Were we to judge from personal experience, most of us would probably assent to the proposition that reason and intellect—manifested in conscious, deliberate, and rational thought—form an important part of our nature and that they are essential in guiding our actions. Extending our horizon to the world at large, we might agree that reason, intellect, and conscious thought are essential to the conduct of affairs, including political matters. When we enter the world of scholarship, however, and seek an explanation of historical events, we discover a different view. We find that thought and reason are little recognized as the basis of political action. We find instead that actions and events are explained with reference to social, economic, cultural, or ideological forces beyond the rational comprehension and control of individual actors.

As an example of this point of view, let us consider historical accounts of the statesmanship of Abraham Lincoln. In a recent anthology, Abraham Lincoln and the American Political Tradition, Lincoln is viewed in several guises: an ambitious member of a political fraternity, a political tactician and party leader, an embattled executive, a revolutionary, and a master of political discourse.[1] Nowhere in the volume is Lincoln regarded as a political thinker. Even such a distinguished scholar as Don E. Fehrenbacher refrains from any consideration of Lincoln as a thinking, rational political actor. In his essay, "The Words of Lincoln," Fehrenbacher observes that in the words of statesmen one finds the substance of their principal deeds and the clearest traces of their character.[2] To know what Lincoln said, he adds, is the firmest foundation for an understanding of what Page  [End Page 47] his life meant.[3] But are not words, spoken and written, more specific and fundamental evidence of conscious rational thought? In the words of statesmen, do we not find the substance of their reason, intellect, knowledge, and understanding? I am sure that Fehrenbacher would agree with this suggestion. Yet, is it not symptomatic of much contemporary scholarship that his discussion of the words of Lincoln and the analyses of Lincoln and the American political tradition by his fellow historians fail to consider their subject from the point of view of a rational, thinking statesman, taking thought about political reality and expressing that thought in speech, writing, and action?[4]

Lincoln's definition of democracy, circa
Lincoln's definition of democracy, circa 1854. Page  [End Page 48]

It has been suggested that contemporary historiography is premised on the disintegration of the belief that conscious, rational thought, the highest form of human activity, defines us as a species.[5] Despite this widespread view, there is reason to doubt that history can be described and analyzed accurately without recognition of the decisive importance of reason and rational thought in human affairs. Rather than assume this to be the case, however, I should like to approach the issue with a limited inquiry into the extent that historical accounts recognize the role of rational thought. I propose to conduct this inquiry by examining the problem of Abraham Lincoln's political thought.

This problem refers to the specific content of Lincoln's ideas on a variety of questions, including nationalism, equality, democracy, constitutionalism, and economic freedom. Each topic has been the subject of scholarly dispute and warrants careful investigation. I shall approach the question of Lincoln's thought at its more problematic level: whether or in what sense Lincoln engaged in political thinking, the nature of his thoughts on politics, and how such thinking, if it existed, related to his actions as a statesman.


Political thought has not been a principal category of analysis employed by Lincoln scholars. Nor have Lincoln's ideas been discussed prominently by students of American political thought. [6] Lincoln was preeminently a lawyer, politician, and statesman—not a writer, intellectual, or philosopher. Political leaders of more abstract and doctrinaire bent, such as Thomas Jefferson and John C. Calhoun, have received far more attention than Lincoln. In modern historical accounts Lincoln is typically described as a practical politician of nonphilosophical tendency. Many years ago, Lord Charnwood observed that no political theory stands out from Lincoln's words or actions and if he reflected much on forms of government, it was with a dominant interest in something beyond them.[7] According to Allan Nevins, Lincoln "took [democracy] on faith, without analysis." In- Page  [End Page 49] stead of discoursing on the theory of democracy, he dealt with the practical problems attending its course. [8] Richard N. Current writes that Lincoln was a flexible pragmatist whose principles happened to coincide with his ambitions. No political theorist or philosopher, Lincoln mastered the classic statements of the American political faith and applied them through practical politics.[9] This view, which might be described as the principled but nonphilosophical interpretation, characterized the writings of leading Lincoln scholars of the midtwentieth century.[10]

More recently, Mark E. Neely, Jr., has expressed the same view in cautioning against overintellectualized interpretations of Lincoln. Discussing constitutional issues, Neely says that Lincoln's "impulse almost always was toward the practical" and that thinking in constitutional ways did not come naturally to him. Though conceding that Lincoln's thought was "not nakedly opportunistic or embarrassingly shallow," Neely asserts: "Lincoln was not an intellectual, certainly not a systematic political thinker: he was a politician and one slights the instrumental side of Lincoln's statements only at great peril. [11] Robert W. Johannsen has presented the nonphilosophical view with more explicit emphasis on its contextual dimension. He criticizes interpretations that inaccurately and unhistorically regard Lincoln "as somehow divorced from time and place, as a spirit hovering over us all, mouthing timeless phrases and wonderful-sounding ideas." Johannsen would have us understand, however, that Lincoln was influenced by his political, social, cultural, and Page  [End Page 50] intellectual context and that "his ideas are very much attuned to his particular historical period." Nor does it rob Lincoln of any of his importance to say that he reflects his time. [12]

Johannsen points to a different perspective, however, when he states that in the sectional conflict of the 1850s, Lincoln's ideas on liberty and equality "assumed their final transcendent meaning."[13] It is not clear whether this development was a result of the conditions and circumstances of the time or whether Lincoln was responsible for it through his power of reason and intellect. [14] To describe political ideas as having transcendent meaning is to raise the question of a rational-philosophical approach to the study of political thought.

The point of view of rational-philosophical analysis rests on certain epistemological assumptions. Foremost is the correspondence theory of truth, whereby statements made about present or past reality should be taken to describe, represent, or correspond to something that has an independent existence. [15] Within that perspective the rational-philosophical approach regards reason, intellect, and ideas as independent variables in history, rather than mere reflections of social and material interests or unconscious psychological drives. Ideas shape events in the sense that individuals act on them.[16] Through reason, individuals are capable of apprehending true ideas that are authoritative in the sense of determining action by virtue of obligating it. [17]

An example of the rational-philosophical approach to the study of Lincoln is Herbert Croly's 1909 essay, "Lincoln as More Than an American." Croly described Lincoln as a man of "vision," using the word in a rational-empirical sense that contrasts markedly with the Page  [End Page 51] connotation of ideological aspiration and progressive imagination attached to the term today. Referring to the political crisis of the 1850s, Croly said that "Lincoln's vision placed every aspect of the situation in its proper relations. ... "Lincoln's peculiar service to his countrymen before the war was that of seeing straighter and thinking harder than did his contemporaries." Croly believed that the key to Lincoln's statesmanship was his ability to harmonize the faculties of reason and will. His participation in legal practice and political affairs kept his will firm and vigorous, as if he were really no more than a man of action. Yet Lincoln's "luminous and disciplined intelligence" served to enlighten his will, and his will established the mature decisions of his intelligence. Lincoln's life was distinguished by the fact that his energy and powers were not devoted exclusively to practical ends. He "preferred the satisfaction of his own intellectual and social instincts, and so qualified himself for achievements beyond the power of a Douglas." Croly judged that Lincoln was an example of "high and disinterested intellectual culture"; he "rarely, if ever, proclaimed an idea which he had not mastered, and he never abandoned a truth which he had once thoroughly achieved."[18]

