Abraham Lincoln remains our greatest — and certainly our most studied — national hero. Historians, poets, playwrights and novelists have explored every nuance of his life many times over. Their broad coverage, imagination and ingenuity suggest that very little is left to say about someone who one newspaper columinst called, as recently as last month, "our most saintly president." [2] Perhaps that is true. After all, where Gore Vidal has gone can anyone else subsequently follow? [3] It is, therefore, with a deep sense of humility that I offer these remarks this afternoon. But I believe that there is still a point or two that can sharpen our understanding of aspects of Lincoln's public life and the political world that he inhabited.

Lincoln's fame, of course, grew out of his confrontation with Stephen A. Douglas in the great debates of 1858, his experience as a wartime president, his articulation of a magnificent vision of the Union, as emancipator and finally, as martyr. To his contemporaries in the years before all of that, Lincoln was quite well known in his home state for another political reason: his long standing and persistent Whiggery. His active public career in Illinois was all but coterminous with the life of the Whig party. He joined as it formed in the early thirties, a devoted disciple of Henry Clay, the party's architect. He left it reluctantly in 1855, still professing to be a Henry Clay Whig. Page  [End Page 21]

That experience is my theme: Lincoln, the intense party member and activist and what that meant, both generally and to him personally in the three decades before the Civil War when he was shaped as a politician. Don Fehrenbacher has explored Lincoln's political life in the 1850s. [4] I want to look at the preceding two decades. I do not think that I push matters too hard when I suggest that in the 1830s and 1840s he was as compelling a political figure as he was in the last years before his election to the presidency.

Lincoln the Illinois Whig leader was forever self-conscious about his devotion to that party and its leaders. In his first debate with Douglas in 1858 he noted that Henry Clay was his "beau ideal of a statesman, the man for whom I fought all my humble life." And in the autobiographical fragment that he wrote in 1859, he characterized his life in public affairs with the comment that he was "always a whig in politics." [5] But it is more than length of service, notoriety and self consciousness that are of interest here. He lived within a political environment that was defined by what I have elsewhere referred to as the partisan imperative: a party-centered political system widely accepted and deeply ingrained in the American consciousness.[6] Political parties were the epicenter of all but a small segment of political activity from the 1830s onward in the United States. Lincoln's political development mirrored these larger patterns. Lincoln was everywhere. He was a partisan Whig ideology and spokesman for his party's cause in campaign and legislative debate, he was a party technician — an organization builder and political manager — and he remained loyal, committed and disciplined to the Whig cause. His partisanship was deeply important to his party and to himself. His Whiggery impinged on everything else he became and did.

Most of all, he fit a particular model endemic to his time: a new type of political activist that had replaced the great statesmen of the revolutionary era and their successors in the generations up to the 1830s. There was always a hard political edge to Lincoln. Like Seward and Van Buren in New York, Chase in Ohio, his great rival Douglas and thousands of others who served in state legislatures, Congress, or in the many offices at the state and local level, Lincoln followed and succeeded in a profession which, while new and of- Page  [End Page 22] ten perceived with great ambivalence, was critical to the working of the political system that had emerged in the United States. As Daniel Walker Howe has written, "Lincoln possessed a deserved reputation for party regularity." He was "an extremely shrewd professional politician," a most successful political manager at the state level.[7]

Much of this is known. Scholars have long recognized Lincoln's Whiggish commitments and noted his sharply honed political instincts and the tactical skills he derived from them. More than twenty years ago, one historian wrote, "that Lincoln was what ... Americans call 'a regular party man' is an observation that ought to be explicitly stated by writers on Lincoln."[8] Many have. Certainly, each of his biographers has spent time on this aspect of his life. Students of public affairs, of the Whig party and of the development of politics in the western states all recognize Lincoln's role and give it much attention.[9] Still, more can be said. Here I wish to develop the insights of Lincoln scholars and of students of antebellum politics side by side for the sake of filling out the record and nailing down an important — and not disreputable — aspect of Lincoln's career. Specifically, I wish to do two things:

  1. elaborate on the nature of Lincoln's Whiggery and his place in the political environment that defined him so well;
  2. evaluate and clarify what that meant and recast our understanding of, and reaction to, that side of Lincoln's public life.

It was in the fresh partisan world of the United States in the 1830s and the 1840s, at the very beginning of "the party period," that Lincoln learned his craft and, more critically, developed an outlook on Page  [End Page 23] his world — a very partisan outlook. [10] Political parties had several different aspects to them: doctrines, organization, adherents, leaders. They grew out of a set of deeply held and cherished beliefs about policies and programs to benefit the nation. We have become increasingly sensitive to the important ideological differences between the antebellum political parties, the commitment of each to different economic and social policies and, most of all, their strong disagreements over the extent and locus of government power. [11] Whig leaders, for example, had codified a set of desired government initiatives by the late 1830s and early 1840s designed to promote a particular economic and social vision of the nation. Rooted in Clay's American system, Whigs north and south, east and west had come to accept this vision. [12] Certainly, Illinois Whiggery reflected this. As the first scholarly treatment of the state party reminded us seventy years ago, Illinois Whigs showed little "reluctance ... to declare for certain definite principles." In 1840 they "adopted clean cut principles upon which they asked the support of the people and ... in 1843, they reiterated their former declarations with greater emphasis." And Gabor Boritt, who has engaged in the most extensive examination of Lincoln's ideological/policy commitments, has found them to be right in the mainstream of Whiggery as articulated in its golden age of the late thirties and forties. As he says, "economics and a related vision of America, more than any other factor, made Lincoln a Whig from 1832 to 1854 — and indeed to the end of his life." [13] In his early political activities, his speeches favoring federally financed internal improvements and a national bank, and his commitment to a protective tariff, all followed standard Whig doctrine. As Richard N. Current described him, "an old Henry Clay Whig[,] he had indeed been one who yielded to no other in devotion to Clay and Clay's principles." He was never persuaded that Page  [End Page 24] Andrew Jackson symbolized the age — except in its most negative aspects.[14]

