas. Lincoln's ambition was never simply ordinary ambition, or what Alexis de Tocqueville described as the prevalent desire among Americans of his generation to acquire property, power, and reputation. Of course Lincoln was ambitious in that sense, but what ultimately Page  [End Page 6] drove him was more than the familiar desire to rise in society. He understood quite well what Alexander Hamilton had meant by referring to "the love of fame" as "the ruling passion of the noblest minds." [10]

Like Adair's Founding Fathers, some of whom were rather ordinary men driven to perform at an extraordinary level by the lure of fame, Lincoln, who was anything but ordinary, appears to have been after bigger game than the immediate rewards of public office. He, too, longed above all to be remembered for what he was doing to advance a great cause. Preparing for his campaign against Douglas in 1858, for instance, he wrote privately that "I have never professed an indifference to the honors of official station; and were I to do so now, I should only make myself ridiculous. Yet I have never failed— do not now fail—to remember that in the republican cause there is a higher aim than that of mere office."[11] Lincoln meant more here than the platitudinous "I'd rather be right than President (or Senator)"; he knew that labor in a great and worthy cause might, in the long run of history, pay larger, more important personal dividends than winning office.

Such was demonstrably the case in his own time with eighteenth-century British opponents of the slave trade, who had lost the political contests of their day but whose names—Wilberforce, Sharpe— were known and honored by all schoolboys. By contributing to the furtherance and ultimate triumph of the extraordinary cause of republicanism, Lincoln, like the Founding Fathers he revered, was seeking immortality of a kind. At some point the ruling passion of his noble mind became nothing less than the desire to carve a place for himself in national memory—or, as the historian Robert Bruce has put it, to achieve "eternal consciousness by proxy in the mind of posterity." [12]

We can understand better the important connections between Lincoln's character, his thought, and his career if we consider them in the light of an ambition that was in one sense culturally anachronistic. And there can be little doubt that Lincoln consciously saw in the 1850s an opportunity to pursue fame that he had not seen so clearly or vividly before. But just as clearly it strains credulity to Page  [End Page 7]

The Slave Auction, illustration from Uncle Tom's
The Slave Auction, illustration from Uncle Tom's CabinPage  [End Page 8]
infer, as at least some revisionists have, that Lincoln, whether consciously or subconsciously, somehow helped contrive the crisis that opened this window of opportunity. The crisis that Lincoln perceived in the 1850s and struggled to resolve was hardly of his making. He did not have to manufacture it, and he certainly did not imagine it; it was quite real. And the crisis was not so much in the national parties or even in the political system more generally—any more than it arose solely from the specific policy disputes of that decade. The underlying crisis that Lincoln identified and that roused him to action existed in what he often called public opinion, or the sentiments of the people, in what the Founding Fathers would have called the manners and morals—the very spirit—of the people, which both they and Lincoln believed ultimately shaped the form and character of political institutions.

Lincoln repeatedly described the crisis in public opinion quite simply and precisely: It consisted of the erosion of what had once been a consensus among Americans about the injustice, or fundamental wrongness, of slavery. The crisis was manifested in the clear drift of public policy beginning in 1854, from the repeal of the Missouri Compromise in Douglas's infamous Kansas-Nebraska bill, to the Dred Scott decision, to President Buchanan's shameful support of the fraudulent Lecompton Constitution for Kansas. But Lincoln's crisis was not so much the product of those policies as it was in effect their cause, because at bottom those policies offered dramatic evidence of what Lincoln believed was now possible given the alarming drift in public opinion. Indeed, Lincoln expressed grave concern about this deeper crisis not in public policy, but in public sentiment, well before the firestorm of controversy that greeted passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in early 1854. Two years earlier, during the period of relative public calm following the compromise of 1850, Lincoln had openly condemned a growing tendency to defend slavery as a matter of principle, or as historians now generally say, as a positive good.

The best evidence of Lincoln's concern is his well-known eulogy of his political hero, Henry Clay, delivered in July 1852. Lincoln's was only one of many such tributes by Whigs to their departed leader; but as the historian Mark Neely has suggested, Lincoln's was in some respects strikingly different. [13] Unlike other eulogists, who tended to celebrate the Great Compromiser without even mentioning Page  [End Page 9] what had created the urgent need for his compromising talents, Lincoln focused on Clay's important place in a noble antislavery tradition.

To illustrate his point, Lincoln offered something no other eulogist of Clay apparently considered relevant: a history of the insidious development of the proslavery argument, beginning with John Calhoun's heretical utterances in the 1830s. Lincoln feared that what had been, fewer than twenty years earlier, the bizarre conceit of extremist South Carolinians was fast becoming a deepening American habit. In 1852 he saw an increasing number of individuals who, for the sake of perpetuating or at least excusing slavery, were prepared to assail the fundamental, eighteenth-century premise of human equality. All of this proslavery talk, Lincoln observed, "sounds strangely in republican America," and he was essentially correct to suggest that "the like was not heard in the fresher days of the Republic." [14] This provided all the more reason to celebrate the wisdom and courage of the Whig hero Clay, who until the very end of his life had faithfully articulated and upheld the Founding Fathers' true principles regarding slavery.

