Lincoln's Defense of Politics: The Public Man and His Opponents in the Crisis over Slavery

By Thomas E. Schneider | Go to book overview

Henry David Thoreau


Chapter 7
The Question of Political Engagement

In a democracy it is not enough to be right in order to be effectual; you must persuade a sufficient number of your fellow citizens that you are right. Indeed, it may not even be enough even to do that, if you cannot also persuade them that it is in, or at least not against, their interest to sustain you. Democracy imposes limits on political action that some would-be reformers have found very difficult to accept. The abolitionists failed to persuade sufficiently many Americans that they were right, to save their cause from consignment to the political margins; or they failed to persuade sufficiently many to put the rightfulness of that cause ahead of their own interests. One or two days before the execution of John Brown, Lincoln said, in reference to Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry, “We have a means provided for the expression of our belief in regard to Slavery—it is through the ballot box—the peaceful method provided by the Constitution.”1 But if no more than an inconsequential minority of Americans could be found who neither denied the wrong of slavery nor were willing to express their belief in regard to it through the ballot box, above all in the states where it existed, what remedy could there be for slavery short of the overthrow of majoritarian democracy—short of the activism of a John Brown? No one among Lincoln's opponents subjected democracy to a more radical critique in

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