As part of his explicit commitment to Whiggery, Lincoln also was a staunch articulator and promoter of Whig attitudes, values and policies. He helped codify, institutionalize and perpetuate his party's policy stances. His speaking tours of Illinois in election years from the 1830s into the fifties were unstinting. He could be a virulent political point man, becoming widely known for his powerful anti-Van Buren statements, which included calling on the voters to "crucify" the Democratic president. In the Illinois legislature, at Whig conventions, in Whig newspapers, he helped draft and present some of the clearest statements of the nature of Whig policies available. An Iowa newspaper reported that in a speech he gave in Jacksonville in 1843, Lincoln

took up the three prominent principles of the Whig party — the Tariff, a sound and uniform National Currency and the Distribution of the proceeds of the Public Lands. All these he illustrated so plainly and so forcibly, as to show that he not only understood these principles thoroughly himself and their beneficial bearing on the American people, but that he also possessed a most happy facility of vindicating them and urging their adoption before an audience in such a manner as to convince all present of their necessity.
Allowing for the partisan hyperbole, the message is clear enough. Lincoln was "a devout Whig" practiced in "utilizing standard Whig rhetoric."[15]

But Lincoln did more than speak on behalf of the good Whig battle in Illinois. His voting record in the state legislature was that of a conventional Whig. As party lines hardened nationally and at the state level in the late 1830s and early 1840s, the legislative behavior of party representatives reflected sharp partisan differences. As Rodney Davis's close study shows, Illinois Whig legislators in the 1830s voted together on behalf of a set of policies quite distinctly different from those supported by the Democrats. Their ideological cohesion was consistent and normal in the political climate of those decades. Page  [End Page 25] Lincoln regularly stood with his fellow party members, revealing the voting behavior of a conventional Whig partisan willing to sustain the policies of his party and staunchly oppose those of the other side. [16]

Similarly, in his well-known, single congressional term in the mid-forties, Lincoln made a name for himself as a political spokesman and actor on behalf of Whiggery. He proved to be, as James G. Randall wrote long ago, "an ardent hard-working Whig." He was "an exemplary party man ... giving orthodox Whig speeches on tariffs and internal improvements." [17] His voting record over two sessions of the Thirtieth Congress showed no policy ambiguity when he responded to the range of issues considered. Lincoln, the lone Illinois Whig congressman, voted as he spoke. "A faithful party man," he never 'skulked' a vote on touchy issues," proving himself to be "a mainstream Western Whig."[18]

Even his most famous action in those years followed the partisan norm. He was the focal point, as is well known, for a sustained assault on President Polk's Mexican War policy. Opposition to "Mr. Polk's War" was a party issue. The Democratic newspapers in Illinois tried very hard to make something unique and base of Lincoln's "treasonous speech," his "libel upon his country." But, as Mark Neeley, Jr., has emphasized, he stood with other Whigs on this issue. Like his party colleagues, "highly critical of the war," he "directed a ceaseless barrage of invective at Polk." He thought that his speeches on this issue "would aid his party in the coming elections."[19]

In all that he did as an office holder then, he "authenticated his Whig credentials," proving to be "an eager partisan whose voice and Page  [End Page 26] votes conformed to his party's needs." [20] All of this, I repeat, was unsurprising. Lincoln fell well within the policy-oriented political texture of his time and clearly identified with the existing norms that define the era.

The second element defining Lincoln the Whig involved the organizational skills he demonstrated and the frame of mind, the approach to politics he exhibited within the Whig party at both the state and national levels. One of the distinguishing marks of the new political world of the 1830s and 1840s was the development of increasingly elaborate political organizations at the local, state and national levels to carry on the many tasks associated with constant electoral confrontations. Committees, conventions, active party workers, electoral lists, precinct captains and poll watchers came to fill more and more political space in the United States.[21] Lincoln early understood the organizational imperatives of the new party politics. He was recognized as "skilled and resourceful in the art of political management" as well as "an astute and dextrous operator of the political machine ... [a] master wirepuller." [22]

It has become a staple of current historiography to emphasize Whig hesitancies about the new partisan political system, their discomfort with the norms of behavior demanded and the consequent refusal of many of them to engage in the distasteful activities of party organizing and electioneering. [23] They distrusted the demands for discipline and the necessity to subordinate oneself to the collective in the interest of a coalition victory. They continued to articulate an age old theme of American republican thought: the primacy of individual conscience over the call for collective discipline. They were, therefore, basically antiparty in their orientation and not builders of elaborate party institutions nor articulators of partisan norms.[24] Page  [End Page 27]

This seems to me to be an incomplete portrayal of the Whigs. There were, I would argue, at least three types of Whigs in the 1840s. The lines between them were not always sharply drawn; still, for understanding and focus, identifying each type is useful. First, there was a pre-party, conservative, statesmen group, rooted in an earlier political culture and unwilling to change gears in this new age. They were suspicious of mass politics and its demands for circus-like, noisy campaigns, the simplifying of difficult issues and the general rowdiness of Jacksonian America. In frustration and revulsion, they tried to remain aloof from the contamination of partisan warfare. This group included many of the antiparty types recently discussed by historians.[25]

The second group also demonstrated hostility to the demands of party organization and discipline. They were moral crusading, reformist, purifying Whigs, men such as the anti-slavery spokesmen, John Quincy Adams and Joshua Giddings, as well as some of the original nativists of the 1840s and 1850s. They held resolutely to a single priority, passionately wanted their desired policies enacted and brooked no talk of deferring to political realities or the need to compromise. They were constantly frustrated by the demands of party discipline and the need to maintain more broadly based coalitions than would support very specific, contentious, reform proposals. [26]

