What Would Lincoln Do?

REVIEW: ‘Our Ancient Faith: Lincoln, Democracy, and the American Experiment’ by Allen C. Guelzo

April 21, 2024

What if Lincoln had lived? That is a question about which historians have given conflicting answers. Allen Guelzo suspects he would have guided the sections along a path toward reconciliation, while guaranteeing voting rights and citizenship to freedmen across the South, in a manner that would have foreclosed the sectional hostilities that arose as a consequence of actual Reconstruction policies. Perhaps: Counterfactual cases are difficult to adjudicate. It is one of the nation’s great tragedies that Lincoln did not live to put his stamp on postwar policies.

He never saw or imagined the things we take for granted in our modern style of living. He never saw an automobile or an airplane, or imagined driving to the office or the shopping mall, or flying from coast to coast in a matter of hours. Nor did he see a television or sit in a movie theater, or imagine satellites in orbit around the earth. He did not see but might have been amused by what passes for debate in modern political campaigns. He could not conceive of "wonder drugs," which (had they been available) might have saved his son from dying of pneumonia. He could not imagine sitting in front of a computer surfing the internet or playing video games, or working for a company engaged in artificial intelligence. He was fortunate never to have seen an atomic bomb obliterate entire cities. The rhythm of our lives today would appear to him as something taken from a science fiction novel.

Yet for reasons both obvious and mysterious, Abraham Lincoln still speaks to us today, albeit in faint echoes from another time. The modern world might not have evolved as it did absent his intervention in the sectional conflict in the 1850s—and by his insistence that it was grounded in a struggle over liberty and popular government, among other ideals. It was a contest, he said, to maintain a form of government "whose leading object is to elevate the condition of men, to lift artificial weights from all shoulders, to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all, to afford all an unfettered start and a fair chance in the race of life." In navigating the country through that struggle, he opened a path to our modern world of commerce, science, affluence, and much else. It is little wonder that every generation that succeeded Lincoln has found something in his life to instruct them about the challenges of their own times.

This brief but informative volume by Allen C. Guelzo offers up "the Great Emancipator" as a guide for Americans in our current time of troubles when many harbor doubts about the future of popular government and the rule of law, much as they did in Lincoln’s time. A research fellow at Princeton University and author of Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President and other books on the Civil War era, Guelzo is our foremost Lincoln scholar and an authority on just about everything he said or wrote. Lincoln, he writes in Our Ancient Faith: Lincoln, Democracy, and the American Experiment, cast the struggle for the Union as a universal cause with vast implications for future times. Can Americans find inspiration in Lincoln’s life to meet the less daunting challenges they face today? "To those who have despaired of the future," Guelzo writes, "I offer this man’s example."

As his title suggests, he finds the example to lie in Lincoln’s faith in the nation’s Founding ideals, in the principles of the Declaration of Independence, in the common sense and good judgment of its citizens, and in their determination to maintain "a government of the people, for the people, and by the people." He is aware that this kind of faith is in short supply today.

Lincoln grew into manhood during the age of Jackson as the nation expanded westward and the democratic aspirations of the common man clashed with the republican ideals of the Founding generation. He straddled both sides of that division. He revered the Founding Fathers, pointing to the Declaration of Independence as the "sheet anchor" of American republicanism and to the Constitution as the basis for the rule of law. Yet he participated in the popular revolution that reshaped American culture and politics in that era. Born in Kentucky, he moved westward as a boy to Indiana, then further west to Springfield where he took up the practice of law, which led in turn into electoral politics. He found a calling on the stump, winning several terms in the state legislature and one term in the House of Representatives.

Lincoln not only practiced democracy in action but, as Guelzo emphasizes, he also looked the part. "He was as common-looking and homely as a democratic people were themselves common and homely." Acquaintances in Springfield noted his awkward appearance and informal style of dress and speech, which led many to underestimate his skill as a lawyer and politician. He would later host receptions in the White House that were open to anyone who walked in off the street. As the years passed, he developed a straightforward yet powerful style of expression that reflected his background and was layered into his speeches and addresses. When reviewing the troops during the Civil War, he would tip his hat to the officers but remove it altogether before the men in the ranks. His down-to-earth style was an important element in his ability to lead the nation through a time of unprecedented stress.

Though Lincoln never set forth a definition of democracy, he referred to it often enough so that everyone understood what he meant by it—in particular, that democracy could not be reconciled with slavery. As he affirmed in his debates with Stephen Douglas: "As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy." Democracy requires consent while slavery is based upon force. "According to our ancient faith," Lincoln said at Peoria in 1854, "the just powers of government are derived from the consent of the governed," a direct quotation from the Declaration of Independence. His "ancient faith" was grounded in the words of that document. As the clash intensified during the 1850s between slavery and the ideals of the Declaration, he concluded that "a house divided against itself cannot stand." If democracy was to survive, then slavery had to be placed on a path to ultimate extinction—a proposition that Southerners could not accept. In that sense, Lincoln’s principled stance was one of the causes of the Civil War.

