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Recovering Lincoln’s Ancient Faith

Recovering Lincoln’s Ancient Faith

Abraham Lincoln, Philosopher Statesman. Joseph R. Fornieri. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2014.


When Abraham Lincoln died the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, is reported to have said, “Now he belongs to the ages.” And indeed he does, but the difficulty is that throughout the ages there have been numerous attempts to use and abuse Lincoln as needed. Since Lincoln spoke of the nation being dedicated to the proposition that “all men are created equal,” various reforms have wrapped themselves in the banner of Lincoln when any conception of equality was at stake. Since the public knows only that Lincoln was for equality and that he killed a slew of vampires, “the Lincoln Game” can always be played.

Learning from Lincoln that public sentiment is something that should never be ignored, Joseph Fornieri has written an accessible political philosophy book that lays out for readers the answer to the question “what makes Lincoln great?” Fornieri makes the case for the study of statesmanship in political science through examining great statesmen, especially Lincoln. He also makes a good argument for Lincoln’s political actions being consistent with those of the founders of the country, although questions remain whether something different in kind has been introduced into the regime. Lastly, Fornieri’s book, while explicating Lincoln’s greatness, lacks an account of how great statesmen are created: was it the books Lincoln read? The institutional structure that was in place? Or is there no accounting for the appearance of great statesmen when the country needs them? Are they gifts from the gods?

Fornieri considers briefly why statesmanship has fallen out of favor as a topic in academic studies and finds the derailment of this subject coming from the dominance of historicism, a fixation on behaviorist methodology, and the simple thought that people no longer believe in the possibility of greatness. He points to Lincoln’s statesmanship and examines his virtues in this regard in six areas: wisdom, prudence, duty, magnanimity, rhetoric, and patriotism. Statesmanship turns out to be the marriage of wisdom and power. Statesmen must know the right thing to do and actually be able to do it. For this reason there is no statesmanship without political office. Though as citizens we might agree with the purist positions of the abolitionist Fredrick Douglass or the civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., it takes the prudence of an Abraham Lincoln or a Lyndon Baines Johnson to lead the ship of state toward moral progress. Fornieri cites several lines from Fredrick Douglass’ “Oration in Memory of Abraham Lincoln” to remind his readers of this fact, among them the following: “Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.” Political office both strengthens its holder with legitimate authority and confines him with responsibility. It is in political office that Fornieri rightly thinks statesmanship manifests itself.

Still, “statesmanship” contains the word “state” and some, aware of the dangers of a Leviathan state, question whether it is such a good thing at all. If statesmanship means centralization and the loss of the federal system that the founders put in place, there is something to be worried about. In this regard some have pointed to Lincoln’s Lyceum speech, in which he manifests his ambition and talks of the burning desire for distinction “at the expense of emancipating slaves or enslaving freemen.” Fornieri does a good job of arguing that too much is read into this section of the 1838 speech by a young, twenty eight year old Lincoln. He redirects his reader’s attention to Lincoln’s “Eulogy of Henry Clay,” where Lincoln shows his admiration for “reflective patriotism,” saying of Clay: “He loved his country partly because it was his own country, but mostly because it was a free country.” Fornieri’s account of Lincoln’s statesmanship is that it is not the modern steering of the state one might find in a Machiavellian Prince or a Hobbesian Sovereign. It is instead the ancient virtue of political prudence that one finds in Aristotle or Saint Thomas Aquinas, always guided by the natural law and political reality.

Recent studies view Lincoln as a pragmatist. Fornieri dissents and takes pains to distinguish unprincipled pragmatism from Lincoln’s classical virtue of prudence. Tracing the term pragmatism back to the progressive era of American politics, Fornieri sees in it a willful distrust of the possibility that political philosophy is able to get to the bottom of things.  He describes it thus: “It seeks to solve problems through ad hoc, experimental, trial-and-error-method.  The pragmatic leader, in this sense, is a consummate bargainer who maintains a flexible style of leadership” (13).

Fornieri argues instead for Lincoln being deeply philosophical in his adherence to the idea of natural rights, in the context of natural law. He argues it was really the progressive movement that moved away from political philosophy, because traditional political philosophy was perceived as an obstacle to the political changes its adherents desired.  Fornieri insists that, “The Republican Party program was tightly bounded by the nation’s long-standing commitment to private property, limited government, and administrative decentralization. Allied to local self-government, Republicans could not sanction the constant presence of the national government in the society and the economy” (18).

In so far as Fornieri is discussing an administrative state in which the national government is directly involved in daily life by bureaucrats, his assessment seems correct.  But as the historian Leonard Curry has shown in his book on non-military legislation during the Civil War, the 37th Congress and the Lincoln Administration passed significant legislation that entailed a brand new role for the national government. This legislation includes the first federal income tax, the Homestead Act, the Pacific Railway Act of 1862, Land Grant Colleges, Paper Currency, revisions of the Tariff to discourage imports and encourage domestic production and the creation of the Department of Agriculture. While Allen Guelzo[1], whose work Fornieri cites, has convincingly argued that these changes were not tremendously expensive, one must consider whether there is something different in kind about the role of the national government in these tasks that eventually does become terribly expensive. Fornieri argues correctly that Lincoln is certainly a believer in local government but he is also an old Whig who advocated a stronger role for the national government than did his Democrat opponents.