There was, finally and critically, a third type of Whig, including Lincoln, and William H. Seward among others. They were, to give them a not totally satisfying label, realists-pragmatists, shrewd political operators, at home with the new system, or at least willing to play by its rules in the absence of any other possibilities. There is no question that, at first, many of Lincoln's colleagues found the dictates of organizational behavior to be "hateful heresies." And Lincoln felt some of this as well. But by 1840, much of that had changed, certainly in his case. The pluralism of American life, the different tensions, strains, needs and demands, and the requirement to mobilize broadly based electoral coalitions, all led Lincoln and many others to develop both the skills of political management and a pluralist, compromising perspective on politics generally. It may be, as Formisano, Howe, Brown and other close students of Page  [End Page 28] Whiggery argue, that anti-party Whigs predominated on the whole. But certainly this third type, including Lincoln, were there in force as well — and not to be underestimated either in numbers or in influence. [27]

Thomas Ford commented, in his reflections on Illinois politics, that both parties in the state in the 1840s demonstrated a high degree of "discipline" in their activites. "No regular army could have excelled them" in this. [28] Lincoln was part of that, helping to plan a very tight and detailed Whig electoral organization for the various Illinois races, notably in 1840, but thereafter, regularly as well. He was absorbed in close attention to detail that marked him as among the shrewdest politicians of his era. His approach, as noted earlier, involved two different elements: a powerful dedication to organization and a determination to exploit the arts of shaping compromises party members could live with in order to accomplish Whiggery's broad purposes.[29]

His greatest efforts were directed towards getting the Whigs to organize and unite. "We justify — we urge — organization on the score of necessity," he wrote. "A disbanded yeomanry cannot successfully meet an organized soldiery." Organization was essential: "while our opponents use it, it is madness in us not to defend ourselves with it." [30] The "audacious young Whig boss" was everywhere. Thus, in 1839–1840, Lincoln described in great detail how to run an election campaign; he carried on a busy political correspondence; he wrote resolutions and made speeches, and saw that both were widely distributed. He oversaw the thousands of details concerned with organizing, uniting and preparing the party for the electoral wars. "Our intention is to organize the whole State so that every Whig can be brought to the polls...." The Whigs "have the numbers, and if properly organized and exerted," they could win. And there was always that tone of demand and direction that characterized the staunchest political organizations: "Enclosed is a prospectus for a newspaper to be published until after the Presidential Page  [End Page 29] election," he wrote in 1840. "It will be SUPERINTENDED BY OURSELVES, and every Whig in the State MUST take it."[31]

Perhaps the two most prominent monuments of this aspect of his political life were his campaign plan for 1840 and his 1843 resolutions laying out a pattern of organization embracing local, county and district conventions with committees and captains at every level to carry on the electioneering work. Let me quote part of the 1840 plan to underline the relative reach and meticulousness of his work.

1st.Appoint one person in each county as county captain, and take his pledge to perform promptly all the duties assigned him.
Duties of the County Captain
1st.To procure from the poll-books a separate list for each Precinct of all the names of all those persons who voted the Whig ticket in August.
2nd.To appoint one person in each Precinct as Precinct Captain, and, by a personal interview with him, procure his pledge, to perform promptly all the duties assigned him.
3rd.To deliver to each Precinct Captain the list of names belonging to his Section and also a written list of his duties.
Duties of the Precinct Captain
1st.To divide the list of names delivered him by the county Captain, into Sections of ten who reside most convenient to each other.
2nd.To appoint one person of each Section as Section Captain, and by a personal interview with him, procure his pledge to perform promptly all the duties assigned him.
3rd.To deliver to each Section Captain the list of names belonging to his Section and also a written list of duties. Page  [End Page 30]
Duties of the Section Captain
1st.To see each man of his Section face to face, and procure his pledge that he will for no consideration (impossibilities excepted) stay from the polls on the first monday in November; and that he will record his vote as early on the day as possible.
2nd.To add to his Section the name of every person in his vicinity who did not vote with us in August, but who will vote with us in the fall, and take the same pledge of him, as from the others.
3rd.To task himself to procure at least such additional names to his Section.[32]

But his role included more than careful organization. Lincoln's work also involved the fostering of party unity and discipline in the face of internal disagreements. He was always uneasy with purists in politics, those determined only on having their own way and who expressed "contempt for the timeworn give and take of the partisan struggle." Lincoln always "willingly subordinated his own ambitions to party harmony," and his own specific preferences as well.[33] He worked to get others to do so too. There was nothing accomplished, he warned repeatedly, on behalf of preferred candidates or desired policies without first achieving party victory.[34] This remained with him. In his early days in the Republican party he stated this as clearly and as forcefully as he ever did, building on more than twenty years of awareness of how to create effective political coalitions. We must meet, he told Indiana's Schuyler Colfax in 1859, in order

to hedge against divisions.... The point of danger is the temptation in different localities to 'platform' for something which will be popular just there, but which ... will be a firebrand elsewhere....What is desirable, if possible, is that in every local [party] convocation ... a point should be made to avoid everything which will distract Page  [End Page 31] republicans elsewhere.... In a word, in every locality we should look beyond our noses, and at least say nothing on points where it is probable we shall disagree.[35]

Act politically, think politically, within the confines of the party's needs and the party's perspectives. His support of Zachary Taylor, not his idol Henry Clay, for the Whig presidential nomination in 1848 was based on Taylor's electability. "Mr. Clay's chance for an election, is just no chance at all." Taylor's nomination "takes the locos on the blind side. It turns the war thunder against them." Therefore, "I am in favor of Gen. Taylor as the Whig candidate for the Presidency because I am satisfied we can elect him, that he would give us a Whig administration, and that we cannot elect any other Whig." [36]

Henry Clay
Henry ClayPage  [End Page 32]

He was a shrewd state leader of a minority party seeking votes outside of normal party channels, whose efforts on behalf of party goals overrode his personal preferences. When, in 1855, it became clear that Anti-Nebraska Democrats in Illinois would not support a Whig for the United States Senate seat, he, although holding the largest bloc of votes in the state legislature, threw his support to another Anti-Nebraska candidate, the Democrat, Lyman Trumbull. "I could not," he said, "let the whole political result go to ruin, on a point merely personal to myself."[37] He made it clear, however, then and always, that he saw no sacrifice of Whig principle and Whig purpose in moving this way. In 1848, he sought "a Whig administration" that would enact Whig policies. [38] Certainly his actions never positioned him or the Whigs in their opponents' ideological space nor brought into question the perceived differences between the parties. (Nor was such blending likely. Whigs as well as their opponents noisily rebuked those who would stray from the expected ideological way.)

