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Lincoln

One hundred fifty years ago today, the Union—or, what was left of it—was in an uproar.  Two days earlier, after three days of debate, the South Carolina Convention declared itself independent of the American Union.

Never before or since has a greater threat existed against the cohesiveness and integrity of the United States of America.  The hapless James Buchanan, a liar and a coward, sat in the Oval Office, impotent.  The incoming president would not take the oath of office for another three months.

It seems appropriate, then, as we begin the 150th anniversary of the events that led to the American Civil War, we turn to the intellectual and spiritual patron of this website, Russell Kirk, and consider his views on Abraham Lincoln, the man who would become so identified with the four-year noble tragedy.

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Russell Kirk, “Lincoln and the Dignity of the Presidency,” speech given February 12, 1970.  Typescript in the Russell Kirk Center, Mecosta, Michigan.

“A the Roman Republic was at the back of the minds of the framers of the American Constitution; it was their hope that the chief magistrate of these United States would conduct himself with “the high old Roman virtue,” becoming an exemplar of pietasgravitasconstantiafirmitascomitasdisciplinaindustriaclemetiafrugalitas, and severitas. George Washington, a grand gentleman of the old model, suffused with the un-bought grace of life, set high the standard for these virtues. Eight decades later, there appeared a public man of an origin very different from Washington’s, who nevertheless has come to stand as Washington’s equal in republican virtue.”

“From a disaster greater still, we were saved by the presidential dignity of Lincoln, from whom few had expected any dignity at all.”

“Both the New England of Hawthorne and the backwoods Illinois of Lincoln were faced by the whirlwind of fanaticism that had first stirred in their youth, had wailed onward to Fort Sumter, and then had raved triumphant from Manassas to Appomattox. That whirlwind might have left total devastation, had not Abraham Lincoln’s dignity withstood it in some degree.”

“The war made Lincoln great–not by chance, but by summoning forth the noble fortitude and gravity that had no more than peeked out from him in his Illinois years.”

“How far Lincoln himself was conscious that a Providential purpose work through him, we cannot be certain; yet some such apprehension reins from the phrases of his speeches and letters between 1861 and 1865.”

“For all that, ever since his boyhood his friends had perceived in this curious being some element of greatness. Lincoln possessed the incongruous dignity that was Samuel Johnson’s, too. Here stood a man of sorrows. It always has been true that melancholy men are the wittiest; and Lincoln’s off-color yarns, told behind a log barn or in some dingy Springfield office, were part and parcel of his consciousness that ours is a world of vanities. When he entered upon high office, this right humor became an element of the high old Roman virtue: comitas, the belief that seasons gravitas, or the sense of grand responsibility.”

“He was no woman’s man, and his marriage was made tolerable only by his own vast charity and tenderness, but he never was the man to weep over his own blemishes or blunders.”

“Lincoln’s awareness of this ineluctable reality, combining with his knowledge of the weaknesses of poor sinning mortality, made demand strong in his sadness, and gave him the power to endure with humility and generosity the awful burdens of his office.”

Pietas was his, too, in the old Roman sense: willing subordination to the claims of the divine, of ‘the contract of eternal society,’ of neighbors, of country.”

“There have lived few Americans more abundantly graced with the theological virtues, charity most of all. The New Testament shines out from his acts of mercy, and the Old from his direction of the war. We all know the deep piety of his Gettysburg Address; and in some of his letters there looms a stern justice, at once Christian and classical.”

“Prudent amidst passion, Lincoln never was a doctrinaire; he rose from very low estate to very high estate, and he knew the savagery that lies close beneath the skin of man, and he saw that most men are good only out of obedience to routine and custom and convention. The reckless Fire–eager in the uncompromising Abolitionist were abhorrent to him; yet he took the middle path between them not out of any misapplication of the doctrine of the Golden mean, but because he held that the unity and security of the United States transcended any fanatics scheme of uniformity.… Here he was like Edmund Burke; yet it is improbable that he read much Burke, or any other political philosopher except Blackstone; his wisdom came from close observation of human nature, and from the Bible and Shakespeare. The Radical Republicans detested him as cordially as did the Southern zealots. In his conservative object, the preservation of the Union, he succeeded through the ancient virtue of prudential.”

