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What Made Lincoln, Lincoln? His Principles and Personality Still Endure 200 Years After His Birth

Abraham Lincoln
Library of Congress
This article by renowned Lincoln scholar Allen Guelzo is our latest Paul Simon Essay, which honors the late U.S. senator from Illinois, one of the founders of Illinois Issues. The periodic essays attempt to frame public policy issues that were of particular interest to Simon, as well as examining them from a moral and ethical perspective. Guelzo looks at the leadership qualities that have kept Abraham Lincoln’s legacy alive as one of the most revered figures in world history for 144 years after his death. It is natural that we publish it this month, which marks the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth. Simon’s interest in Lincoln’s leadership shone brightly in his 1989 book, Lincoln’s Preparation for Greatness — The Illinois Legislative Years, which was published by the University of Illinois Press and is still in print. In that book, Simon wrote about the 16th president’s politically formative years, such as when “in New Salem, Lincoln was looked to more and more for leadership.” Given the circumstances surrounding Illinois state government today, with the current governor under arrest on corruption charges and the former one in prison, there has never been more of a need for a moral leader like Lincoln. The Paul Simon Essay was made possible by generous contributions from our readers. We are grateful for your support.


We know more about Abraham Lincoln than any other human being who lived in the 19th century. And yet, for all that we know, there remains an essential mystery about 

Lincoln that keeps historians and biographers forever in pursuit, forever trying to write the book that will capture Lincoln at last. 

No one is more responsible for that elusiveness than Lincoln himself. Friends such as David Davis grumbled that “He was the most reticent — Secretive man I Ever Saw — or Expect to See.” And as much as Lincoln appeared “easy of approach and perfectly democratic in his nature,” his longtime law partner, William Henry Herndon, found him “secretive, silent, and a very reticent minded man, trusting no man, nor woman, nor child with the inner secrets of his ambitious soul.”

This “reticence” would be unremarkable on its own terms if it were not for the fact that this same man was the president who piloted the nation through the trial of its life in the Civil War. We want to know what made Lincoln Lincoln, because if we ever find ourselves in such a trial again, it would be comforting to have the formula for recognizing the leadership we need to meet it. What maddens us, as it maddened Herndon, is that Lincoln will not tell us.

What we cannot know as fact, we frequently invent as myth. We want to know what qualities make up a Lincoln, and so we confect them from what we hope they were — humor, resilience, long-suffering, wisdom, tolerance, sympathy. Surely, we think, the president who saved the Union from self-destruction must also be a man like this.

All of which may be true about Lincoln. But those were not the things that Lincoln himself thought were important. “It is a great piece of folly to attempt to make anything out of my early life,” Lincoln advised John Locke Scripps, who wanted to publish a campaign biography in 1860. “It can all be condensed into a single sentence, and that sentence you will find in Gray’s Elegy: ‘The short and simple annals of the poor.’” In our search for the mysterious personality of Lincoln, we are pursuing the part of him that he considered the least significant. And we are missing the five very obvious things that he thought were in plain sight as the real keys to saving the Union and freeing the slaves.

1. SELF-TRANSFORMATION: When Herndon used the word ambitionabout Lincoln, the connotations of ambitious — grasping, unscrupulous, out for the main chance — may obscure the larger sense in which this described Lincoln. “Ambition has been ascribed to me,” Lincoln conceded at the end of his futile race against Stephen A. Douglas for the Illinois U.S. Senate seat in 1858, but “God knows how sincerely I prayed from the first that this field of ambition might not be opened.” What Herndon called ambition, Lincoln preferred to think of as self-improvement or self-transformation, and it is this passion for re-inventing himself that runs like a bright thread through all of Lincoln’s life. 

It is true, but not entirely true, to say that Lincoln was born into log-cabin poverty. His father, Thomas Lincoln, was actually a middling-size landowner and farmer. But to Thomas Lincoln, farm life was bliss, politically and economically, and he had no aspiration to anything more. He “Jest Raised a Nuf for his own use,” recalled Lincoln’s cousin, Dennis F. Hanks, and “Did Not Send any produce to any other place [for] Mor than Bought his Shugar and Coffee and Such Like.” Young Abraham, however, had a quick and fertile imagination, with an intellectual thirst he slaked by continually reading. In time, his imagination sought a far wider horizon than the farm he called “the backside of the world.” Once he turned 21, he left the farm, and from there, every road for Lincoln led upward. 

What Lincoln prized most in American society was the freedom to become economically and socially mobile, to become something more than what you had been born to be. “Advancement — improvement in condition — is the order of things in a society of equals,” he said in 1858. Unlike aristocratic Europe, in America no one was automatically consigned by birth to one class or another. “Twenty five years ago, I was a hired laborer,” Lincoln cheerfully admitted. But in America, “the hired laborer of yesterday, labors on his own account to day; and will hire others to labor for him to morrow.” What made America “the wonder and admiration of the whole world” was the possibility “that every man can make himself.” 

2. FREE LABOR: The principle that made this mobility possible was free labor — and Lincoln really did mean labor. His advice to up-and-coming lawyers was “work, work, work, is the main thing.” He chided his stepbrother, John Johnston, for wanting to slide along in the old, backwoods way. “You are not lazy, and still you are an idler,” Lincoln complained when Johnston tried to borrow money from him. Stop fooling around on the farm, Lincoln advised, and “go to work for the best money wages, or in discharge of any debt you owe.” And if Johnston would do so, then “for every dollar you will … get for your own labor, either in money, or in your own indebtedness, I will then give you one other dollar.” 