Although Illinois Whiggery was never as robust electorally as Lincoln and his colleagues desired, there were always moments indicating promise if only one more effort was made. Certainly, at the outset, from the late thirties into the forties, Illinois Whigs kept coming close in both presidential and gubernatorial contests. As late as 1852 they still drew about 42 percent of the statewide vote. Although Springfield's 7th Congressional District was the only usual Whig seat, the party maintained substantial strength in several others, even winning four of nine districts in 1852. They held a solid bloc of state legislators as well.[39]

No one should overestimate the potential of the Whig party for growth — and I certainly do not — but there seemed to be enough support to keep up vigorous efforts on behalf of the party if one was optimistic and committed. As Lincoln said in 1839: "the probability that we may fall in the struggle ought not to deter us from the support of a cause we believe to be just; it shall not deter me.... Page  [End Page 33] Let none faulter [sic], who thinks he is right, and we may succeed." [40] He acted as if he believed that Whig electoral success could be achieved through the management skills and party building gifts that he possessed in such abundance. Others accepted that assessment. Lincoln remained an important figure for a very long time in Illinois and in the national party as a result. [41]

There was a third element to Lincoln's Whiggery: his persistent, deep commitment to his party, its leaders and what it stood for. Such commitment was one of the central aspects of this particular political culture and, as Lincoln's case indicates, a deeply rooted and meaningful part of it. Americans lived within highly charged, closely knit, partisan networks. An intricate web of interactive institutions centered in the communities — newspapers, volunteer social organizations, even churches — functioned constantly, and usually in a most partisan manner. Parties appealed to their supporters in massive, broad ranging ways, symbolically rooting out devils and threats surrounding them all, emphasizing issues and interests of concern to their component groups, reinforcing beliefs and identifying enemies and friends. Parties in this atmosphere became objects of powerful attachments. As a North Carolina Whig congressman, David Outlaw, put it in 1852, "the very name of party has a talismanic power on the passions and prejudices of the people." [42]

Americans developed such formidable allegiances to the parties because these institutions expressed their deepest values, beliefs and preferences. William Seward wrote in the early 1840s: "I still adhere just as firmly, and expect to adhere just as long, to the Whig party, as the party through whose action wise measures and beneficent legislation must chiefly be secured." Such attitudes grew even more powerful as time passed. As the editor of the Whig Review put it in 1849, party commitment "is a life-long ardor, a grand ever more powerful as time passed. As the editor of the Whig Review put it in 1849, party commitment "is a life-long ador, a grand combination of all the loves, passions, interests and opinions.... Page  [End Page 34] Hardly ever do men change their manners, their religion, or their politics, when these are implanted in them in early years." [43]

Lincoln's frequent assertions of his Whig loyalty echoed a similar commitment to party policies, values and outlook. As Daniel Howe has suggested, Lincoln's Whiggery "sprang from the very depths of his being" and remained an intense, deeply imbedded part of him.[44] That is why it was so difficult for Lincoln to leave the Whig party in the fifties. He hesitated even as political conditions changed sharply and the party's fortunes collapsed. He continued to say, "I think I am a whig," even when others suggested that there no longer were any Whigs.[45] For a long time he claimed that he saw no reason to join a new party. Reinhard Luthin has commented, after surveying Lincoln's move to the Republicans, that "at last Lincoln was a Republican; but throughout his metamorphosis from Whiggery to the new creed he had indicated his extreme reluctance to break old party ties." His hesitancies about leaving may have been due to uncertainty; it may have been due to shrewd political calculation. But it also reflected his deep loyalty to the Whigs. He watched the death of his party, as Don Fehrenbacher writes, "with no little sadness."[46] His life-long, powerful commitment was shared with so many others of his time.

In short, Lincoln was a nineteenth century political partisan to his boots, a good and devoted Illinois Whig, "a party-before-self politician."[47] As behind the scenes operator, legislative floor leader, congressman, potential gubernational and U.S. senatorial candidate, he spoke, acted and behaved as the partisan political world he inhabited dictated — and he demonstrated great talent in so doing. Other men had developed and nurtured the system and defined what Whiggery was. Lincoln implemented their vision through his gift for political organization and his ability to communicate to others the crucial nature of election campaigns and legislative action. All of these elements together shaped him: his policy commitment, flexibility within constraints, his intense loyalty to his par- Page  [End Page 35] ty home. As manager, tactician, implementer, Lincoln represented one of the critical elements of Whig and American politics before the Civil War.

All of which brings me to my second purpose this afternoon: the recasting of Lincoln's Whig political experience so as to sharpen its meaning, and make it more acceptable than it has sometimes been. What I have described — a middle-level party worker, a devoted Whig, and a reluctant, hesitant convert to the party of freedom — is not quite the Lincoln we celebrate. Historians, in fact, have treated Lincoln's Whig years quite ambivalently. Some of them have had difficulty with the story of Lincoln as, apparently, a petty, local, partisan politician. Some of them have seen the perspective he demonstrated and vision he encompassed as being at war with the later, celebrated revered savior of his country. This aspect of Lincoln's behavior in the political arena strikes them as particularly unappealing and not squaring with a devotion to a simple, heroic frontiersman's path to greatness.