Fornieri also boldly argues that Lincoln “helped to pave the way for an interracial democracy” (1). This is a difficult argument to maintain given that, at times, Lincoln advocated for colonization and is known to have said that just because he would not want a black woman as a slave, it did not mean he wanted one as his wife. Following Harry Jaffa in his seminal Crisis of the House Divided, Fornieri points out how often these statements are made as hypotheticals or as contingent arguments in which close readers and listeners can discern that Lincoln does not hold these positions at all. Statesmanship first requires one get into office. Lincoln cannot speak miles ahead of his audience in terms of racial justice. Still, if Lincoln is only esoterically an advocate for interracial democracy, how could he have paved the way for its existence?

Fornieri reminds his readers that Lincoln (eventually) used African Americans to fight for the Union cause, and always advocated for birthright citizenship, especially when questioning the Dred Scott case. A January, 1864 letter to James S. Wadsworth nicely illustrates Fornieri’s position, that Lincoln moved the country in the direction of interracial democracy through the demonstrated valor of African Americans in the war. Lincoln writes:

“I will here add, that if our success should thus be realized, followed by such desired results, I cannot see, if universal amnesty is granted, how, under the circumstances, I can avoid exacting in return universal suffrage, or, at least, suffrage on the basis of intelligence and military service.”

How to better the condition of the colored race has long been a study which has attracted my serious and careful attention; hence I think I am clear and decided as to what course I shall pursue in the premises, regarding it a religious duty, as the nation’s guardian of these people, who have so heroically vindicated their manhood on the battle-field, where, in assisting to save the life of the Republic, they have demonstrated in blood their right to the ballot, which is but the humane protection of the flag they have so fearlessly defended.

Fornieri sees Lincoln as a preserver and expander of the principle of equality set forth in the Declaration of Independence. The book argues that the Civil War was for the preservation of the Union, but what made the Union worth preserving was that it was a nation dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. As Lincoln said of Clay, he loved his country because it was his own country, but mostly because it was a free country. The equality of the Declaration of Independence is not any sort of equality but rather the self-ownership that contrasts so sharply with slavery. When forced to, Lincoln would yield a section of the Constitution to preserve the whole. He would lose a limb to preserve a life, because fundamentally the Constitution was made to protect the liberty spoken of in the Declaration of Independence.

Some have argued that Lincoln, by stressing the equality in the Declaration of Independence, had dangerously introduced an impossible goal into our politics – the idea that since we are dedicated to the principle of equality, we must be made equal in all respects. Lincoln has done no such thing. Instead, Lincoln has reminded the country that it loves liberty. Fornieri describes it thus: “The many in our national motto e pluribus unum are not abolished into a forced unison, but harmonized through their dedication to the shared political faith in the Declaration. This faith constitutes the minimal core convictions that make possible a shared public life in a pluralistic society” (162). There is a friendship or concordance of mind that holds the United States of America together and it is agreement about a moral, ordered liberty expressed in the Declaration of Independence.

Fornieri has written an excellent book explaining what made Lincoln great. Still, questions remain regarding what made Lincoln. It is clear Lincoln had little formal education but rather was self-taught from a handful of great books (Shakespeare, Euclid, Weems’ Life of Washington) that made an impression on him. So there is the challenge of producing statesmen who have read and read deeply. Fornieri examines Lincoln’s rhetoric by looking closely at Lincoln’s greatest speeches, but perhaps today’s political leaders speak too much. Lincoln lives in a world where patronage and the fun of local party politics has citizens vividly listening to three hour debates about what are the fundamental principles that the framer’s left the country. This in a senatorial election they cannot even vote in. It was perhaps a political context more open to the possibility of statesmanship.

Statesmanship is different than leadership; statesmen do not necessarily have followers nor do they necessarily give the people what they want. While in office, Lincoln seems to have governed without obsessing over being re-elected, at one point even expecting to lose to McClellan. Fornieri’s book does not address the question of whether or not we could recapture the political context for statesmanship. However, it does illustrate the virtues that made Lincoln great in office, most notably the wisdom he showed in his dedication to the Declaration of Independence.



[1] See Guelzo, Allen C. “Abraham Lincoln or the Progressives: Who was the Real Father of Big Government?” In First Principles, 1-17. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics: The Heritage Foundation. Special Report No. 100, February 8, 2012.

Rodolfo HernandezRodolfo Hernandez

Rodolfo Hernandez

Rodolfo Hernandez is an Associate Editor of VoegelinView and a Lecturer in Political Science at Texas State University.

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