Lincoln readily acknowledged, of course, that Clay, like so many of the Founding Fathers, had himself owned slaves. And, like the Fathers, Clay had respected the exigencies of circumstance, which dictated that the institution could not be safely eradicated at once. But also like the Fathers, Clay had consistently acknowledged that, as a matter of fundamental principle, slavery was indefensible because blacks could never be exempted from the human race. And like the Fathers, Clay understood that the American Revolution had entailed not just principled opposition to the institution but a moral commitment to promoting its ultimate extinction to the extent that prevailing circumstances permitted. Lincoln therefore concluded his 1852 eulogy with a rousing defense of what Clay had considered the only prudent program of antislavery action during the first half of the nineteenth century: gradual emancipation, roughly along the lines followed by the northern states just after the Revolution, joined to the colonization abroad of the former slaves. Such strategies offered the only hope that slaveholders might be persuaded to free their slaves and that blacks might themselves become founding fathers of their own republics, free from the burden of ineradicable white prejudice, outside the United States.

Such an antislavery "program" does not sit well with us today; it hardly seems antislavery at all. But Lincoln was quite right to Page  [End Page 10]

 John C. Calhoun, senator from South Carolina
John C. Calhoun, senator from South Carolina
suggest that Clay's views were essentially those of the Founding Fathers, including and perhaps especially "the last of the Fathers," James Madison. I call Madison "the last of the Fathers" simply because he somehow managed, notwithstanding his lifelong complaints about his frail constitution and poor health, to outlive virtually all of his Revolutionary compatriots, and hence to see a great deal more than they of the young Lincoln's America. During the years just before Madison's death in 1836, when Lincoln, then in his twenties, was finding his mature identity in the frontier town of New Salem, Madison had himself had a glimpse, an early and frightening glimpse, of precisely the phenomenon that Lincoln would later excoriate in his eulogy of Clay. [15] It is especially pertinent that that glimpse only stiffened Madison's commitment to colonization. He embraced colonization all the more fervently in the 1830s, not because he was absolutely convinced that it offered a practical solution to the dilemma of slavery—he could hardly ignore the abundant evidence that it could not be much more than a token gesture, Page  [End Page 11] something to alleviate racial anxieties among white Americans—but rather because, in Madison's judgment, colonization offered the only practical means of sustaining opposition to slavery itself.

As Madison scrutinized the younger generation of Virginians who surrounded him in the 1830s, he caught clear glimpses of what was the most likely alternative to keeping faith in colonization as the necessary adjunct to gradual emancipation. And that alternative, as he suggested in a letter to Thomas R. Dew in 1833, would hardly be the acceptance of blacks as full and equal citizens of a biracial American republic, but rather a "torpid acquiescence" in perpetual slavery that would insidiously demand an adjustment of principle. Madison knew that Americans who accepted the permanence of slavery would inevitably be lulled into accepting either the absurd proposition that blacks were not human or the equally repugnant proposition that republican principles had never been meant to apply to all human beings after all. [16]

It was precisely that abandonment—indeed, betrayal—of the Revolutionary legacy of natural right that Lincoln saw occurring, even escalating, during the 1850s. That is why he insisted ultimately on condemning not only southern apologists for slavery (whose interest in the new way of thinking was obvious) but also, even more, such northern Democrats as Douglas who, whether from personal indifference or a desire to appease southern members of their party, refused to acknowledge, as a matter of principle, that slavery was wrong. As Lincoln said of Douglas, such professed indifference to the moral dimension of slavery "debauch[ed] public sentiment" into seeing the Negro not as a man, entitled to at least the natural right to liberty, but as a brute with no rights that the white man was bound to respect.[17] And that fundamental crisis would pass, Lincoln believed, only when Americans clearly, emphatically, and unequivocally reaffirmed their inherited commitment to the Revolutionary propositions that made slavery wrong.

Neither Lincoln in the 1850s nor Madison in the 1830s professed to offer, with any measure of confidence, a workable solution to the dilemma of slavery. Both men more or less admitted that, practically speaking, the problem defied resolution, at least for the immediate future. But they did know that something had to be done, or at the very least affirmed, in order to preserve the moral foundations of the American republic. Or, to put the matter a bit differently, both Madison and Lincoln accepted the fact that the American Union Page  [End Page 12] always had been, and must continue to be, the product of mutual forbearance and concession, of compromise; but they also agreed that some things, by their nature, could not be compromised without altering the character of the regime that the Union defined. The octogenarian Madison embraced colonization as the most practical expression of both a commitment to end slavery and a commitment to the principles that made slavery wrong. Two decades later, in the midst of what "the last of the Fathers" would surely have regarded as a profound crisis in public sentiment, Lincoln/understanding that time and circumstance alone now worked against the freedom of blacks, seized what he saw to be the only way consistent with Madison's Constitution to express this necessary opposition to slavery. He turned to the stratagem of geographically containing the institution, with the immediate hope that a tangible expression of antislavery principle would somehow ease Americans through their great moral and spiritual crisis.