Their attitude is summed up by Richard N. Current's statement that Lincoln "was essentially a man of principle. But [emphasis added] he was also of course, a politician." Or, as Gabor Boritt recently wrote in his excellent survey of Lincoln's ideology and review of Lincoln historiography, "no attempt is made here to camouflage the fact that Lincoln, the man of principle, was also very much a politician." [48] What is at issue, as reflected in Current's use of the word "but" and in Boritt's reference to "camouflage," to distinguish himself from the ambivalent scholars, is the appreciation of Lincoln as politician. The rules and behavior of petty politics, after all, seem ill-suited to his image. As a result, many pro-Lincoln historians celebrated his basic Whig policy orientation, but wrote uncomfortably about his party management activities, and proved hesitant about his intense Whig loyalties. James G. Randall tried to excuse one part of Lincoln's behavior: "It cannot be denied that Lincoln was a party man....But it is also worth noting that he saw the evils of party politics and that the worst party excesses never had his approval." Even Benjamin P. Thomas, the writer of a very perceptive single volume biography, found little good to say, even while remaining sympathetic, about Lincoln's political world: "The techniques of politics," Thomas wrote, "appeal, persuasion, compromise, maneuver — became thoroughly familiar to him; he learned the ways and nature of politicians. He found how best to use his Page  [End Page 36] personal attributes and discovered that moral convictions must sometimes be temporarily subordinated if a man is to work effectively in politics. If Lincoln had proved himself an able politician, however, it was in a rather narrow meaning of the word. In his methods and his outlook, he was still a man of expediency and limited vision."[49]

For a time, among other historians, a significant "cynical" historiographic portrait of Lincoln emerged which emphasized his political "expediency, self-interest and opportunism." This image, as Don Fehrenbacher notes, constantly reappeared among Lincoln scholars into the 1960s, often with expressed distaste for Lincoln "the temporizing politician." Lincoln was, in this portrayal, "the petty politician" who gave "inelegant" political "harangue[s]" to his party brethren for political purposes. He was "a sarcastic politician with a party allegiance but no issue" who gave campaign speeches in the 1850s reflecting "perfunctory mediocrity." His policy stances were solely for party advantage — a limiting factor — not in the general interest nor for the common good. [50]

One way that some historians found to get over their problem with Lincoln, the Whig politician, has been to treat Lincoln's career as embracing a dichotomy — first the local petty politician, usually condemned, and then great statesman, always celebrated. Some have been moved, in Fehrenbacher's analysis, to "present Lincoln as the frontier hero down to 1860 and as the national saint after that, along with some vague observations about his remarkable 'growth' in the presidency."[51] Although this approach particularly marked Lincoln studies in the 1930s and 1940s, echoes of it can still occasionally be heard.[52]

I do not review this approach in order to chide others who have worked in the field. Each framed his interpretation to deal with the Page  [End Page 37] material as it made sense to him. Of course, the negative image of the self-serving political manipulator is as common in American political literature and amid commentators on public affairs as any image we hold. A contempt for political parties and for politicans has often characterized American political culture, even in the writings of some historians. [53]. In his biography of Lincoln, Richard N. Current summed up this attitude well:

Among Americans the word politics and politician long have been terms of reproach. Politics generally means "dirty" politics, whether the adjective is used or not. Politicians, then, are dirty politicians unless they happen to be statesmen, and in that case they are not politicians at all.[54]

The implication of much Lincoln literature seems clear on this point. The early Lincoln falls into the category of party hacks and "dirty" politician. But leaving it at that would be unfair and incomplete. One can become too cynical, too much the prisoner of an interpretation based primarily on the persistent negative elements of political life. Certainly, my emphasis differs from those historians who I have been discussing. There is reason, as I have suggested, to move beyond some of their assertions and to challenge their hesitancies. To me, the dichotomous interpretation of Lincoln, which often, I suggest, reflects this antiparty and antipolitician outlook, overlooks some essential points and fails to grasp some important distinctions about the American political nation in the antebellum years.

The three elements comprising Lincoln's Whiggery were inseparable. They formed a coherent whole. They were not in conflict with each other. I would argue that to feel uncomfortable about Lincoln's local party activities, or his continuing Whig loyalties and commitments, says more about later generations than it does about Lincoln and other men of his time. Clearly, Lincoln drew great sustenance from the party-driven culture he inhabited and from his Whig commitments. He was fully woven into the partisan fabric of his time. We might remember the words recently spoken by another Illinois master politician, Congressman Dan Rostenkowski, "politics is an imperfect process." Lincoln understood that. As David Donald suggests, he tried "to face political reality as it was, Page  [End Page 38]

"Canvassing for a Vote" by George Caleb Bingham. Original
painting property of Boatmen's National Bank of St. Louis.
"Canvassing for a Vote" by George Caleb Bingham. Original painting property of Boatmen's National Bank of St. Louis.Page  [End Page 39]
not as he would have it become ... he refused to measure his associates by rigid tests of doctrinal purity. He was concerned with results." [55]

We, I suggest, have to separate ourselves from a century-long negative vision of parties and politicians as corrupt, impotent and meaninglessly engaged in loathsome activities in aid of nothing except their own petty concerns. An attitude toward politics that might have been appropriate amid the excesses of partisan zeal and political corruption of the Progressive period, and which has so shaped many of our attitudes since, gravely misunderstands the world in which Lincoln lived and the role that politics and politicians played in it. To put a point on this, the fact that the particular political talents he and others possessed fell out of fashion later should not lead to an underestimation of their importance, acceptability and reasonableness in Lincoln's day. Not that there was not cynicism and disdain for parties and politicians among Americans of the 1830s and 1840s. There was. But there are significant matters of balance and understanding here.