Croly, of course, wrote before Marxist and Freudian assumptions revolutionized American intellectual life, undermining belief in conscious, rational thought as the end and highest attribute of human nature, and as a decisive influence on history. Historiography in particular was influenced by the theory of the sociology of knowledge, according to which ideas and thought were defined as ideology that reflected class interests. Historians were also affected by the concept of rationalization in psychology, which taught them to discount formal, conscious expressions of thought and rationality and to look for unconscious drives and motivations as the real source of human conduct. The introduction of these new concepts of human action challenged, without necessarily invalidating, the older rational-philosophical approach. As profound as it was, however, the effect was gradual, and many historians continued to adhere to the traditional assumptions of rational idealism, at least in the case of Lincoln.

Summarizing an account of changing views on the Lincoln legend, Roy P. Basler wrote in 1935 that the basic issue in assessing Lincoln was whether he was an opportunist or a principled statesman. Basler Page  [End Page 52] was impressed by the timeliness of Lincoln's political actions, as well as their permanence or timelessness, and he rejected the notion that Lincoln was an opportunist. Quoting Lord Charnwood, he stated that the only alternative to the opportunist interpretation was the opposite view, "which ascribes to him an originality, an undeviating consistency, and a philosophic grasp of facts in relation to a deeply thought-out principle, such as few others, if any, of the world's great statesmen have shown."[19]

Basler relied on Lord Charnwood, whom we have identified with the principled but nonphilosophical interpretation of Lincoln. Other historians who advanced that view appear to have shared Basler's judgment. Such scholars as James G. Randall, T. Harry Williams, and Richard N. Current might dismiss the rhetoric of radical Republicans as a mask of capitalist-class interests, but they did not apply the same analysis to Lincoln, or deny the rational-philosophic ground of the settled convictions and principles that they believed guided his statecraft. Fehrenbacher, for example, describes Lincoln's writings as strictly functional and directed toward practical results rather than ultimate truth, but he attributes to Lincoln a political philosophy based on the belief in ethical purposes not subject to the daily barter of politics.[20]

Marxist economic interpretation premised on the critique of political thought as class-based ideology began to affect the field of Civil War scholarship significantly in the writings of revisionist historians of the 1930s. Its introduction into the Lincoln field occurred later with the publication of Richard Hofstadter's 1948 essay, "Abraham Lincoln and the Self-Made Myth." The impact was considerable. Earlier progressive historians had lamented the triumph of middle-class capitalism in the Civil War era without implicating Lincoln. Thus, Charles A. Beard called Lincoln "the great mystic in the White House," wrote of his "uncanny genius for practical affairs," and praised his "words of wisdom" and the "deathless music of his spirit." [21] Vernon Louis Parrington, in describing Lincoln's "spontaneous liberalism" and "deep-rooted equalitarianism," said that Lincoln held other rights more sacred than property rights and was able to amalgamate idealism and economics. [22] Page  [End Page 53]

In contrast, Hofstadter offered an unflattering, sharply critical view of Lincoln. He reduced Lincoln's political ideas and the American political tradition in general to "the ideology of self-help, free enterprise, competition, and beneficent cupidity." Lincoln, to be sure, believed in equalitarian democracy, but Hofstadter derogatorily judged this to be "a democracy in cupidity rather than democracy of fraternity."

Lincoln's historical significance was to serve as the preeminent example of the self-help idea at the core of the American ideology. Thus, his political thought was guided by his understanding of the impulse "to rise in life, to make something of himself through his own honest efforts." In Hofstadter's view, however, a political philosophy grounded in narrow self-interest was not a sound basis for political action because it led Lincoln into contradiction and inconsistency. For example, Hofstadter acknowledged the penetrating character of Lincoln's attack on slavery but noted his circumspectness in practical politics wherever blacks were concerned. Lincoln's attack carried "the conviction of a man of far greater moral force than the pre-presidential Lincoln ever revealed in action." Of Lincoln's assertion that "Republicans are for both the man and the dollar, but in case of conflict the man before the dollar," Hofstadter commented that "One sees the moral idealism of the man; it is there, unquestionably, but he hopes that the world will never force it to obtrude itself."[23]

Lincoln's most glaring contradiction, according to Hofstadter, appeared in his professions of fidelity to the Declaration of Independence as an instrument of democracy. The revisionist roots of Hofstadter's liberal interpretation are evident in his discussion. The Declaration of Independence was the primary article in Lincoln's political creed and provided his most formidable political ammunition. Yet in the end, "it was the Declaration that he could not make a consistent part of his living work." The principal reason for this conclusion is that "Lincoln suppressed secession and refused to acknowledge that the right of revolution he had so boldly accepted belonged to the South." In Hofstadter's opinion, the North was fighting the war to deny southern self-determination. Lincoln, however, in his Special Message to Congress in July 1861, "skillfully ... inverted the main issue of the war to suit his purpose." Assisted "by the blessed fact that the Confederates had struck the Page  [End Page 54] first blow," Lincoln "presented it as a war to defend not only the Union but the sacred principles of popular rule and opportunity for the common man." Unwilling to apply the democratic principle to the southern white majority, Lincoln was also grossly inconsistent where slavery and blacks were concerned, Hofstadter argued. Always thinking primarily about free white labor, Lincoln was never much troubled about blacks. His attitude toward slavery, Hofstadter tells us, was "expediency tempered by justice." Only under pressure from the radicals did he "conduct ... a brilliant strategic retreat toward a policy of freedom." Finally, when "things had gone from bad to worse," Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, expressing, in Hofstadter's well-known characterization, "all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading."[24]

In the early phases of the civil rights movement, Hofstadter's astringent view of Lincoln and the Republican party on the question of black equality was drawn too sharply to gain historiographical endorsement. Purged of revisionist sympathies, however, Hofstadter's general interpretation of the class basis of American political thought was adapted into a more benign ideological interpretation of the Republican party in the Civil War era. In this view, the ideology of Lincoln's party was more than the convenient rationalization of material interests: It was the system of beliefs, values, fears, prejudices, reflexes, and commitments that constituted the social consciousness of the free-soil and antislavery forces. [25] For purposes of the present analysis, we note that this revision of the concept of ideology avoids some of the egregious reductionism of earlier studies inspired by the more simplistic sociology of knowledge. Nevertheless, it basically denies the importance of individual thought by treating ideas as an expression of social strain and anxiety, as well as economic class interest. It has had little effect, therefore, in illuminating Lincoln's political thought. At most, a few neo-Hofstadterites have placed Lincoln in the context of Beard's second American revolution, variously depicting him as a reluctant, unconscious, conservative, and pragmatic revolutionary. [26] Page  [End Page 55]