As a matter of policy, Madison would almost surely have resisted and opposed Lincoln's containment for the same reasons that he had expressed skepticism about that approach during the Missouri crisis of 1819–20.[18] The "Father of the Constitution" understood much better than Lincoln that the triumph of containment in national politics, rather than promoting the long-term cause of emancipation in the way Lincoln vaguely hoped, would likely destroy the Union— as it did in the winter of 1860–61. Yet judging from Madison's state of mind during the final decade of his life, it seems just as clear that he would have found Lincoln's purposes and principles, if not his specific policies or methods, perfectly congenial. And although Lincoln may not have realized it until the Civil War was almost over, that terrible and destructive war became, paradoxically, the only practical way of honoring Madison's and the Founding Fathers' noble but tragically flawed legacy. Page  [End Page 13]


  1. J. G. Randall, Lincoln: The Liberal Statesman (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1947), 179. return to text
  2. Both scholars produced major books with revealing titles: George B. Forgie, Patricide in the House Divided: A Psychological Interpretation of Lincoln and His Age (New York: Norton, 1979), and Dwight G. Anderson, Abraham Lincoln: The Quest for Immortality (New York: Knopf, 1982). The concept of a "postheroic" generation is Forgie's. For different twists on some of the same issues, see also James Hurt, "All the Living and the Dead: Lincoln's Imagery," American Literature 52 (1980): 351–80, and Charles B. Strozier, "On the Verge of Greatness: Psychological Reflections on Lincoln at the Lyceum," Civil War History 36 (1990): 137–48. return to text
  3. John P. Diggins, The Lost Soul of American Politics: Virtue, Self-Interest, and the Foundations of Liberalism (New York: Basic Books, 1984), 298. return to text
  4. Garry Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992), 38.return to text
  5. M. E. Bradford, "Dividing the House: The Gnosticism of Lincoln's Political Rhetoric," Modern Age 23 (1979): 10–24; "The Lincoln Legacy: A Long View," Modern Age 24 (1980): 355–63; and A Better Guide Than Reason: Studies in the American Revolution (LaSalle, Ill.: Sherwood Sugden, 1979), esp. 42–46, 187–92. Don E. Fehrenbacher, Lincoln in Text and Context: Collected Essays (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987), 197–213. return to text
  6. M. E. Bradford, "Against Lincoln: An Address at Gettysburg," in The Historian's Lincoln: Pseudohistory, Psychohistory, and History, ed. Gabor S. Boritt (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988), 111.return to text
  7. Harry Jaffa's writings on Lincoln in this context are legion. His most sophisticated formulation is in Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Issues in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), esp. chap. 14. See also his How to Think About the American Revolution: A Bicentennial Celebration (Durham: Carolina Academic Press, 1978); American Conservatism and the American Founding (Durham: Carolina Academic Press, 1984); and "Equality and the Founding," in The American Founding: Essays on the Formation of the Constitution, ed. J. Jackson Barlow, Leonard W. Levy, and Ken Masugi (New York: Greenwood Press, 1988), 121–37. For elaboration of the related case that Lincoln was generally faithful to the Founders' Constitution, see Herman Belz, "Abraham Lincoln and American Constitutionalism," Review of Politics 50 (1988): 169–97. Jaffa has also argued persuasively that Lincoln's philosophical position on the Union in 1861 was virtually identical to Madison's during the controversy over nullification in the early 1830s; see Jaffa, The Conditions of Freedom (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975), 161–83.return to text
  8. William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, Herndon's Life of Lincoln, ed. Paul M. Angle (New York: 1949), 304.return to text
  9. The essay is reprinted in Douglass Adair, Fame and the Founding Fathers, ed. Trevor Colbourn (New York: Norton, 1974), 3–26.return to text
  10. Jacob E. Cooke, ed., The Federalist (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1961), 48 (No. 72). return to text
  11. Roy P. Basler, ed., Marion Dolores Pratt and Lloyd A. Dunlap, asst. eds., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 9 vols. (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1953–55), 2:482 (hereafter cited as Collected Works). return to text
  12. Robert V. Bruce, Lincoln and the Riddle of Death (Fort Wayne: Louis A. Warren Lincoln Library and Museum, 1981), 23.return to text
  13. Mark E. Neely, Jr., "American Nationalism in the Image of Henry Clay: Abraham Lincoln's Eulogy on Henry Clay in Context," Register of the Kentucky Historical Society 73 (1975): 31–60.return to text
  14. Collected Works, 2:131. return to text
  15. Drew R. McCoy, The Last of the Fathers: James Madison and the Republican Legacy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), esp. chap. 7.return to text
  16. McCoy, The Last of the Fathers, 302–3.return to text
  17. Collected Works, 3:469–70. return to text
  18. McCoy, The Last of the Fathers, 266–76.return to text