Parties were crucial to these men "for it was in party stability and strength that they saw the means for achieving the America they envisioned." [56] There was here a particular kind of political world growing out of a mass, sprawling, untidy, competitive society. Political conflict was normal and expected. It needed articulation, shaping and direction. Parties were necessary. As we have seen, they clarified issues, they organized a mass political world to fight for those issues and to implement their programs once in office. How, after all, was a pluralistic political culture to be made to work? As a leading Whig newspaper in New York State answered in 1855, in the United States, "political measures can only be achieved by parties." William Seward had a similar view. "What though the elements of political strife remain?" he wrote. "They are necessary for the life of free States. What though there still are parties, and the din and turmoil of their contests are ceaselessly heard? They are founded not on questions of mere administration or on mere ephemeral questions of personal merit. Such parties are dangerous only in the decline, not in the vigor of Republics."[57] Page  [End Page 40]

In such a world, skill in organization and in instilling discipline plus devotion to political parties and what they represent all were necessary. Parties needed leaders — and those leaders had to function in certain ways. In the America of Lincoln's day, it took political managers of his type to keep things going as they were supposed to. The politicians who led the parties had their share of petty-mindedness. But I do not believe that the argument can be sustained that these men were only cynical and always manipulative in their dealings. Lincoln certainly was not, nor, I suggest, were many of the other political leaders of the day. Being political in the way they were did not separate them from principles, consistency, even a moral vision. Prudence, organization, compromise, all were practiced within understood boundaries. I agree with Fehrenbacher's belief that Lincoln was both a "man of deep moral conviction" as well as a "practical aspiring politician."[58] Whatever the proportion of sordid opportunism in his and his contemporaries' makeup, it was never their sole motivation.

At one level, the partisan way was limited and parochial, to be sure. Let me acknowledge the presence of serious limitations. Certainly, competitive national parties in the antebellum period proved unable to handle the great moral issues of the day and tended to deflate the influence of such issues as much as possible. That was their great failure. But the partisan approach was dedicated to a particular and useful political way. In the arena in which they functioned, commitment, loyalty, devotion, belonging — being a party member — had a meaning beyond the electoral. Political involvement contained substance as well as style.

In the United States before the Civil War, political leaders understood and played their role — necessarily and usefully so — and understood the constraints on them. Leaders and followers had an interactive relationship; parties represented individuals, groups, interests. Led by elites, they were mass-based organizations that needed careful tending. Lincoln and his colleagues added sensitivity to the problems of pluralism, grasping a way to accomplish important goals in a dynamic society. Their commitment to the ethic, behavior and institutions of their partisan political nation was one of the key needs of the pluralistic politics of the antebellum United States. What emerged was a responsible party system or as close to one as the American political experience has ever come. [59] Page  [End Page 41]

It has been suggested that each generation of American historians has to come to terms with Lincoln afresh. [60] In so doing, historians' sensitivity to the context of the times in which he lived and the shaping force of very particular influences on him has to be carefully comprehended, whether these elements make sense at first to later generations or not. Recently, there has been a surer-footed understanding of Lincoln as a political animal, and what that meant has begun to emerge out of the work of David Donald, Don Fehrenbacher, Gabor Boritt, Mark Neely, Major Wilson and Richard O. Curry, among others. In a series of articles and reviews they have begun to illuminate his Whiggery as perspective, temperament, commitment and behavior.[61] They have stressed what parties meant in Lincoln's world, what they were, the role they played and how comfortably Lincoln fit into them. Although none of them has articulated the perspective that I have elaborated here in quite the same way, they have been much struck, whatever else they make of them, by Lincoln's original political commitments. "There is no denying," Daniel Walker Howe has written, "the importance of Lincoln's Whiggery for understanding his career, his outlook and his policies."[62]

What distinguished Lincoln's role, in fine, was its necessity — and its ordinariness. What he was cannot be judged as somehow failing some standard of political propriety or greatness. Quite the contrary. Nor was he chronologically split in two, nor did he have anything to excuse himself for. He was a total political operator — if one wants to be offensive — a party hack. But so what? He and others like him defined much about political participation and political roles in their era. Their wiles and commitments as party activists are not easily denigrated. Certainly, they remain crucial for understanding Lincoln's role in his Illinois years and should not be underestimated in shaping much of what he became thereafter. [63] Page  [End Page 42]