While Lincoln saw democracy as a pillar of the American system, he was far from being a full-throated advocate for majority rule. Lincoln agreed with Jefferson on this point: "An elective despotism is not the government we fought for." A majority might be wrong, especially if it trampled on the foundations of its own authority in justifications for slavery or in denunciations of the Declaration of Independence. According to Stephen Douglas’s doctrine of popular sovereignty, a majority in a territory might vote in slavery, which to Lincoln was an abomination and an assault on the principle of consent. It amounted, as Lincoln said, to this: "That if any one man, choose to enslave another, no third man shall be allowed to object." Douglas had abused the ideal of democracy by turning it into a doctrine of majority tyranny. "Those who deny freedom to others," he wrote, "deserve it not for themselves; and, under a just God, cannot long retain it."

Lincoln was aware of the tension between faith and reason, as Guelzo explains, though he did not see a fundamental conflict between them. He distrusted passion in politics, seeing that it devolved into violence and mob rule. It was not an abstract proposition: He had witnessed lynchings and assaults on newspapers due to differences over slavery. "The pillars of the temple of liberty," he said, are "hewn from the solid quarry of sober reason." His "ancient faith" was hewn from that quarry. It is in everyone’s interest to obey the laws lest the breakdown of law and order should lead to a "war of all against all." He vowed as a young man always to act on the basis of reason, as far as he could follow it. "Let us do nothing through passion and ill temper," he advised friends and supporters on the eve of the Civil War. He carried through on that advice. As the war began, Henry Adams wrote to his brother: "No man is fit to take hold now who is not cool as death." Lincoln, as things turned out, was that man.

Before he joined the Republican Party, Lincoln was a Whig and follower of Henry Clay. He endorsed Clay’s "American system," which called for a tariff, a national banking system, and federal support for roads, canals, railroads, and other internal improvements to promote commercial development across the country. This was in keeping with his idea that every person should have the opportunity to rise as far as his talents could take him. Here, in supporting a commercial system, he parted company with Jefferson, who envisioned an agrarian future controlled by yeoman farmers. Clay, despite several tries, never won election to the presidency. His commercial reforms were bottled up in Congress through the 1840s and ’50s due to the sectional conflict: Southerners believed his commercial order would undermine the slave system.

Lost amid the conflict over slavery and the bloodshed of the Civil War was the fact that Lincoln may have accomplished more in the field of domestic reform than any president in the 19th century. With the South out of the Union, Lincoln was able to shepherd many of Clay’s proposals through the Congress and into law. These included an expansion of the tariff to protect domestic manufacturing; the Homestead Act (1862), which allowed citizens to claim parcels of federal land in the western territories; the Morrill Land Grant Act, which allowed the states to use federal lands to establish colleges to promote agriculture and science; the National Banking Act (1863), which created a system of national banks to circulate a stable national currency; and the National Railway Act (1862), which distributed subsidies and federal lands for the development of the first transcontinental railroad (completed in 1869). These far-reaching reforms promoted the settlement of the western territories, and created a commercially linked nation that would soon have the largest and most productive economy in the world.

Guelzo tackles the question of whether Lincoln, despite his opposition to slavery, may have been a racist or at least racially insensitive, a claim made by some critics today, including Nikole Hannah-Jones, Ibram X. Kendi, and other contemporary authors. He may give their accusations more attention than they deserve; there is not much point in litigating contemporary obsessions about race in regard to a president who led the country through the slavery crisis.

While it is true, as Guelzo points out, that Lincoln said and did some things over the course of his career that might be construed as "racially insensitive," these vices were minor compared with the list of achievements he recorded in this area. He opposed slavery throughout his career in politics, and said in his debates with Douglas that African Americans possess natural rights to life and liberty on par with members of other races. As president he issued the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves in states at war with the Union. He armed black soldiers and sent them into battle, declaring that by doing so they had earned the rights of full citizenship. He said in his Second Inaugural Address that slavery was the cause of the Civil War, and that the struggle must continue until it was destroyed. He rallied support for ratification of the 13th Amendment banning slavery in the United Sates. Sojourner Truth, after meeting with Lincoln, declared that he was "a great and good man." Frederick Douglass said he was "emphatically the black man’s president." Lincoln’s deeds, combined with the judgments of African Americans at the time, should absolve him of tortured accusations that he was a racist or a bigot.

It is something of a parlor game to wonder what Lincoln might do if he were with us today. The challenges Americans face in the 21st century are of a different order from those he had to deal with. Lincoln would not be surprised by the assaults on his name; he heard far worse in his own time. He would have a hard time choosing between our two political parties, since each has picked up pieces of his program while both claim him as their own. Lincoln would be dismayed, as Guelzo tells us, that many Americans "drown themselves in guilt" in regard to the nation’s past, while repudiating his "ancient faith" grounded in the Declaration of Independence. This is where Lincoln’s example, as the author insists, would point them in more realistic and constructive directions. Most of all, Lincoln would be startled, though not entirely surprised, by the role he played in launching the revolution that created the modern world.

Our Ancient Faith: Lincoln, Democracy, and the American Experiment
by Allen C. Guelzo
Knopf, 272 pp., $30

James Piereson is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.