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Five Key Lessons On Presidents’ Day From Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln never budged on his principles, but also never let them stand in the way of a practical assessment of what was possible.

The “Presidents’ Day” holiday, which this year falls five days after Abraham Lincoln’s 205th birthday, is occasion yet again for a slew of op-eds looking back at the 16th President, as well as trying to claim him for each of today’s political parties and movements. Let me suggest five brief points of my own that are worth recalling in analyzing the first Republican president.

1. Lincoln Was A True Classical Liberal

Before trying to place Lincoln on the political spectrum of any particular moment, it’s crucial to place him on a more timeless spectrum by considering what he actually believed. Like the Founding Fathers, Lincoln was a classical liberal: he believed most centrally in the Lockean ideal that government exists in order to protect the ability of the common man to enjoy the fruits of his own labors.

That belief led him, in turn, to the two foundational causes of the Republican Party. One, the cause of religious zealots and do-gooding reformers alike (in the 1850s, these were mostly the same people), was deep opposition to slavery, a desire to see its expansion stopped and a fervent hope that somehow, however impractical the goal, it could be eradicated. The other was the “Free Soil” movement, later embodied in the Homestead Act of 1862, which sought to have the federal government distribute unsettled lands in the West to farmers who would live on the land and develop it by their own labors.

These were liberal ideas in the traditional sense: they sought to increase human liberty, to the particular benefit of the laboring classes. And they were not, strictly speaking, pure libertarian or small-government ideas, at least not in the caricatured sense of those terms: the anti-slavery movement required vigorous federal opposition to practices long-established in the States, while the Free Soilers wanted the federal government to distribute property to individuals.

But Lincoln’s ideas and platform were still much more in common with those of the Founding Fathers than with post-New Deal/Great Society progressives. While both the anti-slavery and Free Soil movements required the strong and vigorous federal government envisioned by Washington and Madison, both were causes in which the federal government was already inextricably involved. The Homestead Act involved the distribution of land the federal government already owned but could not use (and thus actually shrank the federal government, and kept doing so until the frontier was exhausted at last in the 1950s); the federal government offered no safety net to farmers who couldn’t afford the $18 in fees to start a homestead or who couldn’t make the land economically useful by their own labors. The expansion of slavery was already pervasively entangled with federal management of territories prior to statehood, and the federal government was already actively involved in enforcing the “right” of property in human beings in states that did not recognize it through the Fugitive Slave Act (a “right” extended to Constitutional status by the activist Supreme Court in Dred Scott). Lincoln’s immediate demand was simply to roll back slavery to something recognized only in those States where it was already firmly established. The progressive idea of a cradle-to-grave welfare state would find its first birth in Bismarck’s Germany after Lincoln’s death; he would have found it literally foreign.

In short, Lincoln was a man of many sentiments we would call liberal, but he was steeped in the classical liberalism of the Founding Fathers, and any effort to claim him for today’s causes must contend with how far American politics has moved away from that tradition in the past century.

2. Lincoln Never Presided Over Peacetime

Lincoln’s liberal admirers and his neo-Confederate/arch-libertarian detractors alike tend to emphasize the ways in which he expanded federal power in general, and executive power in particular, in unprecedented ways, some of which were later deemed unconstitutional by the courts but grew like topsy in our system anyway: establishing the first income tax, suspending habeas corpus, instituting the first military draft, expanding the size of the Supreme Court, etc.

But the really crucial fact to remember about Lincoln is that the nation was at war for its existence for virtually every day of his presidency; states had seceded before he was even inaugurated, and Fort Sumter was fired upon just weeks after he took office, and he was assassinated only six days after Lee surrendered. There is no reason at all to believe that Lincoln would have authorized any such expansion of federal power in peacetime. If modern liberals have a claim to Lincoln in any area, it is in foreign policy, given that Lincoln opposed the Mexican War as an unjustly expansionist war, and his conscientious objection to the war is often cited as an example of how to conduct patriotic dissent in wartime. But in the exercise of war powers, Lincoln – like Washington and Jackson before him, and FDR after – came to the conclusion that nothing must stand in the way of victory when the nation’s very existence is at stake. And unlike Washington or Jackson, those were not decisions that came easily or naturally to Lincoln, but they were necessities he came to accept. Every action he took to expand federal power in order to crush the Confederate rebellion must be understood, not as a statement of his domestic-policy principles, but as a necessity of war.

3. Qualifications Are No Substitute For Character

Republicans, traditionally and quite rationally, prefer their presidents to have experience and accomplishments. Democrats tend to be more obsessed with presidents who have academic credentials. And Presidents of the pre-1860 era actually tended to be older and more seasoned than in subsequent eras. Lincoln had what neither party looks for – no college degree, no executive experience, a defeat in his only run for statewide office, and no victories in advancing public policy. He was routinely derided by the Eastern press as a rustic country simpleton and frequently caricatured as an ape. Realistically, only a brand-new political party like the Republicans of 1860 would have nominated such a man.

But the nation got cosmically lucky that Lincoln, green as he was and beset as he was by depression and personal troubles, rose to the occasion again and again with his wit, wisdom, humility, humanity and steely determination to save the nation. I would probably not recommend trying that again – but in the end, what mattered more than Lincoln’s short resume was his personal character.

4. Principle and Compromise Can Coexist

Lincoln, of course, was against slavery, and wanted it abolished. This was the defining cause of his career, and everybody knew he hated slavery and ultimately wanted it abolished. He never hid that, and never suggested that it was somehow wrong or divisive to want slavery abolished.

But just as Lincoln was unyielding on matters of principle, he was as malleable as he needed to be on matters of practical politics. He won election in a four-way race among a deeply divided electorate in part by promising not to seek abolition of slavery, but rather to focus on stopping its expansion, the first, modest step in resisting the peculiar institution’s grip on federal policy and the judiciary. Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation only grudgingly, as a wartime measure limited to freeing slaves in the states in rebellion, and only at the end of four years of war did he painstakingly build the political coalition to pass the Thirteenth Amendment.

In this, Lincoln is a model for pro-lifers and other single-issue crusaders. He never yielded on the rightness of his principles, but he was pragmatic in seeking half a loaf when he could get it, and his ultimate victory resulted, not from his efforts to grasp the whole loaf, but from the clash between his modest goals and his opponents’ foolhardy overreaching and absolutism.

5. You Campaign Where The Voters Are

Bilingual campaigning is not new in America; Ben Franklin complained as early as the 1750s about the influence of German-speaking voters in the Pennsylvania electorate. Lincoln, after losing the 1858 Senate election, targeted German-language voters (who were mainly a Democratic bloc, like today’s Hispanics, but not a monolithic one) by buying the largest German-language newspaper in Illinois, the Illinois Staats-Anzeiger. Today, we would be horrified at a presidential candidate buying a swing-state newspaper to ensure favorable coverage, but in that pre-campaign finance age, this was the sort of thing a new political party needed to do in order to build a national governing coalition. Lincoln understood that enough German speakers were open to his message to make the investment worthwhile, and Illinois would vote Republican in every Presidential election from 1860 to 1888.

The lessons of Lincoln are many and varied, and not always accessible to lesser men. But these stand out: Lincoln never budged on his principles, but also never let them stand in the way of a practical assessment of what was possible in a democratic republic and necessary to preserve one for the next generation. He did what he had to do, and he was judged a success by history not by his considerable principles but by his durable results.

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