Not long after Hofstadter offered his acerb account from a Marxist perspective, Edmund Wilson wrote an essay that approached Lincoln from a literary-psychological point of view. Paralleling Hofstadter's thesis of the self-made economic man, Wilson described Lincoln as the product of psychodramatic self-fabrication. The general interpretive scheme of Wilson's Patriotic Gore dismisses political leaders' statements of rational moral purpose as propaganda designed to conceal the power instinct, zoological and biological in nature, that Wilson posits as the true source of acts of state. Like Hofstadter expressing revisionist proclivities, Wilson more specifically dismisses antislavery and pro-Union rhetoric as rabble-rousing, "pseudomoral" issues intended to justify the suppression of southern self-determination. Within this perspective Wilson sees Lincoln, in company with Lenin and Bismarck, as a leader who became a ruthless dictator in the service of his own kind of idealism. [27]

The most novel feature of Wilson's interpretation that attracted the attention of later historians was his argument that in the Springfield Lyceum Address, in which Lincoln warned the people against tyrants who would seek to overthrow the institutions of the Founding Fathers, Lincoln "has projected himself into the role against which he is warning them." Pursuing this theme, Wilson shows Lincoln's involvement in the slavery struggle, his talk about right and wrong, and his role in turning the conflict between North and South into "a Holy War led by God." In sum, Wilson states that Lincoln "created himself as a poetic figure, and ... thus imposed himself on the nation." In all of this, Lincoln's powerful intellect and literary ability, which Wilson fully appreciates, are subordinated to the psychological drive that leads him to seek the heroic role. In ever more mystical and religiously prophetic ways, Lincoln fashioned the drama in which he crushed the opposition, sent thousands of men to their deaths, and finally laid down his own life with theirs. This end, Wilson writes, "was morally and dramatically inevitable." [28]

Years later, when Wilson's cynical view of power politics and national ideals was more widespread, his dramatic analysis became the basis of several psychohistorical accounts of Lincoln's political career. In these works no conscious rational thought of individuals controls the action. Psychological processes and mechanisms generally defined by intergenerational conflict are in control. While they Page  [End Page 56] may be viewed as either conscious or unconscious, they are in any event beyond reason. [29] The most satisfactory of these accounts from a biographical perspective is Charles B. Strozier's Lincoln's Quest for Union, which is nevertheless unilluminating on the relationship between ideas and events. Strozier employs an updated revisionism when attributing to Lincoln and his antislavery friends a collective paranoia and rage that divided the "group self" of the nation and was "inherently irrational." The rage could only be absorbed by war—"the collective version of the temper tantrum."[30] In analyzing Lincoln, Strozier uses a "self-cohesiveness" model that regards humor, empathy, creativeness, and wisdom as the criteria of sound personality development. He offers evidence to illustrate each of these criteria except wisdom. The closest we get to wisdom or to a rational explanation of Lincoln's achievements is the assertion that Lincoln possessed a facility for language. He had "power with words," and he used it creatively and productively until, by 1861, he "could turn a phrase that mobilized a nation." [31] In this version of the Lincoln story, rational political thought counts for little, if indeed it exists at all.

A combination of the ideological and psychological approaches to Lincoln appears in Daniel Walker Howe's essay, "Abraham Lincoln and the Transformation of Northern Whiggery." Howe states that Lincoln's political ideas were influenced by cultural antecedents and by personal experience. "Lincoln's public philosophy was of one piece with his personal character." It was a manifestation of the Whig personality type of bourgeois compulsiveness and an expansion of "a dedication to human self-development." Following Wilson, Howe emphasizes Lincoln's ambition, his conflict with the Founding Fathers, and the dramatic conceit by which he created himself as a Page  [End Page 57] poetic figure and imposed himself on the nation. In Howe's view it is not Lincoln's rational understanding that leads him to involvement in the slavery issue but his "dramatic insight" into the effect of the Kansas-Nebraska Act on national policy. According to Howe, Lincoln formulated a distinctive Republican political philosophy in his debates with Douglas. And during the Civil War he enlisted religious sentiment on behalf of Enlightenment reason, "creating a 'tradition of modernity'" and offering "a Burkean justification for the rights of man."[32] These "philosophical" changes, however, appear to be the result of psychological-religious developments rather than rational thought.


The appeal of the economic-ideological and the psychological approaches to the study of human action directed attention away from the history of ideas as a major scholarly concern. In the past generation, however, the history of political thought has enjoyed a revival. Two methods have recommended themselves for this enterprise. The first is the rational-philosophical approach, which formed the framework for historical analysis before the advent of the ideological and psychological critiques of conscious rationality. The second approach to political thought is that of linguistic-ideological analysis.[33] Both methods have been employed in the study of Lincoln's political thought.

The preeminent Lincoln scholar writing in the rational-philosophical tradition is Harry V. Jaffa, author of Crisis of the House Divided. A student of the political philosopher Leo Strauss, Jaffa has answered economic-ideological-revisionist interpretations of Lincoln in a series of works that advance a comprehensive theory of American politics based on the idea of classical natural right. In Jaffa's view, the founding of the republic on the principles of natural right set forth in the Declaration of Independence and Lincoln's preservation of the republic during the Civil War in accordance with natural right ideas are the central events in American history.

The doctrine of classical natural right, according to Jaffa, holds Page  [End Page 58] that unchanging principles of right are inherent in the universe, standards of justice that are true everywhere and always. As human beings are distinguished by reason, it is also their nature and highest goal to pursue philosophic wisdom and understanding and to try to live in accordance with the truth they have discovered. This is the meaning of virtue and moral excellence. In politics the doctrine of natural right teaches the establishment of the best regime in accordance with nature. Since it is not always possible to establish the best regime, classical natural right also teaches the virtue of prudence—the practical wisdom to choose courses of action that will attain the greater good or the lesser evil. In the modern world, according to Jaffa, the doctrine of natural right was transformed and restated in the natural rights philosophy of Hobbes and Locke. The natural rights doctrine holds that individuals should pursue their personal happiness and self-interest and that the purpose of government is to protect the civil rights of individuals so they may do so. This philosophy differed radically from the teaching of classical natural right. Against the conventional Lockean interpretation of American politics, Jaffa advanced the challenging argument that the American founding signified a conflation of classical natural right and modern natural rights.[34]

Jaffa's analysis of Lincoln's political thought centered on his understanding of the tension between the principles of equality and consent in the Declaration of Independence. Slavery denied equality and consent, yet it existed in the American republic and was supported in varying degrees by the approval or toleration of public opinion. How to resolve the conflict between slavery and the principles of the American regime became the central issue in politics of the 1850s. The problem from the standpoint of political theory was: How wrong could popular opinion be and still constitute the legitimate foundation for government? In Jaffa's view, the South had long since abandoned the principle of equality, and the question was whether the North would also abandon that principle by following Douglas's doctrine of popular sovereignty. Page  [End Page 59]

