NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE P aradoxical as it might seem, the greatness of Abraham Lincoln has actually been obscured by his posthumous elevation to the rank of stone-hewn demigod. The man described by Leo Tolstoy is the one most Americans imagine when the name of our sixteenth president is invoked — the civic savior sent to water the soil of American liberty with the blood of his martyrdom:
Of all the great national heroes and statesmen of history, Lincoln is the only real giant. Alexander, Frederick the Great, Caesar, Napoleon, Gladstone, and even Washington stand in greatness of character, in depth of feeling, and in a certain moral power far behind Lincoln. Lincoln was a man of whom a nation has a right to be proud; he was a Christ in miniature, a saint of humanity, whose name will live thousands of years in the legends of future generations. We are still too near to his greatness, and so can hardly appreciate his divine power; but after a few centuries more our posterity will find him considerably bigger than we do. His genius is still too strong and too powerful for the common understanding, just as the sun is too hot when its light beams directly on us.
This is all more or less true, even if Tolstoy gets a bit carried away with talk of “divine power.” Lincoln is not only the greatest ever American president, he is the greatest ever American, and the greatest leader in the history of world politics, to boot. The nations of the earth have reason to look with envy upon the United States when they reflect upon the providential and miraculous fact that we were led through our greatest trials and tribulations by such a man as this.
There is, however, a danger that accompanies speaking about Lincoln in this register. We are liable to forget the thoroughly earthly dimensions of his sojourn among us. He was, for instance, a very skilled politician. His career is furthermore full of salutary lessons in the art of rough-and-tumble politics and practical persuasion that we are often blinded to by the light of his halo. The Lincoln Project, for example, a political action group attempting to unseat the current president and obliterate the Republican Party, has attempted to make the Great Emancipator’s moral credibility their own as they pursue their objectives. It’s clear, however, that they have only a passing acquaintance with their mascot. There are, in fact, few political actors in the United States whose approach to electoral politics is less Lincolnian than that of The Lincoln Project. The irony of this phenomenon is indicative of how little is actually known about our greatest son by the latter-day heirs to his Republic.
Any number of Lincoln’s writings or speeches could be summoned as evidence of this widespread failure to study him closely, but his address to the Springfield Washington Temperance Society in 1842 is particularly salient. It’s a masterpiece of political rhetoric bettered only by several other works by the same author. Strange as it might seem in hindsight, at the time Lincoln gave his address, it was unclear as to whether slavery or temperance (meaning the legal prohibition of alcohol) would be the dominant political issue of the day. The Maine liquor law was passed in that state not long after the infamous compromise of 1850, and similar measures were put in place in Massachusetts, Vermont, Rhode Island, and Connecticut.
This movement was driven by a particular impulse of the age that we all ought to study, given that it has raised its ugly head again today. Harry Jaffa describes this impulse thusly:
Mid-nineteenth-century America was swept by a whole series of alleged reform movements — temperance, abolitionism (and its southern counterpart, the positive good advocacy of slavery), nativism, Young Americanism, feminism (in its early manifestations) … A single word sums up the common core of many of these mid-century movements and that is millennialism. The vision animating reformers was not that of a better world but of a well-nigh perfect world, of a New Jerusalem. Theirs was a secularized Puritanism, combining the spirit of religious messianism with the substance of a naïve rationalism and this-worldly utopianism.
In other words, malcontent and volatile populist energy is not a new feature of American politics. In the 1840s, it was arraigned, as Jaffa describes, against a vast panoply of prejudices, social ills, and scapegoats. Today’s vandalism, looting, and 1619-inspired futurism on the left, as well as the Flight 93 hysteria and cult of presidential personality on the right, are both descendants, in tone and tenor, of this kind of politics. Lincoln, furthermore, was a politician in search of votes in the midst of it all, not unlike today’s elected representatives. How he won these votes, massaging, taming, and channeling the potentially dangerous populist zeal of voters, is instructive. It’s past time for our political elites, along with the rest of us, to do this man the courtesy of studying his methods, given that we owe to him the existence of free government on these shores.
The anti-slavery movement was undoubtedly what animated Lincoln’s political career the most. He had nothing but loathing and contempt for those of his compatriots — such as members of the “Know-Nothing” American Party — who denied the Founding’s sacred, if unrealized, commitment to universal human dignity. Lincoln made his private opinions about these people known in a letter to his friend, Joshua Speed:
Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it, “all men are created equal, except negroes.” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.” When it comes to this, I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty — Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, without the base alloy of hypocrisy.
