lincolnAfter over one hundred years, it continues to be almost impossible for us to ask certain basic questions about the role of Abraham Lincoln in the formation of a characteristically American politics. At every appropriate point of inquiry, the Lincoln myth obtrudes. Since 1865 no one has denied the extraordinary purchase of that imaginative construct upon the idiom and character of our public life. Yet few Americans of any influence have attempted to counter this effect, even though in the works of the biog­raphers and historians, material for such a negation has long been available. The truth about the life and death of Lincoln seems to matter very little when it is confronted by the myth. Indeed, the iconic presence of the Emancipator, wrapped up in religious im­agery, tends to swallow up any simple narrative of the facts. Writes Don E. Fehrenbacher: “Lincoln’s symbolic importance transcends his own life and time. He has been abstracted from history to serve as the rep­resentative American, and as a conse­quence, much of the nation’s self-image is visible in the image of Abraham Lincoln that successive generations have fashioned.[1]

The poet James Russell Lowell called him our “first American.”[2] And for his devoted secre­tary, John Hay, this speaking for millions—he was “the greatest character since Christ.”[3] In the life and death of Lincoln, the rest of our common experience as a people finds its sanction and authority. Father Abra­ham overshadows our perception of the legiti­mate origins of the Republic in the era of the Revolution. He is also the measure applied to all of our leaders who have appeared on the national stage since the violent conclusion of his career, which makes of him the only viable symbol of authority in our political discourse—plus something else beyond mere questions concerning policy and the best re­gime. Yet all of this “inflation” has come to pass even while we were beginning to recognize the dangers inherent in such quasi-religious myths, the abuses and disruptions in our civic life which have found in their hegemony a magic for converting reflexive disorder into a “positive good,” or perhaps even into an obli­gation. It is thus fortunate that recent studies of the nature and origin of millenarian thought have put into our hands the rhetorical and theoretical instruments necessary to a belated reduction or “defusion” of Mr. Lincoln’s baleful example to its rightful proportions­ instruments which enable us to ask what he has really “done for his country.”

There is, of course, a part of the Lincoln myth which is, on its face, harmless enough: The legend of the shy young man who did his read­ing by firelight, who was unlucky in love, and who learned from his grief. In this version, there is some truth and much fancy.[4] But what sig­nifies is its relation to the basic American story of the youth who “made something of himself,” on the model of Horatio Alger, with a lost sweetheart included for sentiment’s sake. The remainder of the Lincoln narrative draws much of its authority from some of these homely ma­terials. But the legend of the poor boy who is self-transformed becomes another kind of model when it is generalized in a certain way, when it is merged with other, essentially gnos­tic myths of “self-invention,” and detached from the traditional pattern in which a providentially given set of talents is developed and employed. We should remember that the ma­ture Abraham Lincoln was a man who had abolished his past. He cut his ties with family, kept always from his father’s house, and re­fused with nauseating unction to go there when summoned at the time of Thomas Lincoln’s death.[5] Very early, he set out to join another tribe.[6] And, as he moved forward, there were many of his friends who noticed that he some­times “forgot the devotion of his warmest parti­sans as soon as the occasion for their services had passed.”[7] As his biographer and law part­ner tells us, Mr. Lincoln was a cool customer, “led mankind by a profound policy,” and “would have lost—lost all, all,” if he had had a heart.[8] From the shadowy records and recollec­tions of the Illinois years we can infer nothing less, though, as must be admitted, he usually concealed these gifts of calculation under a modest rustic exterior. The great common de­nominator in his pre-presidential career was simple ambition, the little “engine” which knew no rest. By it, he was propelled to act upon a larger and larger stage, and not by the Chris­tian rectitude which requires us to be good stewards of our given abilities or to answer a special “call.” For it was not to serve God that this Abraham put the Lincolns out of his way, sought office, moved to Springfield, and set out to practice law.

There is God’s plenty of evidence to assist us in developing an image of Lincoln as backcountry philosophe, as “secularist intel­lectual” and “rational, progressivist super­man” of the variety described in Professor Voegelin’s The New Science of Politics.[9] But, in a study of this scope, there is a convenient locus for treating this phase of his development. The address which Lincoln delivered to the Springfield Young Men’s Lyceum in January of 1838 is a summary statement of his thought as Whig progressive and moderate disciple of Paine and Hamilton, Volney and Henry Clay.[10] In it, he introduces the theme of a “political religion” or civil theology so impor­tant to the rest of his career. He anticipates a re-founding of the Republic. He assigns a par­ticular role to reason and language in this process, and he sketches out in brief a theory of American history and of its probable consum­mation in the appearance of a new “leader” or “towering genius” of a particularly dangerous variety. That is, unless the nation follows something like his advice, and, by implication, summons to leadership a man of his views.