Contrary to the accepted historical view at the time, Jaffa said that a profound gulf separated the political thought of Lincoln and Douglas. Douglas confined the principle of equality to those citizens of the existing political community, and he held that under the principle of consent the people could rightfully decide all matters pertinent to their self-interest, including the slavery question. Jaffa argued, however, that Lincoln applied the equality principle to all men, including slaves, and insisted that self-government based on consent was limited by its dependence on the principle of equality. Thus, if the nation was consistent with the principles on which it was founded, slavery could not be rightfully recognized.[35] The extension of slavery into the territories must therefore be opposed. Jaffa contended that it was not simply sound political instinct which led Lincoln to adopt this position. He did so in accordance with the requirements of practical wisdom, in light of the political philosophy grounded in natural right and asserting natural rights that he had formulated years earlier. In the Springfield Lyceum Address, for example, Lincoln analyzed the problem of popular government in relation to the eternal antagonism between reason and passion, and he proposed to preserve republican institutions by a reverence for the Constitution and the laws, which he referred to as a "political religion." The essence of Lincoln's teaching, termed "political salvation" by Jaffa, was that "the people ... must be made subject to a discipline in virtue of which they will demand only those things in the name of their own supreme authority that are reasonable; i.e., consistent with the implications of their own equal rights."[36]

Perhaps the most controversial part of Jaffa's interpretation of Lincoln was his analysis of the nature of equality in the American political tradition. Jaffa argued that at the beginning of the republic, as conceived by Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, equality was a self-evident truth. It was the effective basis of political right and the necessary and sufficient condition of the legitimacy of government authority over the people. In his Gettysburg Address, however, Lincoln stated that equality was not a self-evident truth but a proposition to be proved. Jaffa asserted that equality in Lincoln's thought now became "a transcendental goal." Where Jefferson saw civil society as moving away from the condition of actual equality presumed to exist in the state of nature, Lincoln saw civil society Page  [End Page 60] moving toward a condition of actual equality for all men. Thus, Lincoln "transforms and transcends" the original meaning of equality in preparation for the new birth of freedom signified by the abolition of slavery.[37]

In a political climate marked by changing race relations and heightened civil rights consciousness, Crisis of the House Divided was recognized as a persuasive refutation of the needless war thesis of revisionist historiography and as a convincing statement of the centrality of slavery as a moral issue in the coming of the Civil War. Historians sympathized with Jaffa's "liberal" position on the slavery question, without necessarily appreciating the conservative philosophical framework within which he presented his account.[38] Jaffa later observed that his work was intended as a new type of political science, critical of positivism and grounded on natural right, rather than as a book about American history.[39] Crisis of the House Divided was nevertheless historiographically significant, not only as an answer to revisionism but also for its reassertion of the rational-philosophical approach to the study of Lincoln's thought.

Several works subsequently appeared that shared the intellectual perspective of Crisis of the House Divided. The political scientist Glen E. Thurow, for example, analyzed Lincoln's political philosophy in a study that complements Jaffa's and similarly rests on a natural-right foundation. Thurow examined the Lyceum Address, the Gettysburg Address, and the Second Inaugural as expressions of Lincoln's "political religion," a body of ideas that Thurow saw as the result of Lincoln's lifelong reflections on American politics, which were "meant in some way to stand independent of the immediate circumstances." [40] He argued that the Gettysburg Address changed the meaning of equality from a self-evident principle that serves as a starting point for politics, to a proposition that needs to be proved Page  [End Page 61] and thus becomes an end or goal. Universalistic and impelling to action, the Gettysburg Address suggests that there are no limits to politics. In contrast, the Second Inaugural emphasizes God's purposes rather than man's, suggesting that there are limits to politics. Taking the religious statements seriously, Thurow concludes that Lincoln assumed a theological perspective, transcended an exclusively nationalist outlook, and taught the people that they must temper their sovereignty by seeing events under God's judgment. [41] Lincoln resolved the crisis of the Union through actions based on natural-right understanding and prudence, the horizons of which lay beyond mere obedience to the laws or the American political tradition.[42]

George Anastaplo has similarly analyzed the Emancipation Proclamation from the perspective of natural right, finding Lincoln's state paper to be a model of prudential judgment and practical reason. He shows, for example, how Lincoln's preliminary proclamation shifted attention to the expected measure of January 1, 1863, away from the extraordinary pronouncement of the radical measure. Anastaplo comments that the statesman must adjust his action to the prejudices and limitations of the community and often settle for less than the best. "But the most useful adjustment is not possible," he writes, "unless one does know what the very best would be." In Anastaplo's view, Lincoln knew what was best because he "thought as deeply as any American statesman has about the character, aspirations and deficiencies of our regime."[43]

Thomas S. Engeman has contributed further to the natural-right interpretation of Lincoln's political thought. His broad analysis of the nature of American politics follows Jaffa in stating that the American regime was based partly on self-interest and individual rights, partly on virtue and wisdom, but most distinctly on the "permanently radical" principles of the Declaration of Independence. A sign of its inevitable modernity, this fact introduced into American politics a messianic, utopian element that could threaten the stability of the regime unless it was engrafted onto the Constitution. According to Engeman, political parties became the vehicle by which utopian democratic passions could be accommodated to the regime. Lincoln understood this fact. When the Democratic party Page  [End Page 62] rejected the revolutionary tradition in the crisis of the 1850s he helped found the Republican party based on the principles of the Declaration of Independence. Lincoln balanced recognition of the necessity of party conflict as an expression of the utopian element in all modern politics against fidelity to the Constitution as the source of order and prudence in the exercise of power. Engeman concluded that Lincoln knew that the passion for equality and liberty—fundamental to American political experience—made the prudence and moderation that the Constitution was designed to elicit all the more necessary. [44]

Jeffrey Tulis has illuminated the field of presidential studies with penetrating observations on Lincoln that are similarly grounded in rational-philosophical analysis. Concerned with the selection of presidential candidates, Tulis questions the typology of presidential character that places high value on the "active-positive" and denigrates the "active-negative" leader. On the basis of this schema, Tulis considers Lincoln an active-negative president. How, then, could he have been so successful and served the needs of the nation so well? [45] Tulis's answer is that Lincoln possessed "uncommon perspicacity," a trait the contemporary model of presidential character does not take into account. Great presidents like Lincoln pose difficulties for modern analysis because they are thought to have minds incapable of description according to criteria simple and formal enough to be applied to most people. Tulis contends that whereas modern theory discounts understanding and insight, in Lincoln's time people approached political choice on the basis of issues. His point, illustrated by Lincoln, is that reason and understanding, more than personality characteristics and style, shape political action and should be the focus of presidential selection.[46]