As I intimated above, however, it was not yet clear in the early 1840s whether or not slavery would claim centerstage in the national drama. The Temperance movement had been flexing its muscle in at the ballot-box, and Lincoln was among the many politicians who needed the Temperance vote to win elections. In spite of this, he was repelled by the utopian fervor of their politics. As Jaffa observes:
Lincoln was sensitive to the danger that extreme expectations of worldly perfection would engender extreme political solutions, requiring extreme measures and extreme power in those who would carry them through. The expectations that were proper and fitting for the kingdom of heaven might be fatal to the freedom of a republic.
Faced with this danger, Lincoln did what few leaders would think of doing today. He placed himself “rhetorically, at the head of a movement in which he found more to disapprove than to approve.” This puts him in a category distinct from demagogues, who offer no disapproval of resentments of the mob, and from preening moralists who prefer not to be sullied by the necessary compromises of politics. As Leonard Swett, one of his contemporaries, observed, Lincoln’s “tactics were, to get himself in the right place and remain there . . . until events would find him in that place.” He could easily have given blood to the fantasies of the prohibitionists. A superficial reading of his speech might suggest that, in fact, he did. But, true to Swett’s observation, the speech is far more sophisticated than that. Jaffa, once again:
The Temperance Address shows, as do few documents of modern politics, a method whereby a public man can both accept and reject the prejudices of his contemporaries; how he can, at one and the same time, flatter their vanity and chasten their egotism; how he can, appearing to agree with their opinions, modify them, however little, or, failing that, so to promote his own leadership that, when these opinions come to be applied, they will be applied by a man whose judgement is not chained to them and who can thus utilize them for wiser purposes.
Lincoln begins the speech by heaping praise upon the Temperance movement, following the advice that he himself gives the audience later in the speech: “If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend.” He quickly turns, however, to an analysis of the movement’s success, flattering the prohibitionists by contrasting them with earlier failed incarnations of their movement. Framing the rest of his speech in this way allows Lincoln to voice all of his criticisms of the Temperance movement in such a way that strokes the vanity of the audience by excluding them from the critique, encouraging them to avoid the behavior Lincoln condemns that they might live up to his own description of their virtue. In spite of the fact that Lincoln makes the movement’s “reasons for success” the major theme of the speech, over two thirds of it consists in criticizing the shortcomings of the prohibitionists.
He criticizes the Temperance movement for being too quick to condemn the drunkards in their midst. Lincoln lays the defensive response of the alcoholic to this kind of rhetoric squarely at the feet of the instigator:
To have expected them [i.e., the dram sellers and the dram drinkers] to do otherwise than as they did — to have expected them not to meet denunciation with denunciation, crimination with crimination, and anathema with anathema, was to expect a reversal of human nature, which is God’s decree, and can never be reversed.
This speech is in many ways a broadside against what has come to be known as “owning” — “owning the libs,” or the cons, or whomever else one might wish to rhetorically eviscerate. This shouldn’t surprise us. Opposition to owning people was, after all, kind of Lincoln’s thing.
This should not be read, however, as a tiresome kind of kumbaya moralism. It’s very good politics. We forget this because many of the most famous media figures covering politics today have made a lot of money by functioning as de facto activists for one major party or the other. It’s a lot more lucrative to target a particular demographic, all of whom agree with one another, and supply them with political coverage and analysis that reinforces their priors than it is to offer convincing and civil arguments to those who disagree with you. This development in the information market has bled into politics. The siloing of profits for journalist-activists into hermetically sealed ideological echo chambers has eroded the shared center ground of American debate and made election results a matter of which side can turn out their base most effectively. Breaking out of this market-driven model and into the habit of persuasion is politically indispensable for Republicans in particular, given the fact that the conservative echo chamber is on the wrong side of demographic trends. Lincoln tells us what to expect if we persist with our “owning” tactics:
Assume to dictate to his judgment, or to command his action, or to mark him as one to be shunned and despised, and he will retreat within himself, close all the avenues to his head and his heart; and tho’ your cause be naked truth itself, transformed to the heaviest lance, harder than steel, and sharper than steel can be made . . . you shall no more be able to pierce him, than to penetrate the hard shell of a tortoise with a rye straw.
