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Some Reflections on Mr. Lincoln
for the First Meeting of the Lincoln Seminar at Gettysburg College,
January 19, 1995

Lewis E. Lehrman, Visiting Lecturer

Abraham Lincoln, I think, was the greatest man who ever lived. Of his extraordinary deeds there are few secrets. Of the ultimate consequences of his decisions, there is still much more to be understood. About the inner man himself, it may still be said we do not know him.

So we begin by remarking his public deeds. Mr. Lincoln made American politics not only a struggle for personal power and prestige but, instead, a campaign of just ideas, a battle of first principles, a vindication of rightminded policy. He believed the American Union had been aimed by the founders toward an unimpeachable end, the ultimate triumph of the inalienable rights spelled out in the Declaration of Independence. He knew that America was the first nation in human history to be established on such philosophical principles. To Mr. Lincoln, this American proposition implied that all human beings should have the right to rise, an equal opportunity in the race of life, the primary claim to the fruit of their labor. In fact, this is what Mr. Lincoln said; and this is what he meant.

For him nothing short of the future realization of the inalienable rights to life and liberty would do, because, he argued, the American nation had embraced in its founding Act of 1776 the self-evident truth that all human beings are created equal. Neither blood ties, nor racial homogeneity, nor ancestral territory -- the origins of all previous nations -- had grounded the new nation on the shores of the Atlantic. Instead, as Lincoln insisted, the new republic was anchored by the declared abstract truth of human equality in the Declaration; and it was this self-evident truth alone which made the American birthright unique, which gave to all Americans, immigrants without exception, a common patrimony.

A politician who gives over his life to realize such a noble and humane creed is to be praised above his self-seeking peers. The statesman who -- against all odds, in the most hostile environment, in peace and war -- remakes reality in the image of a just doctrine, belongs to that exclusive circle of the ancient lawgivers, to a distinct race of the founders of civilization. At the center of this circle we find Mr. Lincoln.

What he believed to be true, he said in public places, and he said it with unparalleled perfection. Thus, we have in his writings the most profound and elegant axioms of democratic society. In speeches as diverse as his on national banking in 1840, on the Kansas-Nebraska Act at Peoria in 1854, on Dred Scott in 1857, he evoked the highest and best use of rhetoric to demonstrate political economy and democratic principle. His first and second inaugurals and the Gettysburg Address are three peerless monuments to his republican genius. When he attained the power of office, moreover, he actually did what he believed. Without his Emancipation Proclamation, the XIIIth Amendment, and his military victory as Commander-in-chief, America, as we know it today, would have been unthinkable. Indeed, it was the unconditional victory of Mr. Lincoln's Union Party in the Civil War which gave birth to a reformed constitution -- in effect, to a refounding of the American nation on its first principle of the inalienable right to life and to liberty. From the Lincoln refounding has issued much of what is honorable in the American experiment. Indeed, what the world cherishes in the American way of life would be today no more than an early American fantasy, if Mr. Lincoln had not transformed a slave society -- riddled with prejudice North and South -- into a free society struggling to this day to overcome its all too human prejudices.

Moreover, if we consider the long-term consequences of his life and work, these effects themselves clearly mark him as the lawgiver of our age. For without his triumph, there would have been no unified American democracy, as the world knows and emulates it today. On the contrary, there would be, on this continent, several petty principalities, probably still squabbling over their boundaries between the Atlantic and the Pacific -- some provinces all-slave, perhaps others free, all jealous and competing for advantage, wide open to the intervention of those large and unified world powers which commandeered the stage of history in the twentieth century.

Without Mr. Lincoln's presidential victories in 1860 and 1864, and his military victory in 1865, there probably would exist today no continental republic, grounded in the "free and equal" XIIIth, XIVth, and XVth amendments of the constitution, to serve as a living example for subjugated peoples striving for free labor and equal opportunity the world over. In the most practical economic terms, which Mr. Lincoln understood better than most Presidents before and since, there would have been no integrated North American economy in which emerged the most powerful, free-market, commercial civilization the world has ever known. Without such an American industrial machine, and the educated manpower which produced it, the means would not have been available to contain the Imperial German Reich in 1917 as it reached for European hegemony, nor would there have been a national power strong enough to destroy its global successor, Hitler's Nazi Reich in 1945, nor to crush the aggressions in the Pacific Ocean of Imperial Japan; and, in the end, there would have been no world power to oppose and overcome the Soviet Communist empire during the second half of our century. World conquest, based on the invidious distinctions of race and class -- the goal of all the malignant world powers of our era -- was prevented by the force and leadership of a single country, the perpetual union of the American states, a free republic dedicated in principle to the inalienable right to liberty of all peoples everywhere. These are but a few of the unforeseen consequences of the complete victory of the Union cause in the American Civil War.

Hovering over the whole of this history, there lingers still the enigma of the private man and the shadow of his personality. We scrutinize Mr. Lincoln; but we see him through a glass darkly. We mine his papers, sap the memoirs left by those who knew him, plumb his personal relationships; but he escapes us. Surely we know about his humble parents, his lack of formal education, his many jobs in early manhood, his discreet but towering ambition, his elite and troubled marriage, his parochial Illinois politics. While his is the greatest name of American history, we wonder that, unlike the Adams family, the Roosevelts, the Kennedys, he left no descendants to carry on his legacy of great deeds.

To understand him, many scholars have studied all these things and, just as carefully, the people with whom he did these things. But in the end we peer into the darkness whence he emerged, there to blink again before the eternity into which he disappeared. It is as if, like a luminous comet, he thrust himself in front of our eyes, the eyes of the world -- but for a brief moment -- then to dissolve into the vasty deep of the cosmos from which he came.

This archetypal American, this man of flesh and blood, a man like you and me -- this is the elusive creature we should be looking for in our seminar at Gettysburg College in the Spring of 1995.

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