The great theme of the Springfield Lyceum speech is the “preservation of our political institutions.” Or, at least, that is its “official” theme. As we must learn to recognize, Lin­coln’s habit of rhetorical duplicity is present from the beginning of his public life. What Lincoln here declares is that the established things are now in peril. After only fifty years of independent existence, the nation has already passed through phases convenient and then conventional, is approaching its “third age” and therefore its crisis of development. How­ever, the young legislator, speaking to the citizens of a town whose future he has helped to secure, adds to his version of the familiar gnos­tic formula a special neo-Puritan twist.[11] For the stage to come, according to his political eschatology, may augur either a final perfection or an apocalypse, a complete inversion of the fortunate American unfolding already accomplished. That which comes soon may be either the kingdom or the beast. Lincoln mentions riots and social irregularities which point to­ward the latter prospect. They are the occa­sions of his remarks. But his strategy in exploit­ing this antithesis raises the question of his true purpose for speaking on this subject at this particular time. Upon examination of his entire text, it becomes quite clear that what the orator attempts through the arts of language is not preservation but change: radical alterations in the basis and organization of American society. His deliberative procedure at this point is one that he will practice with greater and greater skill in the decades to come. First of all, he erects a false dilemma, this time using as a bugbear the likelihood that the enemies of “government” will prevail and that, in re­sponse to the excesses of local self-expression, an “Alexander, Caesar or a Napoleon” will come to power.[12] That is, unless we agree to put behind us our anterior devotion to nomocra­tic politics, to leave the collapsing shelter of the grove in order to escape the anger of the mob, and to relocate the seat of our “political religion” in another sanctuary—a house unlike any we have known.

I emphasize the part played by certain im­ages in the progression of Lincoln’s effects, for these tropes are behind the thrust of Lincoln’s rhetorical dilemma, and explain the special significance assigned to “reason” in the norma­tive system by which it is informed. The forest of “great oaks” which made for a “living his­tory,” a compact society first generated by common enemies and fed subsequently by common tasks and shared memories, is too gothic and passionate a source for patriotic feeling and public virtue. Furthermore, it is here defined as frail. Lincoln asserts that a polity connected to its forms by nothing more than the knowledge of what “our people,” fam­ily and friends, have accomplished will lose its cohesion once its heroes die. That their exam­ple might be kept alive through emulation, or through the poet’s song, seems to him un­likely.[13] The idea that it could survive under the pressure of untrammeled democracy is a notion he refuses even to consider. But there is more to this posture than at first appears, since Lincoln must have recognized that such a tradi­tional, old-fashioned republicanism would stand in the way of the evolution which he has in mind. Probably for this reason, he makes of it the unacknowledged antagonist of his entire argument. The political antichrist of the follow­ing passage has his importance through association with the unstable arrangements that will give him scope:

Many great and good men sufficiently qual­ified for any task they should undertake, may ever be found, whose ambition would aspire to nothing beyond a seat in Congress, a gubernatorial or a presidential chair; but such belong not to the family of the lion, or the tribe of the eagle[.] What! [T]hink you these places would satisfy an Alexander, a Caesar, or a Napoleon? Never! Towering genius disdains a beaten path. It seeks re­gions hitherto unexplored. It sees no distinction in adding story to story, upon the monuments of fame, erected to the memory of others. It denies that it is glory enough to serve under any chief. It scorns to tread in the footsteps of any predecessor, however illustrious. It thirsts and burns for distinc­tion; and, if possible, it will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen. Is it unreasonable then to expect, that some man possessed of the loftiest genius, coupled with ambition sufficient to push it to its utmost stretch, will at some time, spring up among us? And when such a one does, it will require the people to be united with each other, attached to the government and laws, and generally intelli­gent, to successfully frustrate his designs. Distinction will be his paramount object; and although he would as willingly, perhaps more so, acquire it by doing good as harm; yet, that opportunity being past, and noth­ing left to be done in the way of building up, he would set boldly to the task of pulling down.[14]