An analysis of Lincoln as master politician, by political scientist William H. Riker, similarly rests on rational-philosophical explana- Page  [End Page 63] tion. Riker focuses on the Freeport question, wherein Lincoln forced Douglas to reassert the doctrine of popular sovereignty against the Dred Scott decision, as the capstone of the Republican strategy of splitting the Democratic majority, thus preparing the way for the electoral triumph of 1860. Lincoln's strategy is the most important illustration in American history of the "heresthetical art," a term invented by Riker to describe the ability of a politician, through language, reasoning and argument, to alter the dimensions of a political situation and manipulate the outcome to achieve a desired end. [47] Lincoln's question, which was recognized at the time as "a work of genius," trapped Douglas intellectually so that no matter how he answered, the response would give Lincoln and his party a future victory. According to Riker, "there is no more elegant example of the heresthetical device of splitting the majority, and it displays Lincoln the politician at his grandest." [48]

Although political scientists led the way, historians have also approached Lincoln's political thought from the perspective of rational-philosophical analysis. In a stimulating account of American political thought, John P. Diggins has forcefully reasserted the rational-philosophic defense of ideas as the basis of action, against the linguistic-ideological view that treats language of discourse as the active, determining agent in history.[49] Combining theological and philosophical perspectives, Diggins states that Lincoln reconceptualized the republic on the basis of the Declaration of Independence and the Christian concept of virtue. Lincoln's political course was guided by the profession of political religion contained in the Lyceum Address, when he exhorted Americans to overcome passion and self-interest and be governed by the pure spirit of political ideas. Diggins emphasizes the religious dimension of Lincoln's thought.[50] Especially Page  [End Page 64] significant is the conclusion that Lincoln assumed the existence of "universal, transcendent ideas." Diggins writes that Lincoln "believed ... that certain ideas were absolute because they involved fundamental principles." He held that ideas had an essential meaning not dependent upon circumstances, that ideas owed their truth to the meaning of their constituent terms, and that individuals act on the basis of universal ideas. Diggins states further that Lincoln believed that "ultimate moral questions did not admit of relativistic interpretations." Lincoln's significance in the American political tradition is that he undertook to restore the authority of political ideas.[51]

Students of Lincoln's constitutional thought have also discerned rational-philosophical premises for his actions. According to Phillip S. Paludan, Lincoln's insight into the meaning of the American Revolution led him to emphasize the rule of law and the preservation of revolutionary ideas as a solution to the problem of maintaining order in a democratic society.[52] George M. Fredrickson places Lincoln within a legal community attached to the natural law foundations of the republic that countered the passions and irrationality of militant democracy. Fredrickson sees a rationalistic concern for order as central to Lincoln's thought in the 1850s, which during the Civil War he combined with the ideal of majoritarian democracy and a religious sense of American destiny to form a transcendent synthesis.[53] In an analysis of the Lyceum Address, Major L. Wilson interprets Lincoln's call for a political religion as an attempt to create a moral community based on absolute concepts of right and wrong. Comparing Lincoln to Van Buren, he sees Lincoln as a prophet of political religion, who sought moral improvement of the nation as well as preservation of its basic principles, and Van Buren as a priest who opposed any fundamental change. Following Jaffa, Wilson emphasizes Lincoln's insistence on the idea of equality as a substantive limitation on democratic government.[54]

It might almost be said that consideration of Lincoln and the Constitution requires the perspective of rational-philosophical analysis. While this would no doubt be disputed by the legal realists, it Page  [End Page 65] forms the premise of Gary J. Jacobsohn's study of Lincoln's legal philosophy, which he characterizes as a theory of constitutional aspiration. Reflecting the influence of Jaffa, Jacobsohn asserts that Lincoln was deeply committed to the natural rights philosophy of the Declaration of Independence and saw its principles as providing the core meaning of the Constitution. Furthermore, as a proponent of natural right, Lincoln believed the Constitution embodied timeless principles and rejected the marketplace test of the truth of political ideas espoused by legal positivism.[55] An analysis of Lincolnian constitutionalism by the present writer similarly underscores Lincoln's fidelity to the written Constitution of the framers as a guide to political action aimed at upholding the principles of the Declaration of Independence.[56]

A study of Lincoln's ideas on the right of revolution adds to our understanding of the rational-philosophical dimension in his political thought. Thomas J. Pressly shows that before the Civil War Lincoln supported the right of revolution for democratic ends, while opposing revolution in the domestic context of mob violence and the slavery controversy. In 1861 he said that the right of revolution was not a legal right, but that a majority had a moral right to overthrow their government when they grew weary of it and that a minority had a moral right of revolution when deprived of a vital constitutional right. A right to oppose unjustified revolution also existed. According to Pressly, Lincoln concluded that revolution was no better than counterrevolution and that evaluation of any particular attempt to exercise the right depended on the issues involved. Pressly said it might be concluded that Lincoln's views changed as his political and social interest changed, depending on the historical situation. Pressly also suggested "that Lincoln's synthesis of his ideas concerning the 'right of revolution' is distinguishable from the thought of a number of other individuals because of its comprehensiveness and depth," and that "he was led to his opinions ... partly through a mind that probed deeper and had a wider vision than most." Lincoln provided "insight and standards for the evaluation of any particular exercise of the 'right of revolution.'" [57] Page  [End Page 66]

Still another analysis of Lincoln's political thought from a rational-philosophical perspective has been offered by Hans J. Morgenthau. A distinguished student of international politics, Morgenthau sees Lincoln as a statesman of unique greatness, whose significance, at once historical and philosophical, was "to teach men what it means to be a man and how to act as one." Morgenthau says that Lincoln's political philosophy was the result of innate qualities of mind and character, rather than theoretical reflection, study, or even experience. Lincoln's intelligence revealed itself above all in "a philosophic understanding of public issues" and a mastery of political manipulation in military judgment. Evincing practical wisdom, Lincoln was prepared to subordinate political morality and right and wrong to higher purposes, including the preservation of the Union. Morgenthau describes the content of Lincoln's political thought as constitutional democracy—the uniqueness of republican America—and the ultimate value of the Union. What distinguished Lincoln's ideas, Morgenthau concludes, was that he formulated them "in philosophic terms of universal applicability." [58]

The rational-philosophical approach to Lincoln's thought finds prominent expression in recent writings. Indeed, it has been more influential in this area than in the study of earlier American political thought, where the linguistic-ideological method of analysis has dominated. The latter approach holds that political ideas can be understood only with reference to the linguistic-rhetorical context in which they appear. Rejecting both idealism (rational-philosophical inquiry) and materialism (economic-ideological analysis), the linguistic method regards thinking as an activity of communicating and distributing power by linguistic means. It views the activity of language—the vocabularies, structures, and rules by which it operates—as an historical agent. In this approach the historian of political thought seeks to identify the language or vocabulary within which an author operated and to show how language functioned to prescribe what he or she might say. [59]