But Lincoln also meant free labor. He could not force his stepbrother to become industrious, and he saw no justice whatsoever in forcing others to labor so that the value of that labor could be appropriated by someone else. And it was this which led him into opposition to slavery. “As Labor is the common burthen of our race, so the effort of some to shift their share of the burthen on to the shoulders of others, is the great, durable, curse of the race.” Not only did it rob the worker; it stigmatized the work. Slave ownership, Lincoln told his loyal friend, Joseph Gillespie, “betokened not only the possession of wealth but indicated the gentleman of leisure who was above and scorned labour.” This made it “a great & crying injustice” for which “we could not expect to escape punishment.”

3. FREE MARKETS: If the most vivid symbol of slavery was the slave market, then the most important partner to free labor was a free market, and the principal role of government was to make access to markets as open as possible to all. In his career as an Illinois state legislator in the 1830s and ’40s, Lincoln promoted plans for government-funded road-building, canals, railroads and a state bank — a bank to provide low-interest loans for entrepreneurial start-ups, and the roads, canals and railroads to connect entrepreneurs to markets. He did not mind if, in the process, “some will get wealthy.” His belief was that “it is best for all to leave each man free to acquire property as fast as he can.” 

He had no interest “in a law to prevent a man from getting rich.” After all, property “is the fruit of labor — property is desirable,” and should even be seen as “a positive good in the world.” Moreover, if some “should be rich,” this would simply show “that others may become rich, and hence is just encouragement to industry and enterprise.” And he was not unduly worried about whether this was fair. “If any continue through life in the condition of the hired laborer, it is not the fault of the system, but because of either a dependent nature which prefers it, or improvidence, folly, or singular misfortune.” His advice, in the event of failure or bankruptcy, was similar to his rebuke to his stepbrother: “Let them adopt the maxim, ‘Better luck next time;’ and then, by renewed exertion, make that better luck for themselves.”

4. UNION: Nothing would cripple free markets or free labor faster, however, than the break-up of the Union. The larger and more uniform the network of laborers, markets and consumers, the vaster the opportunities and more swift the increase of fortunes. But if individual states or regions could disrupt that network, either by demanding the legalization of slavery in the newly expanding West, or by simply announcing their secession from the Union (as slaveholding Southerners did in 1861), then markets would shrink, the value of labor would go down, and the nation as a whole would grow weaker in its competition with other national economies. When “owned labor” is let loose to “compete with your own labor,” Lincoln told New England shoemakers in 1861, the result will be “to under work you, and to degrade you!” He was not amused, either, by the suggestion that “owned labor” and free labor should be allowed to live side by side as an expression of American diversity. “If there be any diversity in our views,” he said in 1862, “it is not as to whether we should receive Slavery when free from it, but as to how we may best get rid of it already amongst us.”

5. POPULAR GOVERNMENT: But economic mobility and prosperity were not just ends in themselves. The great virtue of free labor and free markets lay in how they proved the wisdom of putting politics, as well as economics, into the hands of the people. He reveled in “the prosperity of his countrymen,” partly because “they were his countrymen,” but mostly because that prosperity showed “to the world that freemen could be free.” 

It was, by contrast, the contention of every king and every dictator (and a dismaying number of political philosophers of the Karl Marx variety) that free markets were an unstable and greedy device whereby the rich grew richer and poor grew poorer. That, Lincoln replied, was precisely the idea that played into the hands of slave owners, who smilingly offered stability and leisure by assigning all the unpleasant work to a permanent population of black slaves, while offering subsidies and racial advantages as a narcotic to working-class whites. “Free labor,” he replied, guarantees neither stability nor fairness, but it is “the just and generous, and prosperous system, which opens the way for all,” and which “gives hope to all, and energy, and progress and improvement of condition to all.”

Still, even Lincoln acknowledged that without some sort of moral framework to act as a guide, people who were economically free might still choose to impose unjust burdens on others. In a free democracy where majorities rule, majorities can sometimes choose to do the wrong thing. What ought to guide democracies were the “sacred principles of the laws of nature and of nations” — the law written into the very nature of things by nature’s God, who had hard-wired into every human being a right to life, to liberty, and to the pursuit of happiness. “Our government was not established that one man might do with himself as he pleases, and with another man too,” Lincoln believed, and especially not to enslave them on the specious ground of race. “Is not slavery universally granted to be, in the abstract, a gross outrage on the law of nature?” he asked in 1854. 

What made Lincoln a great man — what made him Lincoln — was not his personality but his principles. True enough, his patience, his eloquence, his understanding of human weakness and his instinctive loathing of oppression make him an ideal vehicle for those principles. But Lincoln’s personal traits were not what made the man; it was his ideas. Lincoln was not a humanitarian. John Todd Stuart, his first law partner, said that Lincoln “felt no special interest in any man or thing — Save & Except politics.” What he loved were “principles and such like large political & national ones.” And Leonard Swett, who practiced law with Lincoln on the old 8th Judicial Circuit in Illinois, wrote in 1866 that “in dealing with men” he was a “trimmer, and such a trimmer the world has never seen.” Yet, he added, “Lincoln never trimmed in principles — it was only in his conduct with men.” 

Perhaps, in an age obsessed with celebrities, it is harder for us to be content with a president who had no interest in celebrity. Perhaps, in a time that has grown so shy of appealing to anything like principles, it is harder for us to grasp the nettle of Lincoln’s ideas. But it is there that his greatness lies. And it is, perhaps, there that we will recognize what really made Lincoln Lincoln.

Allen C. Guelzo is the Henry R. Luce III Professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College, where he is director of the Civil War Era Studies Program and The Gettysburg Semester. His most recent book is Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates That Defined America, which was published in 2008. He is the two-time winner of the Lincoln Prize for his books Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President and Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America.

Illinois Issues, February 2009

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