It is the speaker’s plan that, in terror of such a radical threat, a transformation more extreme than the innovation which came with national independence, his audience will agree to re­place a regime of experience informed by piety with “pillars hewn from the solid quarry of sober reason….” The remembered “blood of the Revolution” will not suffice: “Reason, cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason, must furnish all the materials for our future support and defence.”[15] It is true that he also draws a very positive portrait of the millennium which his version of the “Faustian intellect” can ac­tualize, once it is obeyed. It is a fine house made of words. But he not expect that this image will persuade. Only through a connec­tion of the customary with the onset of a tyranny could his countrymen be drawn to forswear their natural preference for an essentially pre­scriptive, familiar order, for building upon what their immediate predecessors have achieved, and tolled away from their inherited place to live under the auspices of Enlighten­ment speculation, symbolized here by the spare classical temple. Yet that is the appeal which Lincoln employs. It is, of course, ironic that this rhetoric does nothing to preserve the Republic invoked through a concluding salute to the living memory of Washington and that it draws almost none of its authority from reason in proposing ostensibly reasonable change.[16] This is trickery enough, but Lincoln is not through. He has saved something for last, a contradiction to the tenor of his entire address, which he expects to round off his sequence of conflations and elevate his matter beyond the reach of close inquiry. Even in concluding, Lincoln says one thing while he means another. For his last words as healer, prophet, and “founder” of the new regime are that, if it be faithful to Reason, “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” This language is, of course, from the promise made by Christ to the Church.[17] But its guarantee belongs not to the mind but the spirit. Here the rational society of High Federalism, where liberty has its altar in the temple of philosophy, draws authority from its institutional anti-type. This may seem sur­prising. Yet we must believe that Lincoln knew what he was about. His strategy reflects not mere confusion or opportunism but conscious choice. A successful political religion must replace Church with State, or else must absorb the former into the latter, and borrow the sanc­tion for its sacrilege from the civitas dei. In the secular Puritanism of New England political thought, something of this sort had taken root during the first years of our national existence. The pattern of transformation was already an old one when Lincoln appeared. His special achievement was in institutionalizing it as the American political rhetoric for occasions of greatest moment. In this craft, he was the master—with consequences we shall sub­sequently explore.

But this is to anticipate. It is another sixteen years, or perhaps another twenty, before Abra­ham Lincoln loses himself completely in an idiom for calling forth the New Jerusalem. In that interval, while he remains a rather conven­tional “right-wing gnostic” or “progressive,” he perfects his skill in the use of the more conventional persuasive tools—forensic and deliberative weapons which he will later com­bine with the epideictic assertion of his righ­teous Republican maturity.[18] It is easy to forget when we read the life of Lincoln backward, from the martyrdom, that for most of his political career he was an “orthodox Whig” who “accepted his party’s principles: high tariff, internal improvements financed by the national government, a national bank, protec­tion of the interests of property and of people of wealth, land policies which served the advan­tage of speculators rather than settlers, and general sympathy with the business and pro­fessional classes.”[19] The idea that property, political order, and personal liberty come “down from the top” was, from the beginning, a part of Lincoln’s chosen intellectual inher­itance. Add to this the romantic doctrine of Union, a highly charged nationalism of the variety preached by Daniel Webster,[20] and you have a highly volatile mixture.

This is the first part of a three-part series. The second part may be found here and the third part may be found here. Republished with gracious permission from  Modern Age (Winter 1979).


[1] Don E. Fehrenbacher, The Changing Image of Lincoln in American Historiography (London: Oxford University Press, 1968), pp. 3-4.

[2] Quoted from Lowell’s “Ode Re­cited at the Harvard Commemoration, July 21, 1865,” line 208. I cite the edition of Harry Hayden Clark and Norman Foerster, James Russell Lowell: Representative Selections, with Introduction, Bibliography, and Notes (New York: American Book Company, 1947), p. 145.

[3] Quoted on p. 93 of Richard Hofstadter, The American Political Tradi­tion (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1948).

[4] The Ann Rut­ledge story hides the coldness and calculation, the linea­ments of the country hustler, and darling of the rich.

[5] See Richard H. Luthin, The Real Abraham Lincoln (New York: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1960), pp. 141-144.