“Lincoln was a conservative statesman on the intellectual model of Cicero. In his dignity there was no hubris, no presumption; much, he knew, must be left to Providence.”

“Lincoln knew that what moved him was a power from without himself and, having served God’s will according to the light that was given him, he received the reward of the last full measure of devotion. He did not assert dignity; rather, he was invested with it.”

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Published: Dec 22, 2010
Author
Russell Kirk
Russell Kirk (1918-1994) was the author of some thirty-two books, hundreds of periodical essays, and many short stories. Both Time and Newsweek have described him as one of America’s leading thinkers, and The New York Times acknowledged the scale of his influence when in 1998 it wrote that Kirk’s 1953 book The Conservative Mind “gave American conservatives an identity and a genealogy and catalyzed the postwar movement.”
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7 replies to this post
  1. Hmm, I know there is much contention around Lincoln these days. I can possibly go along with the notion that Providence was at work in the man in a similar way to the story Chesterton tells where Rome defeats Carthage. But there is much to dislike about what Lincoln did and the possible motives that drove him. And the devastation to the soul of the country from that war still haunts us. Perhaps it was necessary in God's wisdom, but I think it's still debatable.

    While Tom DiLorenzo's work may not be the whole story, it certainly puts a different lens on Lincoln's motives. The man came from the Whigs and it is difficult to discount those views in the unfolding of the war on the South.

    What are we to say when men like Lee are defeated by men like Grant (who is probably still much better than the men in public life today)?

    It is hard to celebrate Lincoln who saw us as one nation only when there are no men left like Lee who saw us as sovereign "little platoons".

  2. Dr. Birzer, thank you for posting this.

    Mr. Tim H, I think you pose some interesting questions and concerns.

    Seeing as my family is deeply rooted in Tennessee and Texas, there is a part of me that sees the beauty in the local southern agrarian community. Slavery was its blemish, but that society held onto the old ideas of an agrarian republic–they tilled the soiled, reaped whatever their hands produced, and heeded the force of nature. But perhaps more admirably, they created communities in which neighbors helped each other, went to church together, and petitioned for their rights. These communities were the lifeblood of the republic.

    Lincoln cannot be credited for destroying these, but he certainly assisted in the end of the republican era and the move to a National system.

    This national system had begun to raise its head with Andrew Jackson and his assertion that he embodied the "will" of the people, but in some ways Lincoln seems to further erect an Executive giant.

    Whether his character was genuine and self-sacrificing or whether it was self-interested (I like to think it was the former), Lincoln asserted a power that exceeded Constitutional limits. He claimed he would not abolish slavery, and then his "Emancipation Proclamation" revealed his plan to do so. He suspended habeas corpus, he consented to an invasion before congress declared war, and the list goes on. Did the specific circumstances justify this? I don't know and I won't pretend to. But I do know that Lincoln embodies the tension latent in the human soul.

    He was a man who proclaimed to love the founders and the Declaration and the Constitution, yet many of his actions opposed the founder's own warnings. He was a man who referenced God and His providence, yet many believe he was an atheist. He was a man of prudence and not simply of system, yet he set precedents for a monstrous executive branch.

    Lincoln seems to be a perfect embodiment of the goodness and falleness of mankind, and I think this is part of the reason it is not only legitimate but also good to revere and remember President Lincoln, for while he was no savior, he embodied much of the American character, good and bad, and he sacrificed his life defending the justice, unity, and equality that have always knitted the New Yorker to the South Carolinian.

  3. "Noble tragedy?" A difficult term to swallow when thinking of Sherman's "march to the sea," which marked America's debut into the arena of war crimes. As the culture moves further left, I can't help but wonder if the South wasn't ahead of its time. Now with the so-called DADT repeal it seems as if the institution of the military has been solidified in enemy hands. Union can be overrated. In the past year there was a popular piece spreading around the internet regarding a divorce proposal between "red state" America and "blue state" America. If only.

  4. I can't think of any person more responsible for the destruction of our Republic and demise of State sovereignty than Lincoln. King George, Alexander Hamilton and the other nationalist could not have done it any better than "Ole Dishonest Abe". Instead of being held up as a hero, he should be vilified as the person who destroyed individual freedom and the right to live under a government of ones choosing.

