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Reconsidering the Statesmanship of Abraham Lincoln

In many ways, Abraham Lincoln has almost loomed entirely too largely in our national consciousness, since it has now become difficult to get around the acknowledgment of his greatness to discover just what it was that made him great. Jon Schaff’s new book is an attempt to do just that.

Three weeks after Abraham Lincoln was murdered, his loyal promoter (and editor of the Chicago Tribune), John Locke Scripps, wrote to Lincoln’s law partner, William Henry Herndon, trying to anticipate the shape of Lincoln’s reputation in the future. “In certain showy, and what is said to be, most desirable endowments, how many Americans have surpassed him,” Scripps exclaimed, “Yet how he looms above them now!” Lincoln would be, Scripps predicted, “for all time to come the great American Man—the grand central figure in American (perhaps the World’s) History.”

In many ways, Lincoln has almost loomed entirely too largely, since it has now become difficult to get around the acknowledgment of his greatness to discover just what it was that made him great. Jon Schaff’s Abraham Lincoln’s Statesmanship is an attempt to maneuver around that “persistent fascination” and lay out what can be known—and better still, appropriated for modern purposes—about Lincoln’s statesmanship.

That Lincoln was a politician is not in doubt. “Politics were his Heaven,” said Herndon. Nor is there much doubt that Lincoln’s politics belonged securely in the liberal democratic environment of the nineteenth century, alongside Cobden, Mill, and Tocqueville—a foundation in natural rights, a small-producer market economy, limitations on the use of power. But what leveraged Lincoln’s politics to the level of statesmanship? Schaff uses Harry Jaffa’s four criteria of statesmanship—the pursuit of worthy goals, wisdom in judging what is possible (rather than simply desirable), the use of “apt” means, and actions that do not hinder others from going beyond his accomplishments “and achieving greater justice.”

It is especially on the question of means that Schaff dwells, since what he finds most remarkable in Lincoln is his prudence and moderation. Prudence is meant here not in the cheap sense of prissiness, since Lincoln was willing to pay high prices for his politics and absorb staggering amounts of punishment on their behalf. And certainly Schaff does not mean moderation in the beastly sense of constantly calculating the mid-point of a loaf others are always cutting in size. Moderation is about recognizing the legitimacy of competing claims, refusing to dismiss as unquestionably immoral that with which we simply disagree. Prudence is about reverence for law, about healing the wounds of the body politic. This prudence and this moderation are always aimed toward justice, but they do not regard justice as the sole question.

For Schaff, one of the central aspects of Lincoln’s statesmanship is his attachment to natural rights. In this, Lincoln stands apart from both Burkean conservatives of the past and modern traditionalists of the order of Alasdair Macintyre (who prefers the inculcation of a “virtue ethics” in politics rather than talk about natural rights). Schaff concedes that the current revival of Burkean “nationalism” has a distinctive appeal to those who see Lincoln’s natural-rights liberalism going disastrously awry after his death, both by fostering a dog-eat-dog economic order based solely on individual self-interest and by generating a backlash in the form of modern progressivism. Schaff struggles to defend Lincoln by suggesting that he cannot be held to account for what later generations did in abusing natural-rights liberalism. He suggests at some length that Lincoln would personally have been far more comfortable with a Chestertonian distributivism that avoided great concentrations of power in the hands of either laissez-faire capitalists or progressive statists.

This leads Schaff, in the second half of his book, to take up the issue of Lincoln’s distaste for power. He is categorical in his denial that Lincoln presided over a “second American Revolution,” finding in Lincoln a president scrupulously deferential to Congress in developing economic legislation, and resistant to the manufacture of incessant “crisis” and the creation of utopian mandates. In this, Schaff is unquestionably correct. “Lincoln attempted to reinvigorate a tired democracy by inciting a love for natural rights and a respect for the dignity of free labor,” he concludes, but Lincoln did so by keeping “the attention of the people on what was practically and legally possible.” In that respect, Lincoln was not the model of the modern elective messiah.

The reader will come to the book’s end wishing that such a statesman as Schaff describes still lives. Or, perhaps more darkly, wondering whether we would still deserve such a one.

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