[6] I refer here to the early admission of Lincoln into the best social circles of Springfield, and thereafter into the elite, largely Southern in origin, of his state. This commerce led to the charge that he was the mouthpiece of “aristocracy.” Lincoln followed the example of his law partner, the austere Kentuckian, John Todd Stuart.

[7] See David Donald, Lincoln’s Herndon (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1948), p. 269. He quotes Lincoln’s faithful friend, Ward Hill Lamon.

[8] Ibid., pp. 205 and 210.

[9] See The New Science of Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952), pp. 124-132; also pp. 96-98 in Voegelin’s Science, Politics and Gnosticism (Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1968) for the precise language which I quote.

[10] See pp. 108-115 of Vol. I of Roy P. Basler’s edition of The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1953). Further references in this paper to Basler’s edition will be abbreviated to Collected Work. I. My reading of this speech is in some respects a reply to Harry V. Jaffa’s commentary on it, found on pp. 183-232 of his Crisis of the House Divided (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1973).

[11] Lincoln was a leader in the successful effort to move the capital of Illinois from Vandalia to his new home, Springfield. This relocation was voted in 1837 and accom­plished in 1839. There is some evidence that political horsetrading made a part of the transaction. Apocalyptic prophecies concerning disorders caused by the localism of the Democrats were a part of the rhetoric of Federalism.

[12] Throughout his life Lincoln was fascinated by the careers of great dictators, and especially the career of Napoleon. The absence of a strong central authority in the France of the Directory had certainly helped along that self-made emperor.

[13] Even though Lincoln speaks constantly of Washington as a living force in his own genera­tion. And in particular in the conclusion of this speech, thus confirming a truth he has systemically denied.

[14] Collected Works, I, pp. 113-114. Lincoln clearly knows the breed he describes too well to be writing on the basis of mere speculation. The ironic prophecy of these lines is difficult for us to mistake. Though he disguises his fascination with such figures by speaking of his favorite excuse for emulating their example, in the role of a patriot concerned with “the capability of a people to govern them­selves.” That is, with the proper “direction.”

[15] Lincoln here verges on “ideological” politics. What he rejects is a regime of custom, based on loyalties, habits, and a com­mon memory—what Professor Michael Oakeshott calls “nomocratic” politics. See his On Human Conduct (Lon­don: Oxford University Press, 1975), pp. 199-206. See also Professor Voegelin’s remarks on Roman “compact­ness” on pp. 86-92 of The New Science of Politics.

[16] Wash­ington here is conflated with the rule of the rationalist philosopher. As he is in Lincoln’s “Temperance Address” of February 27, 1842, Collected Works, I, pp. 271-279. Lincoln’s connection of moral and political reform is here very curiously drawn.

[17] Matthew 16:18. Upon the rock of such faith as that of Saint Peter the Church is thus secure. A few lines above, his description of the history of the Revolution of 1776 as a scripture he hopes will be equiva­lent to that in the Bible in its hold on the reverence of Americans further foreshadows the role of secularized religious rhetoric in his “political religion.” In this fashion the Declaration of Independence may be elevated into the status of a dogma, with the statesman as a “theologian,” unfolding its hidden significance. See The New Science of Politics, p. 136: “If a movement, like the Puritan, relies on the authority of a literary source, the leaders will then have to fashion ‘the very notions and conceits of men’s minds in such a sort’ that the followers will automatically associate scriptural passages and terms with their doctrine, however ill founded the association may be, and that with equal automatism they will be blind to the content of Scripture that is incompatible with their doctrine.” (Voegelin here is quoting Richard Hooker.)

[18] See The New Science of Poli­tics, p. 175, “In every wave of the Gnostic movement the progressivist and utopian varieties will tend to form a political right wing, leaving a good deal of the ultimate perfection to gradual evolution and compromising on a tension between achievement and ideal, while the activist variety will tend to form a political left wing, taking violent action toward the complete realization of the perfect realm.”

[19] Quoted from p. 16 of Donald W. Riddle’s Con­gressman Abraham Lincoln (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1957); also G.S. Borit, “Lincoln and the Economics of the American Dream: The Whig Years, 1832-1854” (Ph.D. dissertation, Boston University, 1968).

[20] For a survey of this teaching see Paul G. Nagel’s One Nation Indivisible: The Union in American Thought, 1776-1861 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964).

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