In the winter issue of National Affairs, the University of Chicago’s Ralph Lerner offers some wisdom on Lincoln’s legacy — and especially on how he shaped our understanding of America’s founders. A flavor:
Lincoln’s own words — fitly spoken at a time when many held them in derision, and still others nursed murderous intent — proved in their own way to be an apple of gold. He displayed in the concrete pressure of a struggle to preserve the Constitution and the Union at least as much coolness, forecast, and capacity as Jefferson. He proved (as if it needed proof) that a man may be seen treading in the footsteps of a predecessor, however illustrious, and still harvest his own field of glory. His ambition sufficed to push his lofty genius to its utmost stretch. The wonder of it all was that he was able to gratify his thirst for distinction not by enslaving freemen, but by emancipating slaves and freemen alike.It is hardly surprising that a man of such complex character and momentous decisions should have attracted the attention of a legion of historians and biographers from his day to ours. He left much for others to understand and explain. But as is often the case in such matters, what one sees or does not see is affected by what one brings to the task. Someone dismissive of or oblivious to moral grandeur might fall into comparing the Emancipation Proclamation to a bill of lading. Someone enchanted by Lincoln’s soaring prose might be distracted from carefully attending to the magician’s calculated moves. Difficulties of this kind afflict any attempt to understand his life as a whole. They beset, no less, even as narrow an inquiry as the present one. Was Lincoln a restorer of what the founders had wrought? Or did he, under the guise of restoring an endangered union, refound it upon more radical and far-reaching principles than would have been acceptable to the generation that made the revolution and formed the new national government?