In actual practice the language that proponents of this approach have found most historically significant is civic humanism, also known as classical republicanism. It is represented in the Lincoln field mainly by William S. Corlett's essay, "The Availability of Lincoln's Political Religion." Corlett argues that Lincoln was a civic humanist concerned Page  [End Page 67] above all with the problem of democratic "lethargy," rather than the danger of democratic passions, as in the Jaffa natural-right interpretation. Lincoln's principal enterprise, therefore, was to revitalize political participation. Denying any theological dimension in Lincoln's thought, Corlett sees his political religion as strictly secular. He dismisses Lincoln's religious language as a rhetorical strategy dictated by family background and political circumstances. The gravamen of Corlett's argument is that Lincoln was not a godlike figure of transcendent virtue but a humanist who believed that the "people need to be saved not from themselves but from their lethargy." He regards Lincoln as a leader for whom "politics became an endless opportunity to create new orders of things." [60]

The linguistic-ideological approach is modified in historical accounts that focus on political culture. John L. Thomas illustrates this approach. He asserts that Lincoln was shaped by the democratic forces of the age in which he lived, and was thus concerned with the problem of how to relate to the legacy of the Founding Fathers and spread democracy across the world. Observing that Lincoln appropriated other themes from "the edges of the popular mind"—the advantages of a humble origin and the rise from obscurity in a land of opportunity, for example—Thomas states: "The search for the political culture from which Lincoln emerged leads out of the halls of state into the American heartland of popular assumptions and aspirations where programs give way to persuasions, platforms to preferences, ideology to mentalité." From these materials Lincoln in turn fashioned a national liberal tradition and a doctrine of liberal nationalism. Initially bound by the expectations and constraints of Jacksonian society, Lincoln finally transcended them. And he did so, Thomas implies, not through reason and intellect but apparently through his words and language, which at their most eloquent became "forms of moral action." In his political language, Lincoln demonstrated "above all, a susceptibility to the sheer power of language." Presumably it was this "susceptibility" that enabled Lincoln, in all the "guises" and "postures" that he assumed, to collect the raw materials afforded by an emergent national culture and forge from them "his own vision of liberty and union"[61]


My purpose has been the modest one of investigating, through a consideration of the problem of Lincoln's political thought, the extent Page  [End Page 68] to which historical accounts recognize insight and understanding as an influence upon actions and events. Writers employing ideological and psychological interpretation tend to discount or dismiss rational thought as dependent on forces outside the individual or outside the faculty of conscious reason. A number of studies of Lincoln advance this view. At the same time many scholars have seen Lincoln as a thinking, deliberative statesman who, through rational insight and understanding, adopted wise courses of action. The evidence is obviously limited, and if Lincoln was the unique figure some students believe him to have been, the finding may be even more restrictive. Nevertheless, even if we confine our attention to statesmen, the conclusion seems warranted that thought, reason, and intellect—at least some of the time—influence events.

The presentation of changing views of Lincoln's political thought raises the question of which is the most historically sound and accurate analysis. One response would be that the three basic interpretations—the Hofstadter economic-ideological, the Wilson psychodramatic, and the Jaffa rational-philosophical analysis—rest on different assumptions and are all equally valid. This does not appear to be a satisfactory response, however, for if one interpretation were as good as another, no one would bother to study the problem. The question persists, and students of Lincoln continue to try to provide a true account of what he did and why he did it. They continue to seek the causes of his actions.

Each interpretation posits a different view of the causes of human action or the nature of thought and its relation to action. The economic-ideological view holds that class interests and social conditions determine action in the sense that thought, on which action appears to be based, is really ideology, which is a reflection of social forces and interests. The psychological view holds that thought is a function of unconscious or perhaps even irrational drives and urges, which are the real causes of action. The rational-philosophical view holds that action is based on knowledge, insight, and understanding acquired through the use of critical reason. In judging the truth or validity of these competing explanations of action, we might begin with our own experience of trying to act on the basis of reason and understanding. More broadly we might note that in ordinary language we explain the cause of an action by talking about the reasons for it, implying that thought is involved in the effort to do something. Broader still, we consult the record of history in order to understand the causes of human action. That extremely broad and varied record contains written and unwritten materials and artifacts. A most im- Page  [End Page 69] portant part, however, consists of the speeches and writings of individual actors. Certainly this is true in the study of political events.

We are then forced to consider how political speech and writing are to be read, interpreted, and understood. How is their meaning to be apprehended? This is, of course, a wide-open scholarly question today, as semioticians, anthropologists, philosophers, literary critics, political scientists, and historians argue about text and context, linguistic paradigms and deconstruction, reader-response theory, and many other recondite questions. In the face of scholarly uncertainty, it may be helpful to consult experience and ask how historians read the texts on which they base their accounts. Do they approach speech and writing with the assumption that statesmen and political actors say what they mean and mean what they say? Generally I believe the answer is yes, although they do not do so uncritically. The scholar looks for contradictions and inconsistencies, implications and omissions that might clarify or illuminate the context of the explicit statements in the text. He considers the context in which political speech or writing appears and evaluates it in relation to other evidence. Nevertheless, within the framework of these qualifications, historians rely on political speech and writing as the best kind of evidence for understanding the reasons why statesmen acted as they did. And it seems to me that this is the method of rational-philosophical analysis.

The rational-philosophical approach to the problem of thought and action may be intrinsic to the way we lead our lives. It may be our nature as human beings. If so, it is reasonable to think that people throughout history have acted the same way. Whether or not we accept this proposition, perhaps we can agree that in order to understand and evaluate political statements it is necessary to understand them as their authors understood and intended them. Moreover, if people in an earlier time acted politically on the basis of a rational-philosophical perspective not because it was part of their nature but simply because they happened to do so, the method of objective historical analysis, which insists on seeing things in context and from the standpoint of the participants, would seem to require that we approach their political statements from that point of view. [62] On the basis of these considerations we may say that the method of rational-philosophical analysis provides the most reliable and historically sound approach to the study of Lincoln's political thought.

There is abundant evidence that Lincoln's statesmanship was Page  [End Page 70] grounded in rational-philosophical analysis. Reflecting on the nature and sources of the American experiment in the weeks before his inauguration in 1861, Lincoln wrote: "All this is not the result of accident. It has a philosophical cause." The Constitution and the Union were necessary elements, but they were not the primary reason for the nation's success. Behind these, "entwining itself more closely about the human heart," was "the principle of Liberty to all." This was the "philosophical cause" of "our free government and consequent prosperity." Lincoln described liberty as the word "fitly spoken" which has proved "an apple of gold," and the Constitution and the Union as the "picture of silver" framed around it. He urged his fellow citizens to act so that "neither picture, or apple shall ever be blurred, or bruised or broken." And "That we may so act," he admonished, "we must study, and understand the points of danger." [63]

As president, Lincoln studied and understood and acted on the basis of practical reason. Lord Charnwood's assessment of his statesmanship is apt. When the war was over, Charnwood wrote, "It seemed to the people that he had all along been thinking their real thoughts for them; but they knew that this was because he had fearlessly thought for himself." [64]

