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Lincoln's Lessons for Turbulent Times

Even in our age of “cancellation,” Abraham Lincoln retains an exalted position, invoked by Americans across the political spectrum. Republicans brag that theirs is the “party of Lincoln.” Democrats criticize Republicans by claiming that they are no longer the “party of Lincoln.” In both cases, Lincoln is implicitly affirmed as the standard of responsible and benevolent statesmanship.

Such invocations of Lincoln, however, are ordinarily superficial. They are usually just boasts or taunts, made by politicians or partisan commentators who have given very little—if any!—serious consideration to what Lincoln thought about the problems the country faced in his day. Nevertheless, the superficial references might lead us to wonder. Is there a way to turn to Lincoln for meaningful political guidance?

Those who seek a serious account of Lincoln’s thought and its relevance to our time will welcome the publication of Diana Schaub’s His Greatest Speeches: How Lincoln Moved the Nation. Schaub is a political scientist at Loyola University of Maryland. Here, however, she writes not only as a scholar but also as a humanist and a patriot. She brings to her task the academic’s attention to detail and awareness of historical context. Readers will appreciate the meticulous care with which she analyzes Lincoln’s most famous speeches, showing how those speeches differ from the conventional presidential rhetoric of Lincoln’s time. Schaub, however, does not approach her material with the clinical detachment of the pure academic. She shows a humanist’s sympathetic concern with the difficult questions of justice and prudence that Lincoln was forced to confront. She also has a humanist’s respect for the great moral tradition on which Lincoln drew, especially the Jewish and Christian Bible. Finally, Schaub writes as a patriot insofar as she clearly cares about the country, respects its founding principles and institutions, and, like Lincoln, wishes to see them preserved as a blessing to future generations.

His Greatest Speeches aims to reach a popular audience. Schaub accordingly keeps her focus somewhat narrow so that the length will be manageable for the lay reader. Her account is thus focused on three speeches: the Lyceum Address (on the “Perpetuation of our Political Institutions”), the Gettysburg Address, and the Second Inaugural. Schaub does a good deal to situate these three speeches within the themes that Lincoln had developed elsewhere in his extensive public rhetoric. Thus other great Lincolnian efforts—such as the Temperance Address, the Cooper Union speech, and the First Inaugural, among others—make their appearance as aids to understanding the three central speeches with which Schaub is primarily concerned.

Lincoln and the Rule of Law

Schaub turns first to the Lyceum Address of 1838. Here Lincoln famously diagnoses the danger to our democracy posed by a spirit of lawlessness. Lincoln observed with dread the rise of mob justice in his day. Some Americans, impatient with legal forms of procedure, used raw force to punish those they regarded as wrongdoers, and even those whose opinions they did not wish to hear. Known gamblers (and a suspected murderer) had been lynched. An abolitionist’s printing press had been thrown into the river. Lincoln warned that such behavior would lead first to chaos and then to despotism. The example of lawlessness would spread as the worst elements in the community became more emboldened. Then the best elements in the community, disgusted by the disorder, would give power to some strongman who would promise to restore public peace.

Accordingly, Lincoln counseled, those who wish to perpetuate our political institutions—our combination of self-government with civil and religious liberty—must make respect for law the “political religion” of the nation. Everyone must scrupulously obey the law, and therefore put up with whatever temporary and limited inconveniences that discipline might require, in order to attain the greater good of sustaining the regime and the blessings that flow from it.

If you break the laws to call attention to the injustices you perceive, you are implicitly authorizing other citizens to break the laws when they feel sufficiently aggrieved. No public justice can last in such an environment.

Today’s critics of America could learn a good deal from Lincoln, about both ends and means. With regard to ends, Lincoln’s example reminds us that one can be a sincere and effective critic of injustices that mar the country while, at the same time, seeking the preservation of its political institutions, which have after all been the source of much good for many people. Many today look at America’s imperfections and think that the solution is “transformation.” The “system” must be torn down and rebuilt with a view to establishing more perfect equality. The problem with political transformation is that it necessarily imperils all the goods that have actually been secured for the chance (speculative at best, and maybe delusory) to correct other evils. Lincoln is the greatest reformer in American history, the man more responsible than any other for righting the greatest wrong. He achieved these great things while trying to preserve the country in its basic character. In contrast, those in history who have angrily demanded the wholesale “transformation” of their countries do not have a very good track record of delivering desirable results.

With regard to means, Lincoln reminds us that trying to address social ills by illegal means is a losing proposition. Whatever your views, the practical implementation of your understanding of justice will require habitual obedience to the laws by your fellow citizens. If you break the laws to call attention to the injustices you perceive, you are implicitly authorizing other citizens to break the laws when they feel sufficiently aggrieved. No public justice can last in such an environment. It may seem simple-minded, but it is true: If you want others to obey the law, then you must obey the law. If you want the police to behave lawfully, then citizens must behave lawfully. If you don’t want right-wing protestors to unlawfully enter the Capitol, then you must not cheer left-wing protestors who break windows or tip over cars. 

This lesson needs to be relearned today, when many Americans think that their own opinions are so righteous as to justify lawbreaking. How did we get here? Schaub offers a provocative suggestion that is well worth considering. It is, she holds, “an open question” whether Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “advocacy of ‘civil disobedience’ has not, as Lincoln would have predicted, eroded respect for the rule of law.”