  1. Abraham Lincoln to Jesse W. Fell, 20 December 1859 in Roy P. Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 8 vols. (New Brunswick, N.J., 1953), 3:512; hereafter Collected Works. return to text
  2. Mary McGrory in Ithaca (N.Y.) Journal, 31 December 1985, 6. On the Lincoln theme, see James G. Randall, "Has the Lincoln Theme Been Exhausted?" American Historical Review 41 (1936): 270–294; and, more recently, David M. Potter, The Lincoln Theme and American National Historiography (Oxford, 1948); Don E. Fehrenbacher, The Changing Image of Lincoln in American Historiography (Oxford, 1968); Robert W. Johannsen, "In Search of the Real Lincoln, Or Lincoln at the Crossroads," Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 61 (1968): 229–247; Gabor Boritt, "A Historiographical Essay, Lincoln: Man and God," in Lincoln and the Economics of the American Dream (Memphis, Tenn., 1978), 289–311. return to text
  3. Gore Vidal, Lincoln: A Novel (New York, 1984). return to text
  4. Don E. Fehrenbacher, Prelude to Greatness: Lincoln in the 1850s (Stanford, Cal., 1962). return to text
  5. Collected Works, 3:29, 512. return to text
  6. Joel H. Silbey, The Partisan Imperative: The Dynamics of American Politics Before the Civil War (New York, 1985). return to text
  7. Daniel Walker Howe, The Political Culture of the American Whigs (Chicago, 1979), 264. We have recently seen, for example, how Lincoln's Lyceum Address of 1838, which a number of psychohistorians have characterized as critical evidence of Lincoln's search for identity, was framed in standard Whig rhetoric to serve standard Whig purposes. Major L. Wilson, "Lincoln and Van Buren," Civil War History 29 (1983); Richard O. Curry, "Conscious or Subconscious Caesarism," Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 77 (1984). return to text
  8. Harold Schultz, "Partisan or Patriot?" in Don E. Fehrenbacher, ed., The Leadership of Abraham Lincoln (New York, 1970), 20. return to text
  9. The standards among the extraordinary corpus of work remain, James G. Randall, Lincoln the President, 4 vols. (New York, 1945–1955), vol. 4 completed by Richard N. Current; Benjamin P. Thomas, Abraham Lincoln: A Biography (New York, 1952); Richard N. Current, The Lincoln Nobody Knows (New York, 1958); Reinhard Luthin, The Real Abraham Lincoln: A Complete One Volume History of His Life and Times (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1960); Stephen Oates, With Malice Toward None: The Life of Abraham Lincoln (New York, 1977). return to text
  10. Richard L. McCormick, "The 'Party Period' and Public Policy: An Exploratory Hypothesis," Journal of American History 66 (1979): 279–298. See also, McCormick ed., Political Parties and the Modern State (New Brunswick, N.J., 1984). return to text
  11. Howe, The Political Culture of the American Whigs, and Silbey, Partisan Imperative, sum up much of this literature. return to text
  12. Joel H. Silbey, The Shrine of Party: Congressional Voting Behavior, 1841–1852 (Pittsburgh, 1967). Historians have occasionally, as Gabor Boritt notes, discussed "the Whig malady of weak attachment to principles," Lincoln and Economics, 147. Lincoln allegedly had that illness: he "avoided issues as much as possible. He had a gift for noncomittalism," Current, Lincoln Nobody Knows, 211. return to text
  13. Charles M. Thompson, "The Illinois Whigs Before 1846," Illinois State Historical Society Transactions (1910), 122; Boritt, Lincoln and Economics, 22. return to text
  14. Richard N. Current, Speaking of Abraham Lincoln (Urbana, 1983), 154; John William Ward, Andrew Jackson: Symbol for an Age (New York, 1955). return to text
  15. Robert W. Johannsen, Stephen A. Douglas (New York, 1973), 69; Collected Works, 1:50, 307–308; Burlington, Iowa Hawk-Eye, 19 October 1843 in Collected Works, 1:329–330; Curry, "Conscious or Subconscious Caesarism," 71. return to text
  16. Rodney O. Davis, "Illinois Legislators and Jacksonian Democracy, 1834–1841," Ph.D. diss., University of Iowa, 1966; Herbert Ershkowitz and William Shade, "Consensus or Conflict?: Political Behavior in the State Legislatures During the Jacksonian Era," Journal of American History 58 (1971): 591–621. return to text
  17. Randall, Lincoln the President, 1:18; Oates, With Malice Toward None, 79. return to text
  18. His voting record and that of the other congressmen of the Thirtieth Congress can be found in Silbey, Shrine of Party. The quotations are from Donald W. Riddle, Congressman Abraham Lincoln (Urbana, 1957), 4; Mark E. Neely, "Lincoln and the Mexican War," Civil War History 24 (1978): 19. return to text
  19. Springfield Illinois State Register, 26 May, 4 August 1848; Frederick Merk, "Dissent in the Mexican War," in Samuel Eliot Morrison, et. al., Dissent in Three American Wars (Cambridge, Mass., 1970), 41; John W. Schroeder, Mister Polk's War: American Opposition and Dissent, 1846–1848 (Madison, 1973), 19; Mark E. Neely, "War and Partisanship: What Lincoln Learned From James K. Polk," Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 74 (1981): 208; Riddle, Congressman Abraham Lincoln, 69. return to text
  20. Schroeder, Mister Polk's War, 153; John S. Wright, Lincoln and The Politics of Slavery (Reno, Nev., 1970), 36; Neeley, "Lincoln and Mexican War," 24. return to text
  21. On party organization in Illinois, see Thompson "Illinois Whigs," and Johannsen, Douglas. return to text
  22. Albert E. Beveridge, Abraham Lincoln, 1809–1838, 2 vols. (Boston, 1928), 2:150; David Donald, Lincoln Reconsidered: Essays on the Civil War Era (New York, 1956), 65. See also, Current, Lincoln Nobody Knows, 211. return to text
  23. Howe, Political Culture of American Whigs; Ronald P. Formisano "Political Character, Anti-partyism, and the Second Party System," American Quarterly 21 (1969), 683–709; Lynn L. Marshall, "The Strange Stillbirth of the Whig Party," American Historical Review 72 (1967): 445–468. Howe refers to the Whigs' "antiparty tradition," 280. return to text
  24. Richard Hofstadter, The Idea of a Party System (Berkeley, 1969); Austin Ranney, Curing the Mischief of Faction: Party Reform in America (Berkeley, 1975). return to text
  25. Thomas Brown, Politics and Statesmanship: Essays on the Americn Whig Party (New York, 1985). return to text
  26. Various insights on this moral reform type can be gleaned from Howe, Political Culture of the American Whigs; Samuel Flagg Bemis, John Quincy Adams and the Union (New York, 1956); James Brewer Stewart, Joshua R. Giddings and the Tactics of Radical Politics (Cleveland, 1970). return to text
  27. On Seward, see Glyndon G. Van Deusen, William Henry Seward (New York, 1967; Van Deusen, Thurlow Weed: Wizard of the Lobby (Boston, 1947); Michael Holt, "Winding Roads to Recovery: The Whig Party From 1844 to 1848," in Stephen E. Maizlish and John J. Kushma, eds., Essays on American Antebellum Politics, 1840–1860 (College Station, Texas, 1982), 122–165. return to text
  28. Quoted in Johannsen, Douglas, 75. return to text
  29. All of the biographies agree on this point; see, as one example, Donald, Lincoln Reconsidered, 65. return to text
  30. Collected Works, 1:205, 314. return to text
  31. Beveridge, Lincoln, 1:303; Collected Works, 1:201–203. return to text
  32. Collected Works, 1:180–181, 307–308; Oates, With Malice Toward None, 50; Thompson, "Illinois Whigs," 125. return to text
  33. Wright, Lincoln and Politics of Slavery, 80; Thomas, Abraham Lincoln, 104; Lincoln to James Berdan, 12 April 1846; Lincoln to William Herndon, 8 January 1848, Collected Works, 1:380, 430–431. return to text
  34. Abraham Lincoln to Jesse Lynch, 10 April 1848, Collected Works, 1:463. return to text
  35. Collected Works, 3:390–391. return to text
  36. Abraham Lincoln to Archibald Williams, 30 April 1848; Lincoln to William Herndon, 12 June 1848; Lincoln to Thomas S. Flournoy, 17 February 1848, Collected Works, 1:468, 477, 452. return to text
  37. Abraham Lincoln to William H. Henderson, 21 February 1855, Collected Works 2:307. return to text
  38. Lincoln to Flournoy, 17 February 1848, Collected Works, 1:452. return to text
  39. The Whig vote percentages for president (P) and governor (G) in Illinois were:


