For a Vast Future Also: Essays from the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association

By Thomas F. Schwartz | Go to book overview

7
The Hedgehog and the Foxes

James M. McPherson

To MANY READERS the title of this article may seem whimsical if not obscure. “Lincoln a hedgehog?!” remarked the baffled president of the Abraham Lincoln Association when he first heard the proposed title. Lincoln himself might have appreciated the analogy—given his penchant for animal metaphors and his fondness for Aesop’s Fables. This particular analogy might at first glance appear to be unflattering, though; the Encyclopaedia Britannica says of the hedgehog that “the brain is remarkable for its low development.” Like its larger American cousin the porcupine, the hedgehog’s distinguishing characteristic is self-defense by its sharp spines, or quills.

But the notion of comparing Lincoln to a hedgehog was suggested by a line from the Greek poet Archilochus: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Classical scholars have disagreed about the purport of this adage. It may mean nothing more than that the fox, despite his cleverness, cannot overcome the hedgehog’s one defense. But in a famous essay on Leo Tolstoy with the similar tide of “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” the British philosopher Isaiah Berlin has provided a more profound rendering of Archilochus’s words. The hedgehog is a diinker or leader who “relatefs) everytiiing to a single central vision … a single, universal, organizing principle,” writes Berlin, while the fox “pursue[s] many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory.”1

In this sense, Abraham Lincoln can be considered one of the foremost hedgehogs in American history. More than any of his Civil War contemporaries, he pursued policies that were governed by a central vision, expressed in the Gettysburg Address, that this “nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal… shall not perish from the earth.” Lincoln was surrounded by foxes who considered themselves smarter than he but

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