It is impossible to overlook this important difference of opinion between America’s two greatest heroes of the struggle for racial justice. Lincoln insisted that even bad laws must be obeyed until they are repealed. King, in contrast, famously taught, in his celebrated “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” that a higher justice may call upon us to violate bad laws, so long as we do so openly and lovingly, willing to accept the legal penalties. King sought a kind of middle ground that Lincoln seems to have overlooked, a way that witnesses against bad laws by breaking them while, at the same time, maintaining respect for the legal system by accepting one’s punishment.

Regrettably, it seems that this middle ground could not hold for long. Many activists today disdain the limits that King respected. They will violate even just and reasonable laws—such as those protecting public and private property—in order to protest unrelated grievances. Moreover, they will deploy such tactics to protest injustices less grave than the ones King had to confront. Law-breaking in pursuit of social justice was initially exceptional, but it has become habitual.

Such reflections in no way diminish King’s greatness. He was fighting for justice according to his best lights and in very difficult circumstances, often facing opponents who were willing to resort to lawlessness and violence. Nevertheless, Schaub offers her readers a sobering reminder that when we break the law in a limited way for a good cause, we may end up encouraging others to break it more vigorously and with less justification.

Lincoln on National Guilt and National Reconciliation

Lincoln’s fears about the disastrous consequences of the spirit of lawlessness were confirmed in his own lifetime. When he was elected president, the South resorted to lawlessness on a vast scale rather than submit to policies with which they disagreed. This is the theme of the second speech Schaub examines, the Gettysburg Address. Here, she observes, Lincoln’s focus is not on the wrong of slavery but instead on the need to ensure that self-government “shall not perish from the earth.” Democracy cannot survive, Lincoln held, if those who lose elections refuse to submit to the government. Hence Lincoln’s determination that the South not be permitted to succeed.

Schaub highlights the remarkable combination of firmness and restraint that Lincoln brought to this supreme crisis of self-government. He would not yield. Yet he steadfastly refused “either to demonize or dehumanize” the enemies of the government. Indeed, as Schaub points out, the speech manifests a striking detachment. Lincoln does not name America or its domestic enemies but instead speaks of “a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” He wanted to foster a rational appreciation for the good principles on which the country was founded and the need to preserve them rather than inspire hatred of those who were seeking to subvert them.

Nobody is more pro-America than Abraham Lincoln. Yet, as Schaub observes, Lincoln’s account of America in the Second Inaugural has some important things in common with the 1619 Project.

This brings us to the third speech Schaub examines, the Second Inaugural, in which Lincoln transcends mere restraint and displays the even loftier virtues of humility and charity. Schaub’s account brings home once again to the reader the astonishing character of this speech. It is not, as one might expect from a lesser man, a rhetorical victory lap for a successful president. Lincoln does not gloat over the South’s defeat. He instead calls for the country to move forward “with malice toward none, with charity for all.”

Here again, Schaub brings Lincoln to bear on our contemporary controversies, with fruitful and perhaps surprising results. Schaub calls the Second Inaugural “the original and better 1619 Project.” The 1619 Project seeks to reframe American history around the themes of slavery and racial injustice. Many Americans, especially on the right, have detected a spirit of anti-Americanism behind this undertaking, since it lays so much emphasis on what has been wrong with our country.

Nobody is more pro-America than Abraham Lincoln. Yet, as Schaub observes, Lincoln’s account of America in the Second Inaugural has some important things in common with the 1619 Project. By speaking in 1865 of the slaves’ “two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil,” he reminds his listeners that slavery came into being in America at about the same time as the founding of the English colonies. The same passage also notes that much of the nation’s wealth was “piled” up by the work of slaves. Lincoln was always clear that slavery had nothing to do with America’s founding principles, but here he reminds us that we cannot separate slavery from America’s history and development.

It is not only the contemporary right that could benefit from pondering anew the argument of the Second Inaugural. Some on the left seek to blame the injustice of slavery on white America. One obvious response would be to reject outright such notions of collective guilt. One might observe, as Schaub reminds us, that slave owners only represented a tiny minority of American whites, even in the south. Lincoln takes a different path, however. He does not speak of white racial guilt in the Second Inaugural, but he does seem to believe in collective responsibility. He ventures the unsettling suggestion that slavery is an “offense” not of any faction of Americans but of the nation itself, and that God may have given “this terrible war” to “both North and South” as a just punishment.

This is a sobering thought, but it need not be a cause of national despair or self-hatred. After all, if there is such a thing as collective guilt, there must also be collective merit. And, as Schaub reminds us, many Americans sacrificed their lives to save the Union and thus put an end to slavery. More fundamentally, the biblical tradition on which Lincoln drew in the Second Inaugural condemns despair and enjoins hope. God does not punish nations (or individuals) in this world because he has rejected them but in order to call them back to himself.

Like the Second Inaugural itself, Schaub’s book induces both sobriety and hope. It is sobering because it reminds us that we, like Lincoln, live in a time when the country suffers deep divisions and might even come apart. But it is hopeful because it also reminds us that the country is worth preserving, that it has already been preserved in the face of worse problems than our own. If we will attend to our history, we have the political, moral, and religious principles we need to save our country again.

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