Abraham Lincoln, Constitutionalism, and Equal Rights in the Civil War Era

By Herman Belz | Go to book overview

2
The "Philosophical Cause" of Free Government: The Problem of Lincoln's Political Thought

WERE WE TO JUDGE FROM PERSONAL EXPERIENCE, most of us would probably assent to the proposition that reason and intellect-- manifested in conscious, deliberate, and rational thought--form an important part of our nature and that they are essential in guiding our actions. Extending our horizon to the world at large, we might agree that reason, intellect, and conscious thought are essential to the conduct of affairs, including political matters. When we enter the world of scholarship, however, and seek an explanation of historical events, we discover a different view. We find that thought and reason are little recognized as the basis of political action. We find instead that actions and events are explained with reference to social, economic, cultural, or ideological forces beyond the rational comprehension and control of individual actors.

As an example of this point of view, let us consider historical accounts of the statesmanship of Abraham Lincoln. In a recent anthology, Abraham Lincoln and the American Political Tradition, Lincoln is viewed in several guises: an ambitious member of a political fraternity, a political tactician and party leader, an embattled executive, a revolutionary, and a master of political discourse.1 Nowhere in the volume is Lincoln regarded as a political thinker. Even such a distinguished scholar as Don E. Fehrenbacher refrains from any consideration of Lincoln as a thinking, rational political actor. In his essay,

____________________
An earlier version of this essay appeared in the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, 10 ( 1988), 47-71.
1
John L. Thomas, ed., Abraham Lincoln and the American Political Tradition ( Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1986), p. 10.

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