It is necessary in studying Lincoln to account for the esteem with which he is regarded in the opinion of mankind.[65] The word "transcendent" appears in many descriptions of Lincoln by historians of varying outlook.[66] Fehrenbacher states that through his virtues and deeds Lincoln has acquired "symbolic and universal meaning."[67] His words are memorialized, and in them, as Fehrenbacher says, we see an expression of his character More significantly, however, it is Lincoln's thought, expressing an understanding of democratic principles, that is memorialized and that accounts for his preeminent status. In remembering and studying Lincoln's words, we do not acknowledge the creative influence of the social conditions and climate of opinion of his time. The very notion is preposterous. On the contrary, in studying Lincoln's words we recognize the range, depth, and power of his insight and understanding. We honor his ability to think beyond the horizons of his time and the limits of the American experience. Page  [End Page 71]


  1. John L. Thomas, ed., Abraham Lincoln and the American Political Tradition (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1986), 10. return to text
  2. Ibid., 31. return to text
  3. Ibid., 42. return to text
  4. To some extent Fehrenbacher recognizes Lincoln's reason when he writes of the First Inaugural: "Here, then, was an occasion calling for eloquence; here was an ear keenly tuned to the music of the English language; here was intellectual grasp and moral urgency; here was great emotional power under firm artistic control. Here, in short, was the mastery that we associate with genius" (ibid., 46). More characteristic of contemporary historical scholarship is Thomas's editorial comment on Fehrenbacher's analysis: "An appreciation of Lincoln's political language ... involves a clear sense of the relevant audience, an understanding of political strategy, but above all, a susceptibility to the sheer power of language" (ibid., 5). This seems to mean that Lincoln's success in political speech and writing was owing not to the power of his reason and intellect but to his "susceptibility" to a power outside himself, namely, language. This view, associated with the linguistic interpretation of political thought, comes close to regarding language as the causal agent in history. See the discussion at note 59 below. A useful survey on the question is John E. Toews, "Intellectual History after the Linguistic Turn: The Autonomy of Meaning and the Irreducibility of Experience," American Historical Review 92 (Oct. 1987): 879–907. return to text
  5. Toews, "Intellectual History after the Linguistic Turn," 879. return to text
  6. Cf. Max J. Skidmore, American Political Thought (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1978); David W. Minar, Ideas and Politics: The American Experience (Homewood, Ill.: Dorsey Press, 1964); Alan P. Grimes, American Political Thought (New York: Henry Holt Co., 1955). return to text
  7. Lord Charnwood (Godfrey Rathbone Benson): Abraham Lincoln (Garden City Publishing Co., 1938; orig. pub. Henry Holt Co., 1917), 455. return to text
  8. Allan Nevins, The Statesmanship of the Civil War, 2d ed. (New York: Macmillan, Collier Books Edition, 1962), 99–100. return to text
  9. Richard N. Current, The Lincoln Nobody Knows (New York: Hill and Wang, 1958), 196; Current, ed., The Political Thought of Abraham Lincoln (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1967), xxix–xxx. return to text
  10. See Stanley Pargellis, "Lincoln's Political Philosophy," Abraham Lincoln Quarterly 3 (June 1945): 275–90; James G. Randall, Lincoln the Liberal Statesman (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1947); T. Harry Williams, "Abraham Lincoln—Principle and Pragmatism in Politics: A Review Article," Mississippi Valley Historical Review 40 (June 1953): 89–106; David Donald, "Abraham Lincoln and the American Pragmatic Tradition," in Lincoln Reconsidered: Essays on the Civil War Era (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1956); Norman A. Graebner, "Abraham Lincoln: Conservative Statesman," in The Enduring Lincoln ed. Norman A. Graebner (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1959); Don E. Fehrenbacher, ed., Abraham Lincoln: A Documentary Portrait through His Speeches and Writings (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1964); Fehrenbacher, Prelude to Greatness: Lincoln in the 1850s (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1962). return to text
  11. Mark E. Neely, Jr., "Lincoln and the Constitution: An Overview," Lincoln Lore no. 1777 (March 1987): 2–4, no. 1778 (April 1987): 1–2. return to text
  12. Robert W. Johannsen, "Lincoln, Liberty, and Equality," in Liberty and Equality under the Constitution, ed. John Agresto (Washington: American Historical Association and American Political Science Association, 1983), 63. return to text
  13. Ibid., 53. return to text
  14. Professor Johannsen's account is ambiguous. He states that in responding to the challenge posed by Stephen Douglas, "Lincoln strengthened his commitment to liberty and equality, sharpened their meanings and raised them to new heights of moral expression." This implies that Lincoln did this through thoughtful reflection. Yet, Johannsen also says that "Lincoln's views were not unusual ... they revealed a commitment to a free labor ideology that was shared by most Americans ... [and] was ultimately shaped in the crucible of the antislavery movement," ibid. return to text
  15. David Boucher, "Language, Politics and Paradigms: Pocock and the Study of Political Thought," Polity 17 (Summer 1985): 769. return to text
  16. Ralph Lerner, The Thinking Revolutionary: Principle and Practice in the New Republic (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987), ix–x, 2–14. return to text
  17. John P. Diggins, The Lost Soul of American Politics: Virtue, Self-Interest, and the Foundations of Liberalism (New York: Basic Books, 1984), 351. return to text
  18. Herbert Croly, The Promise of American Life (New York: Macmillan, 1909), 87, 89, 91–92. return to text
  19. Roy P. Basler, The Lincoln Legend: A Study in Changing Conceptions (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1935), 29–30. return to text
  20. Fehrenbacher, ed., Abraham Lincoln: A Documentary Portrait, xxix; Fehrenbacher, Prelude to Greatness, 95. return to text
  21. Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard, The Rise of American Civilization (New York: Macmillan, 1930), II, 32, 97. return to text
  22. Vernon Louis Parrington, Main Currents in American Thought, 2 vols. (New York: Harvest Books ed., 1954), II, 145–53. return to text
  23. Richard Hofstadter, The American Political Tradition (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1948), vii, viii, 99–102. return to text
  24. Ibid., 102–3, 108, 125, 132. return to text
  25. Eric Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970), 4–6. return to text
  26. Otto H. Olson, "Abraham Lincoln as Revolutionary," Civil War History 24 (Sept. 1978): 213–224; Stephen B. Oates, "Abraham Lincoln: Republican in the White House," in Thomas, ed., Abraham Lincoln and the American Political Tradition, 98–110; James M. McPherson, "Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution," in Thomas, ed., Abraham Lincoln and the American Political Tradition, 142–60. return to text
  27. Edmund Wilson, Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962), xvii–xviii. return to text
  28. Ibid., 108, 114–15, 123, 130. return to text