And yet, I’m aware that appealing to the long-term health of the conservative movement is unlikely to persuade many, mainly for reasons outlined by Lincoln later in his speech. “Few can be induced to labor exclusively for posterity; and none will do it enthusiastically,” he says. This is the mistake that many conservative skeptics of the president have made when pleading with his supporters. The argument goes that Trump is so lacking in both administrative competence and moral fiber that he will discredit the governing credentials of the Republican Party for years to come, and so Republicans should accept short-term electoral pain for long-term electoral gain. If this line of argument worked then the United States would not currently be $24 trillion in debt. Voters do not care very much, by and large, about posterity. They want what they want, and they want it now, as Lincoln surmises:
Great distance, in either time or space, has wonderful power to lull and render quiescent the human mind. Pleasures to be enjoyed, or pains to be endured, after we shall be dead and gone, are but little regarded, even in our own cases, and much less in the cases of others.
Still, in addition to this, there is something so ludicrous in promises of good, or threats of evil, a great way off, as to render the whole subject with which they are connected, easily turned into ridicule.
Simply put, if politicians cannot find a way to make matters of long-term concern appear urgent and relevant to the interests of voters, nobody will listen. Neither visions of the past nor of the distant future play well at the ballot-box. Only six years after the Republicans were humbled by the Watergate scandal, Americans were more than happy to elect Ronald Reagan in a landslide. The concerns of voters rarely extend beyond their immediate field of experience. This is why great statesmen are necessary. They survey the horizon of the political landscape, discern the potentially fatal maladies of the body politic, and weave their treatment of these illnesses together with the short-term wants of the electorate in order to safeguard sustainable republican governance.
Lincoln performs this feat himself at the end of his address when he weds the narrow concerns of the audience to his own concerns about slavery. The self-interest of the voters is made to stand or fall with the pursuit of a more perfect Union, purged of human bondage:
And when the victory shall be complete — when there shall be neither a slave nor a drunkard on the earth — how proud the title of that Land, which may truly claim to be the birthplace and the cradle of both those revolutions, that shall have ended in that victory. How nobly distinguished that People, who shall have planted, and nurtured to maturity, both the political and moral freedom of their species.
Lincoln begins by treating the concerns of the electorate with honor and respect. He then proceeds, through remarkable rhetorical alchemy, to situate these concerns in a broader drama where they intersect with a national interest that checks the worst excesses of the movement. Sometimes, of course, there can be no intersection between personal and national interest, as Southern slaveholders realized when Lincoln was elected. As of March 4, 1861, when our sixteenth president was inaugurated, the personal interest of slaveholders was finally and forever rendered incompatible with the national interest of the United States. Civil enmity, however, should always be the last option and never the first resort. Throughout war and peace, Lincoln always extended the olive branch before drawing the sword, even to movements and individuals he found infuriating. No other president, with the possible exception of the great Washington, could have found it within himself during wartime to treat a malicious and incompetent narcissist like George McClellan with the grace shown to him by his commander in chief. This kind of Lincolnian discourse has not been tried and found wanting in 2020, it has been found difficult and left untried.
You see, then, why the Lincoln Project is such a farcical venture. It is helmed, we are told, by disillusioned conservatives. But if this is the case, we must conclude that these conservatives are dissatisfied with the leader of a party that they have historically approved of more often than not. And that they have responded to these disappointing developments on the American Right by attempting to destroy the entire Republican Party. Given what we have just observed about the way Lincoln himself approached political movements of which, on balance, he disapproved, can the Lincoln Project lay any just claim to his legacy at all?
Where is the sympathy and solidarity on the Never Trump right for the concerns and interests of the voters in Trump country? Where is the praise and the gratitude for the way they have flagged up issues that have been ignored by both parties for years? If this sympathy is feigned, it’s still politically expedient. Time and again in presidential elections, the candidate whom voters believe to be the most empathetic wins. An ABC News exit poll from 2012 showed Obama absolutely trouncing Romney in this area by a ten-point margin. Lincoln’s Temperance Address reminds us that politicians always have to deal with the electorate they’re given. Lincoln, steeped as he was in the language of the King James Bible, knew that people are sheep, and that without a good shepherd the wolves will soon close in around them. This is often true in civic terms as well as in religious terms, especially when voters feel anxious and vulnerable. Donald Trump was hired by his voters to bring peace and security to the sheepfold, but he has chosen instead to stoke the anxieties and grievances that satiate his own appetite for attention. When the real wolves came in the form of a virus from across the sea, he chose to flee into the sanctuary of his own delusions, as evidenced during his disastrous interview with Axios’s Jonathan Swan. However, until the political class can find an alternative to Trump’s politics that actually resembles those of the Great Emancipator, they should leave the hallowed name of Lincoln out of their schemes.