  5. When it comes to DiLorenzo vs. Kirk, I know whose views express the considered judgment of a great soul. It might take one to know one. Kirk is absolutely right to place Lincoln in the roll of great statesmen. His virtues embodied the best of the Roman tradition, along with the trust in Providence, love of justice for the weakest, and humility that come from Christianity.

    Possibly the greatest domestic disaster this country has endured was the assassination of the man who stood before a victorious North and delivered the Second Inaugural Address. With such a man to lead us, the era after the Civil War might be known as Reconciliation instead of Reconstruction.

  6. Lincoln would appear to be a sigular example of a familar figure in US politics, a complete pragmatist who subirdinated all questions of public policy to one test, "Does it help advance my cause". For Lincoln was a firm believer in the football proverb "Winning isn't the most important thing it is the only thing." as such, while he didn't set out to conduct a war of unprecedented size and destructiveness he was perfectly willing to do so to assure the success of his faction and its program. In a sense Lincoln is the political god farther of those who came after him. Woodrow Wilson was perfectly willing to engage in widespread violations of Constitutional protections under the banner of making the world safe for democracy. Theodore Roosevelt presided over a war of foreign conquest in the Philippines conducted with exemplary ruthlessness. Fdr treated the Constitution as toilet paper and got away with mass deportation of tens of thousands of US citizens and the desploilation of their property with out batting an eye. In a great many ways Lincoln is the father of the modern American leviathan state.

  7. I feel compelled to offer some commentary on the above thread, and reflect more generally on Kirk's view of our Redeemer President, which I find to be warm and more than just.

    Mr. Tim H. will be forced to go along with the fact that Lincoln was, in fact, motivated by Providence whether he wishes to or not. Lincoln's own writings of 1862, and his oft-cited second inaugural reveal a soul much confounded by the workings of God. But it bears notice that Lincoln, upon informing his cabinet that he intended to emancipate by executive proclamation, told them also of his covenant with God upon which his momentous decision stood. The oft-cited "dubious motives" of Lincoln are themselves dubious; the record revealed by most significant biographers of Lincoln (of whom Di Lorenzo is not one) illuminate a man driven by justice and, as Mr. Kirk aptly points out, the Classical and Theological virtues.

    This offers a fine transition to Miss Baldwin's commentary. I'm thankful to have studied with Miss Baldwin while at Hillsdale, and she writes as gracefully now as she studied then. My only minor critiques of her otherwise fine post is that the North was not, in fact, an industrial society that belittled and destroyed a fine, local, and agrarian model to the South. Nearly ninety-six percent of the North prospered (and suffered) from agriculture. While Miss Baldwin correctly notes that many consider Lincoln an unprincipled pragmatist and atheist, most scholars correctly point to Lincoln's profound theological acumen (see Noll, Carwardine, Guelzo) and conclude with good reason that Lincoln's Calvinist impulses place him firmly in the camp of a Providential Theist.

    Finally, let me end by exposing this asinine belief that Lincoln ended "limited government" and, in so doing, "destroyed the Republic" as the steaming pile of dung that it is. To begin, it makes good sense that a Congress operating without an opposition party will pass legislation that grants power unto itself at the expense of its opposition, who by the way had decided to remove itself from the civil jurisdiction of that governing body. So the government's power grew, to be sure, but that neither means that the republic died or that the powers appropriated were unconstitutional. Southerners have no legal ground to decry the growth of a government against them that they willingly dissolved. Secondly, does it surprise us that a man committed to a transcendent ideal of "Union" should take unprecedented legal action to secure its preservation? Lincoln's "real motives [dark, sinister voice-over]" were never so unclear. He wished to save the Union. At all costs. Whether by freeing all slaves or none. Because to Lincoln, Union and liberty formed two sides of the very same coin. A Union brought forth into existence by the Declaration of Independence–NOT the Constitution of the United States–and built upon the conviction that every man ought, by God-given right, to retain the fruit of his own labor, merited preservation and defending in Lincoln's mind. Thank God that it was so.

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