2005-08-29: What Lincoln Believed

What Lincoln Believed

The Values and Convictions of America’s Greatest President (2004)

by Michael Lind (1962-)

Naturally, I am intrigued by a book that appears to address real-world examples of values. Unfortunately, like most discussions of values, this book leaves Lincoln’s values implicit. Nonetheless, there is a lot that is interesting in the book.

The book is about government, and Lind starts with a survey of the nature of government in 1863. There were few democratic republics, and the very idea was in danger of extinction. The most liberal great power in Europe was Britain, but only 3 percent of adults could vote; even after reforms in 1884 the electorate was only 12 percent. Mostly people were governed by petty or greater princes, kings and emperors, operating through hierarchies.

Before describing what Lincoln believed, Lind lists a couple of things he didn’t believe, but which have been imputed to him. He wasn’t a ‘mystical unionist’, as Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy, claimed. He wasn’t a populist; he supported government aid to promote industry and agriculture, but not social welfare programs. He believed in equality of opportunity, but not of results. He was not a proponent of civil rights for Negroes, or any other non-white-Europeans; he explicitly favored segregation, and removal of non-whites from the continent.

The ideal that inspired Lincoln was liberal democracy, an Enlightenment ideal that had been embraced by Jefferson and others of the Founders. However, this notion was under attack in the slave-holding regions; some there held that the phrase ‘all men are created equal’ meant that men of the English civic heritage had equal claims to the social rights that flowed from English history.

Lincoln referred to himself as a “Henry Clay Whig”, and he supported the aims of development of that tradition. For most of his life, those aims were thwarted by the politicians of the South. To promote industry would raise their costs (due to tariffs on European goods), and would shift wealth to the Northern states. However, he didn’t always apply his intelligence to the detailed analysis of economic matters, and some of the examples and arguments he used for persuasion are shallow or fallacious.

Lincoln was willing to circumvent Constitutional guarantees to maintain the Union. He believed that the government was entitled to do what it must to maintain itself; otherwise democratic government would always be subject to violent resistance when some faction disagreed with the result of an election.

Lind claims that Lincoln was convinced in 1864 that he would lose his bid for reelection. But he dismissed the idea of suspending elections.

Of course, Lincoln has been made a symbol for civil rights, including Eleanor Roosevelt arranging for Marianne Anderson to sing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking from the same spot. However, Lincoln believed that non-whites were inherently inferior to whites, and should be segregated. For many years he promoted the idea of colonization of Africa or Caribbean islands with free blacks; at one point one of his cabinet members pointed out that using the entire military and merchant fleet to transport blacks to the nearest possible colony would not keep up with half of the birth rate. At the end of the war, he believed that blacks would be largely confined to the South, with laws in the North and West forbidding their migration. Similarly, Asians in the West and Native Americans were denied civil rights.

Lind describes the shifts of allegiance to various political parties. I didn’t follow all of it, but the constant theme seems to be the dominance by Southern politicians of a party that is willing to deny the Jeffersonian ideal of equality, right down to today. He also refers to three Republics: up to 1860, from 1860 to 1932, and since. I haven’t seen this formula before, and it might be peculiar to Lind; it might have a kernel of usefulness, but seemed somewhat contrived.

Near the end of the book, Lind has a speculative section on what would have been different without Lincoln. He examines a variety of scenarios that make different politicians President in 1860. In all of his examples, even those where the Union is restored, government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” perishes from the earth, at least for the foreseeable past.

He closes with a quote from Lincoln’s speech at Independence Hall on February 22, 1861 as he traveled to his inauguration. Lincoln summarized the political creed of the United States: “The theory of our government is universal freedom.”


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