  29. George B. Forgie, Patricide in the House Divided: A Psychological Interpretation of Lincoln and His Age (New York: W. W. Norton, 1979); Michael Paul Rogin, "The King's Two Bodies: Abraham Lincoln, Richard Nixon, and Presidential Self-Sacrifice," Massachusetts Review 20 (Autumn 1979): 553–73; Dwight G. Anderson, Abraham Lincoln: The Quest for Immortality (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982); Charles B. Strozier, Lincoln's Quest for Union: Public and Private Meanings (New York: Basic Books, 1982); James Chowning Davis, "Lincoln: The Saint and the Man," Presidential Studies Quarterly 17 (Winter 1987): 71–94. For a critique of this writing, see Richard N. Current, "Lincoln After 175 Years: The Myth of the Jealous Son," Papers of the Abraham Lincoln Association 6 (1984): 15–24. return to text
  30. Strozier, Lincoln's Quest for Union, 201. return to text
  31. Ibid., 227. Strozier notes, with no sense of contradiction, that Lincoln was influenced by the Ciceronian ideal in the oratorical tradition "of rational man reaching his noblest attainment in the expression of an eloquent wisdom" (ibid., 226–27). return to text
  32. Daniel Walker Howe, The Political Culture of the American Whigs (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 267–70, 285, 296. return to text
  33. See J. G. A. Pocock, Politics, Language and Time: Essays on Political Thought and History (New York: Atheneum, 1973); Anthony Pagden, ed., The Languages of Political Theory in Early-Modern Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 1–38. return to text
  34. Jaffa sets out these themes in the following works: Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Issues in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates (New York: Doubleday, 1959); Equality and Liberty: Theory and Practice in American Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1965); How to Think About the American Revolution: A Bicentennial Celebration (Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 1978); and American Conservatism and the American Founding (Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 1984). See also Thomas S. Engeman, "Assessing Jaffa's Contribution," Review of Politics 49 (Winter 1987): 127–30. return to text
  35. Harry V. Jaffa, Crisis of the House Divided (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, reissue, 1982), 330–62. return to text
  36. Ibid., 226. return to text
  37. Ibid., 318–21. Jaffa's argument provoked the conservative political philosopher Willmoore Kendall to advance a vigorously anti-Lincoln interpretation of the problem of equality and the American political tradition. Kendall argued that Lincoln, pursuing equality in the way Jaffa described, derailed the political tradition from the path of community control under legislative sovereignty and turned it in the direction of modern egalitarianism. See Kendall and George Carey, The Basic Symbols of the American Political Tradition (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1970). return to text
  38. See, for example, the reviews by Edwin C. Rozwenc in Political Science Quarterly 75 (Dec. 1960): 604–6, and by Don E. Fehrenbacher in American Historical Review 65 (January 1960): 390. return to text
  39. Jaffa, Crisis of the House Divided, 2–3. return to text
  40. Glen E. Thurow, Abraham Lincoln and American Political Religion (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1976), 18. return to text
  41. Ibid., 87–116. return to text
  42. Glen E. Thurow, "Reply to Corlett," Political Theory 10 (Nov. 1982): 543. return to text
  43. George Anastaplo, "Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation," in Constitutional Government in America, ed. Ronald L. K. Collins (Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 1980), 421–46. return to text
  44. Thomas S. Engeman, "Utopianism and Preservation: The Rhetorical Dimension of American Statesmanship," in The American Founding: Politics, Statesmanship, and the Constitution, ed. Gary L. McDowell and Ralph A. Rossum (Port Washington: Kennikat, 1981), 143–56. return to text
  45. According to the criteria in James David Barber's analytical model, Lincoln was an active-negative president because he was heavily involved in political details, had negative feelings about himself, was inflexible on basic issues, and did not enjoy being president. Stephen A. Douglas, by contrast, can be seen as an active-positive leader return to text
  46. Jeffrey Tulis, "On Presidential Character," in The Presidency in the Constitutional Order, eds. Joseph M. Bessette and Jeffrey Tulis (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981), 283–311. return to text
  47. William H. Riker, The Art of Political Manipulation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), pp. ix–xi, 1–9. Riker proposes "heresthetic" as a parallel term to logic, rhetoric, and grammar, the traditional liberal arts of language. He defines heresthetic as concerned with the strategy-value of language, as distinguished from the concern of logic for its truth-value, rhetoric its persuasion-value, and grammar its communications-value. return to text
  48. Ibid., p. 6. return to text
  49. Diggins, The Lost Soul of American Politics, 347–65. While Diggins does not adopt a final position on the question of whether ideas cause actions or are only a reflection or rationalization of social interests, he argues that the rational-philosophical approach should be employed as the appropriate mode of analysis when studying people in the past who thought in that way, ibid., 357–58. return to text
  50. He writes that Lincoln's idea of a return to first principles was more Christian than classical and "was based on the conviction that republican regeneration could only occur through the rites of blood sacrifice, a theology of suffering, death, atonement, and redemption," ibid., 306–7. return to text
  51. Ibid., 314–18. return to text
  52. Phillip S. Paludan, "Lincoln, the Rule of Law, and the American Revolution," Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 70 (Feb. 1977): 10–17. return to text
  53. George Fredrickson, "The Search for Order and Community," in The Public and Private Lincoln: Contemporary Perspectives, ed. Collum Davis (Carbondale: University of Southern Illinois Press, 1979), 86–100. return to text
  54. Major L. Wilson, "Lincoln and Van Buren in the Steps of the Fathers: Another Look at the Lyceum Address," Civil War History 29 (September 1983): 197–211. return to text
  55. Gary J. Jacobsohn, "Abraham Lincoln 'On This Question of Judicial Authority': The Theory of Constitutional Aspiration," Western Political Quarterly 36 (March 1983): 52–70. return to text
  56. Herman Belz, "Abraham Lincoln and American Constitutionalism," Review of Politics 50 (Spring 1988): 169–97. return to text
  57. Thomas J. Pressly, "Bullets and Ballots: Lincoln and the 'Right of Revolution,'" American Historical Review 67 (April 1962): 661–62. return to text
  58. Hans J. Morgenthau and David Hein, Essays on Lincoln's Faith and Politics, ed. Kenneth W. Thompson (Lanham: University Press of America, 1983), 5, 59, 67, 99. return to text
  59. Pocock, Politics, Language and Time, 11–12, 14, 25. return to text
  60. William S. Corlett, Jr., "The Availability of Lincoln's Political Religion," Political Theory 10 (Nov. 1982): 537. return to text
  61. Thomas, ed., Abraham Lincoln and the American Political Tradition, 4, 5, 10. return to text
  62. Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953), 56–62. return to text
  63. Roy P. Basler et al., eds., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 9 vols. (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1953–55), IV, 168–69. return to text
  64. Charnwood, Abraham Lincoln, 454. I am indebted to Walter Berns for calling this statement to my attention. return to text
  65. Fehrenbacher, ed., Abraham Lincoln: A Documentary Portrait, xvi. return to text
  66. For example, Johannsen, Thomas, Fredrickson, and Stanley Pargellis, among other historians, refer to Lincoln in this way. return to text
  67. Fehrenbacher, ed., Abraham Lincoln: A Documentary Portrait, xvii. return to text