    * Three party race

    return to text
  40. "Speech on Sub-Treasury," 26 December 1839, Collected Works, 1:178–179. return to text
  41. He did make anti-organizational statements from time to time. But they were, I would argue, probably more tactical than ideological. As John Nicolay and John Hay shrewdly note, "a minority is always strongly in favor of independent action and bitterly opposed to caucuses." Nicolay and Hay, Abraham Lincoln: A History (New York, 1890), 1:126; Collected Works, 1:506–507. return to text
  42. U.S. Congress, 32nd Cong., 1st Sess., Congressional Globe, 678. return to text
  43. William Henry Seward to John C. Clark, 4 November 1843, The Collected Works of William Henry Seward (New York, 1853), 3:391; American Whig Review 9 (1849): 553. return to text
  44. Howe, Political Culture of American Whigs, 268. return to text
  45. Abraham Lincoln to Joshua Speed, 24 August 1855, Collected Works, 2:323. return to text
  46. Reinhard Luthin, "Abraham Lincoln Becomes A Republican," Political Science Quarterly 59 (1944): 420–438; James Rawley, Race and Politics: "Bleeding Kansas" and the Coming of the Civil War (Philadelphia, 1969), 106; Fehrenbacher, Prelude to Greatness, 4. return to text
  47. Wright, Lincoln and Politics, 133. return to text
  48. Richard N. Current, ed., The Political Thought of Abraham Lincoln (Indianapolis, 1967), xxvii; Boritt, Lincoln and Economics, x. return to text
  49. Randall, Lincoln The President, 1:15; Thomas, Abraham Lincoln, 79. return to text
  50. Fehrenbacher, Changing Image, 18, 21; Fehrenbacher, Prelude To Greatness, 18; Roy P. Basler, Abraham Lincoln: His Speeches and Writings (Cleveland, 1946), 18; Riddle, Congressman Abraham Lincoln, 55. return to text
  51. Fehrenbacher, Changing Image, 6. As one historian has characterized it, "... neither as a backwoods lawyer nor as an Illinois politician has he brought any measurable distinction on himself." Norman Graebner, ed., The Enduring Lincoln (Urbana, 1959), vi. return to text
  52. See Gabor Boritt, "A Question of Political Suicide? Lincoln's Opposition to the Mexican War," Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 67 (1974): 86; Boritt, Lincoln and the Economics, 302ff. In contrast, Richard N. Current has written, "... if, indeed, we can properly speak of two Lincolns, the pre-1861 and the post-1861, the two were not nearly so different in principle and practice as they might seem." Current, Speaking of Abraham Lincoln, 136. return to text
  53. Ranney, Curing the Mischief of Faction. A recent restatement of the attack on politics and politicians aimed at a popular audience is Leonard Lurie, Party Politics: Why We Have Poor Presidents (New York, 1980). Many more could be cited including titles drawn from the scholarly world. return to text
  54. Current, Lincoln Nobody Knows, 187. return to text
  55. Rostenkowski is quoted in Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report, 30 November 1985, 2483; Donald, Lincoln Reconsidered, 132–133; Howe, Political Culture of Whigs, 273. return to text
  56. Robert W. Johannsen, "The Background to the Lincoln-Douglas Campaign," Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 73 (1980): 259. return to text
  57. Albany Evening Journal, 15 September 1855; William Henry Seward, "Oration on the Death of John Quincy Adams," (Albany, 1848), 17. return to text
  58. Fehrenbacher, Prelude to Greatness, 22. return to text
  59. By responsible I mean following the extensive political science literature on the subject, responsive to democratic pressures, and policy oriented and directed in action. See, American Political Science Association, Committee on Political Parties, Towards a More Responsible Two-Party System (New York, 1950). return to text
  60. Fehrenbacher, Changing Image of Lincoln. return to text
  61. Their works, mostly articles, have been cited here throughout and have been most helpful to me in shaping my argument. I am also grateful to Allan G. Bogue for discussing some of his ideas about Lincoln's political skills which he presented at the Carl Becker Lectures at Cornell University in April 1986. return to text
  62. Howe, Political Culture of Whigs, 273. return to text
  63. Some writers have suggested the importance of these political gifts and perspectives during the later strains of wartime. See, for example, David Donald, "Abraham Lincoln: Whig in the White House," in Lincoln Reconsidered, 187–208. return to text