What Lincoln Believed : The Values and Convictions of America's Greatest President
n Independence Hall in Philadelphia on February 22, 1861, where he stopped to speak as he traveled to his inauguration as president of the United States, Lincoln asserted that "the sentiment embodied in" the Declaration of Independence had made the American Revolution a source of "hope to the world for all future time." Lincoln asked: "Now, my friends, can this country be saved upon that basis? If it can, I will consider myself one of the happiest men in the world if I can help to save it. If it can't be saved upon that principle, it will be truly awful."
Other presidents might have saved the American Union, and other movements might have produced forms of representative government in other countries. But Abraham Lincoln helped to ensure that "government of the people, by the people, for the people" as an ideal for all of humanity would "not perish from the earth." Lincoln preserved both the United States and its political creed: "The theory of our government is universal freedom."
Few biographers and historians have taken Lincoln's ideas seriously or placed him in the context of major intellectual traditions. In What Lincoln Believed, the most comprehensive study ever written of the thought of America's most revered president, Michael Lind provides a resource to the public philosophy that guided Lincoln as a statesman and shaped the United States.
Although he is often presented as an idealist dedicated to political abstractions, Lincoln was a pragmatic politician with a lifelong interest in science, technology, and economics. Throughout his career he was a disciple of the Kentucky senator Henry Clay, whose "American System" of government support for industrial capitalism Lincoln promoted when he served in the Illinois statehouse, the U.S. Congress, and the White House.
Today Lincoln is remembered for his opposition to slavery and his leadership in guiding the Union to victory in the Civil War. But Lincoln's thinking about these subjects is widely misunderstood. His deep opposition to slavery was rooted in his allegiance to the ideals of the American Revolution. Only late in his life, however, did Lincoln abandon his support for the policy of "colonizing" black Americans abroad, which he derived from Henry Clay and Thomas Jefferson. Lincoln and most of his fellow Republicans opposed the extension of slavery outside of the South because they wanted an all-white West, not a racially integrated society.
Although the Great Emancipator was not the Great Integrationist, he was the Great Democrat. In an age in which many argued that only whites were capable of republican government, Lincoln insisted on the universality of human rights and the potential for democracy everywhere. In a century in which liberal and democratic revolutions against monarchy and dictatorship in Europe and Latin America repeatedly had failed, Lincoln believed that liberal democracy as a form of government was on trial in the American Civil War. "Our popular government has often been called an experiment," Lincoln told the U.S. Congress, insisting that the American people had to prove to the world that "when ballots have fairly, and constitutionally, decided, there can be no successful appeal, back to bullets." If the United States fell apart after the losers in an election took up arms, then people everywhere might conclude that democracy inevitably led to anarchy and "government of the people, by the people, for the people" might well "perish from the earth."
"He loved his country partly because it was his own country, but mostly because it was a free country." What Lincoln said of Henry Clay could be said of him as well. In What Lincoln Believed, Michael Lind shows the enduring relevance of Lincoln's vision of the United States as a model of liberty and democracy for the world.
People from across the political spectrum are embracing Lincoln in the ongoing debate over our 16th president's political philosophy. Several months after Mario Cuomo's Why Lincoln Matters: Today More Than Ever, political commentator Lind (The Next American Nation) endeavors with some success to disassemble Lincoln as a liberal icon and reclaim him as a hero for American conservatives. Lind argues that a raft of biographies written by left-wingers during FDR's New Deal identified Lincoln with a progressivism he would have found abhorrent. As Lind cogently points out, Lincoln repeatedly identified himself as a Henry Clay Whig. "Henry Clay had helped organize the Whig Party in opposition to Jackson, the hero of New Deal Democrats.... Cut off from his political predecessors, Lincoln was also separated from the Republican presidents who succeeded him, such as William McKinley and Herbert Hoover." Likewise, Lind quite correctly places Lincoln in the conservative Federalist tradition of Hamilton, Jay and Adams: men who worried about the tyranny of the majority and the risk to property inherent in democracy, and therefore sought to maintain democracy by building in limitations. Thus Lincoln as shown here remains the champion of government of the people, by the people and for the people--but with a few major asterisks.
Copyright (c) Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
There are no customer reviews available at this time. Would you like to write a review?
April 30, 2006
Number of Print Pages*
Adobe DRM EPUB
* Number of eBook pages may differ. Click here for more information.
Excerpt from What Lincoln Believed by Michael Lind
In 1863 the democratic republic as a form of government was rare and in danger of extinction.
In Europe, the dominant region of the world, monarchs and aristocrats were securely in command. The nations of Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans were divided among the empires of three dynasties: the Habsburgs, the Romanovs, and the Ottomans. Germans who did not live in Habsburg lands were ruled by petty dukes and princes in a handful of large kingdoms, of which the most important, Prussia, was the domain of the Hohenzollern family. Italy was carved into small and weak states subject to Habsburg or French domination. Iberia and Scandinavia, too, had their kings and aristocrats. France was a dictatorship ruled by Louis Napoleon, who like his uncle had posed as a champion of republican government before declaring himself emperor.
Britain was the most liberal great power in Europe, but it was far from democratic. The monarchy and the House of Lords were hereditary. The House of Commons was elected by a tiny elite of commoners. The Reform Act of 1832 increased the percentage of the adult population in Britain permitted to vote from 1.8 percent to 2.7 percent. Subsequent reform legislation in 1867 and 1884 increased the electorate to 6.4 percent and 12.1 percent, respectively.(1) British colonists in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand were subject to imperial authority, while in India and other parts of the empire nonwhite subjects lacked not only the suffrage but basic civil rights. Although Britain had abolished slavery in its domains in the 1830s and had moved to suppress the transatlantic African slave trade, British authorities and colonists had substituted other kinds of forced labor scarcely better than slavery, such as contract or "coolie" labor.
Outside of Europe and the European empires, the prospects for liberal democracy were even bleaker. From North Africa to the Persian Gulf, the dissolving Ottoman Empire provided a tattered canopy over local rulers and spheres of influence obtained by Britain and France. In the Chinese empire, weakened by British and French aggression and local rebellions, the only tradition of governance was one of despotism tempered by bureaucracy. Black Africa, a patchwork of kingdoms and tribes, would soon be incorporated into a handful of European colonial empires.
In this world of empires, monarchs, and hereditary nobles, republics were scarce. In Europe the Swiss republic and the tiny Republic of San Marino were oddities. In Africa the only republics were those of Dutch-descended Boer farmers and the struggling Republic of Liberia, founded by the United States as a home for former slaves. The largest state in Latin America, Brazil, was an empire ruled by a Portuguese monarch. The Spanish monarchy continued to govern Cuba, Puerto Rico, and other island possessions. The former mainland colonies of Spain, from Mexico to Argentina, were republican in form. But since they had gained their independence, most of these Latin American states had oscillated between dictatorship and anarchy. In 1863 much of Mexico, the home of a series of failed republics, was under the control of a Habsburg princeling named Maximilian, who had been installed as "Emperor of Mexico" by the French emperor Louis Napoleon.