Principled Pragmatism: Abraham Lincoln's Method of Political Analysis

By Siemers, David J. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, December 2004 | Go to article overview
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Principled Pragmatism: Abraham Lincoln's Method of Political Analysis


Siemers, David J., Presidential Studies Quarterly


   "If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending,
   we would then better judge what to do, and how to do it."

   --Opening lines of Abraham Lincoln's House Divided speech
   (Quoted in Basler 1953-1955, II, 461)

Many scholars have ably argued that success in office is elusive for most presidents (e.g., Franck 1981; Barger 1984; Edwards 1989; Skowronek 1993; Landy and Milkis 2000). Also inscrutable are the factors that might lead to success. Of course these are really two ways of saying the same thing. If we could identify the building blocks of presidential success, then publics could select for them in candidates and presidents could cultivate the requisite qualities. But we possess no easy formula. (1)

This is not for a lack of trying among political scientists. Dean Keith Simonton's compilation of quantitative research in Why Presidents Succeed makes that clear. Among the items researchers have considered in their quest to explain presidential performance are intellectual ability, idealism, the tendency to be dogmatic, birth order, and even height (1987, ch. 4). Simonton concludes that "almost all of the performance indicators that appear dependent on the president's personal qualities have little relevance for predicting presidential success" (164). A factor analysis he conducted using Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.'s well-known poll of presidential greatness as a baseline measure of success yielded only one correlated personality-based factor: "intellectual brilliance" (203). (2) Most of the variance in presidential performance, Simonton finds, is due to factors outside the officeholder's personal control. Nevertheless, an observation Simonton applies to performance in campaigns might be equally appropriate when it comes to performance in office: "If one is willing to speculate, one may still argue that individual variables play an important role" (73).

This article argues that a critical component of Abraham Lincoln's success was his distinctive method of political analysis. Lincoln engaged in continual, self-conscious assessments of political context to determine which of his core commitments to emphasize and which to de-emphasize at any given time. As much as anything, Lincoln's political skill was to interpret the nation's temporal situation to order his genuinely held but not immediately realizable principles, so as to achieve them more fully in the long run. Ultimately, Lincoln's principled pragmatism allowed him to "ride events" (Neustadt 1990, 89) in such a way that after his presidency's tragic end, nearly all acknowledged that he succeeded.

Idealism and Pragmatism

Recently, Fred Greenstein has assessed modern presidents along six characterological lines, including their "vision" and "cognitive style," arguing that "the highly personalized nature of the modern American presidency makes the strengths and weaknesses of the White House incumbent of the utmost importance" (2000, 189). One can easily claim the same for Lincoln: the crisis brought by secession and the Civil War made his own strengths and weaknesses of utmost importance. Unfortunately, our view of Lincoln's personal strengths and weaknesses is somewhat muddled, particularly on matters of vision and cognitive style.

On one hand, David Herbert Donald argues that Lincoln's strength lies in his pragmatism. Donald's well-known writings place great emphasis on Lincoln's statement that "I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me" (1993, 9, 15; 2001, 121-30). Donald posits that it is from his "fatalistic" turn of mind that Lincoln "derived his most lovable traits," which enabled him to take a more pragmatic, and thus ultimately, a more successful approach to the nation's problems than abolitionists or seceders (2001, 13). In short, "'My policy to have no policy' became a kind of motto for Lincoln" (1995, 15). On the other hand, John Patrick Diggins makes the case that Lincoln's character was defined by his universalist commitments.

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