Presented at a debate sponsored by the Hillsdale College Republicans and the Fairfield Society in commemoration of President’s Day, February 20, 2011.
Today I am called by the President of the College Republicans, Baillie Jones, to address Abraham Lincoln’s merits as a statesman.
You might be expecting this discussion to center on whether or not Lincoln was right in using war to prevent secession, which would open debate on the constitutional and philosophical justifications for secession and the historical facts surrounding 19th century America.
Of these facts, my family has been personally aware. I am descended of the son of the son of Thomas Anderson Smith, a free plantation owner of southern Virginia and, as I am told, one of only hundreds to reach the crest of Pickett’s charge in Gettysburg before falling to a near-fatal bayonet wound. I’ve walked the land, my family’s land, that was lost to us in this tragedy of brother against brother. And my heart is really there, in the south, which I believe today represents much of what is good and chivalrous and hospitable in America.
But this is not a debate on the civil war, which, like most arguments between Calvinism and Catholicism, is too broad and too interminal for today.
Rather, I am called to talk about Lincoln, and so I want to examine Lincoln as a man and a leader of men, and scrutinize his vision toward political truth.
I’d like to hold up our 16th president to enduring canons of conservatism. The canons I will present are based loosely on Russell Kirk’s conservative mind. They are:
Belief in 1) Moral Order 2) Convention and continuity 3) Imperfectability 4) Restraints on power 5) Permanence within change
“As a man speaks, so is he.” So said King Solomon’s Proverb. As a student of speech, I know how words shape and change the world. The pen is mightier, and more worthy of consideration, than the sword, in as much as the pen puts forth ideas and in as much as it is of, by, and for, ideas that the world moves. So too the orators’ words and the ideas behind them.
Lincoln was not a typical good orator. He was awkward because of his height, shifted from foot to foot, spoke with a high grating Kentucky drawl that would crack, wore a hat unfashionable even for his time, and was widely considered to have fallen off the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down.
But as his law partner William Herndon described: “If he was defending the right, if he was defending liberty …then he extended out his arms, palms of his hands upward … as if … he might embrace the spirt of that which he so dearly loved. It was at such moments that he seemed inspired, fresh from the hands of his Creator.”
Because of this, paradoxically, Lincoln’s statesmanship was predominately rhetorical – his written and oral arguments carried this failed businessmen and failed politician to the White House and kept the Union states unified, because his words and wisdom did not fail. This evidence weighs most heavily in today’s considerations of this man. Actions matter as well, as my friend Virginia of Virginia will tell you, and I don’t want to diminish that. I simply would urge that you judge Lincoln by both his words and his actions – do not exclude the former.
First, Lincoln believed in and always appealed to the enduring moral order. He said, “If the negro is a man, why then my ancient faith teaches me that ‘all men are created equal’; and that there can be no more moral right in connection with one man’s making a slave of another.”
When he argued, he clearly argued in terms the absolute definitions of good and evil, justice and injustice.
Second, Lincoln supported custom and convention and continuity in the institutions of society: He said with words so moving because of the Truth they convey, “Let every American, every lover of liberty, every well-wisher to his posterity, swear by the blood of the Revolution, never to violate … the laws of the country; and never to tolerate their violation by others. As the patriots of seventy-six did to the support of the Declaration of Independence, so to the support of the Constitution and Laws, let every American pledge his life, his property, and his sacred honor;—let every man remember that to violate the law, is to trample on the blood of his father, and to tear the character of his own, and his children’s liberty. Let reverence for the laws be breathed by every American mother to the lisping babe that prattles on her lap—let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges;—let it be written in Primmers, spelling books, and in Almanacs;—let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice.”
Note the continuity from generation to generation in his understanding of law. Father, man, child. Past, present, future. The blessings of liberty from our founders for ourselves and our posterity. His support of legal authority echoes the truth of Romans 13.
Third, Lincoln knew man’s imperfectability. He saw human nature as fixed, and thus wrote, “Human action can be modified to some extent, but human nature cannot be changed.” Lincoln knew men were not angels.
He struggled his entire life with what his friends called melancholy and what we would know as clinical depression. Once, while he was riding with two companions he encountered a family of traveling singers, and they travelled together for 8 days. After singing and drinking around the hearth at an inn one night, the singers asked the somber lawyer for a song or poem.
Historian Joshua Wolf Shenk writes the story, “Lincoln was embarrassed and demurred, but he finally said, “I’ll tell you what I’ll do for you. You girls have been so kind singing for us. I’ll repeat to you my favorite poem.” Leaning against the doorjamb, which looked small behind his lanky frame, and with his eyes half closed, Lincoln recited from memory:
“O[h] why should the spirit of mortal be proud!
Like a swift, fleeting meteor—a fast-flying cloud—
A flash of the lightning—a break of the wave—
He passeth from life to his rest in the grave.
“’Tis the wink of an eye, ’tis the draught of a breath,
From the blossoms of health, to the paleness of death.
From the gilded saloon, to the bier and the shroud
Oh, why should the spirit of mortal be proud!
Lincoln intimately knew human frailty. His mother died when he was 11, his sister shortly afterward. In 1835 the women he loved, Anne Rutledge, also died.
This president knew the constrained, conservative vision of man even as the armies of the south besieged federal forts and threatened to cut him off in Maryland and marched north into Pennsylvania against union generals who would not fight. He was always the first to acknowledge his many mistakes, abuses, and imperfections as president. And that’s what makes him a conservative.
Fourth, Lincoln supported constitutional restraints on power, even when they bound him against demonstrably good ends.
Joseph Knippenberg, professor of politics and a fellow for the Ashbrook center for public affairs, said, “There’s also another concern that Lincoln calls to our attention … He begins his letter to Albert Hodges by affirming that “… If slavery is not wrong, then nothing is wrong…” But he goes on to say he was bound by his oath of office not “to practically indulge my primary abstract judgment on the moral question of slavery.” He could not pursue great moral goods against the strictures of the Constitution.”
As civil war scholar Allen Guelzo has said, “Lincoln understood emancipation not as the satisfaction of a “spirit” overriding the law, nor as the moment of fusion between the Constitution and absolute moral theory, but as a goal to be achieved through prudential means so that worthwhile consequences might result.”
This is why his 1863 emancipation proclamation aimed only at states at war with the Union, and was justified as a means to winning a war under the authority of the President over the common defense. This is why he treated southern prisoners as prisoners of war, and not traitors to be hung. This is why he refused recommendations to suspended the national election of 1864 even though he faced robust electoral challengers. Restraint, caution, acting only on institutional, legal and moral authority.
To quote Russell Kirk, “The reckless Fire–eater and 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.… his wisdom came from close observation of human nature, and from the Bible and Shakespeare. The Radical Republicans detested him … as did the Southern zealots. In his conservative object, the preservation of the Union, he succeeded through the ancient virtue of prudential.”
Fifth, Lincoln recognized permanent principles in the midst of change.
He described the declaration of independence as “a standard maxim for free society that would be constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.”
He saw permanence that must endure in institutions through change, but also change the world so even ancient evil institutions like racial slavery would fall. The world shall spin on at a tilt, imperfect, with all the uncertainty and tragedy and darkness of 600,000 men slain, yet the principles of nature which God established will endure on this globe, and it is our task to work in accordance with these principles, as Lincoln did, “with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right.”
Books referenced in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.