Thinking About Lincoln

I spent a few glorious days by the fire last month reading the speeches and letters of Abraham Lincoln. We’re about to enter a period of non-stop Civil War anniversaries, beginning this Saturday with the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s election in 1860. The Post will mark the event with a special section this Sunday, for which I wrote an essay on the meaning of Lincoln’s election and its lasting effects on the country. It tries to connect Lincoln’s sense of the two, competing economies of North and South with a larger idea of national purpose, and history.The way Americans worked, Lincoln seemed to argue, would determine the larger future of the nation:

In an 1859 speech, Lincoln described what he called “thorough work,” which meant not just productive farming, but mental and intellectual engagement with labor. He praised the effects of “thorough cultivation upon the farmer’s own mind,” and by extension, he argued that by “the best cultivation of the physical world, beneath and around us; and the intellectual and moral world within us, we shall secure an individual, social, and political prosperity and happiness, whose course shall be onward and upward.”

The economy of the South, however, wouldn’t take the nation onward, or upward, though it would very likely force us to move outward, as the South looked for new slave territory south of the border and in Cuba. That wasn’t a viable future for America.

The more I read Lincoln the more I sensed his frustration, arguing into the void with political opponents who could offer the larger nation nothing but more of the same, which was dragging everyone down. Have we changed? Here’s how the essay concludes:

If one reads the annals closely, however, it becomes clear that the Civil War legitimized something essential, and dark, that remains with us. Ultimately, the South was fighting for the right to be wrong, for the right to retain (and expand) something ugly and indefensible. It lost the war, and slavery was abolished. But the right to be wrong, the right to resist the progress of freedom, the right to say “no, thank you” to modernity, to leave the fences in disrepair and retreat into a world of private conviction, remains as much a part of the American character as the blood spilled to preserve the Union. Nothing great has been accomplished in America since the Civil War — not footsteps on the moon, or women’s suffrage, or the right (if not the reality) of equal, unsegregated education — without people also passionately fighting for that dark right, too.




Filed under Culture, History, Uncategorized

4 responses to “Thinking About Lincoln

  1. Lincoln was interesting, but also a complete Narcissist , who did not support the end of slavery, but rather saw himself as a Christ- like figure.. He was also a Traitor to his native South, and responsible for the annihilation of over millions of acres of farmland. However, he is revered as a Hero. The irony is that most of our heroes are villains.

  2. You live in an exciting and violent country. You are blessed with some of the best (Lincoln, Louis Armstrong, Robert Frost) and some of the worse figures in history. But I fear for your excesses.

  3. Nate Anderson

    This column has merit, but it is a real stretch. Showing that because Lincoln was born into something of an historicist millieu does not even begin to make the argument that he subscribed to History and an idea of progress which entailed much more than that of the technological/economic variety. Attributing to Lincoln a Tocquevillian premonition of Liberty’s cource might be legitimate. “Onward and upward” doesn’t make your larger point. “Thorough labor” shows Lincoln’s Jeffersonian love for work that morally engaged the mind and body, but the word Utopian also invades 1860’s America with a notion foreign and unwanted.

    Where the column has merit is in stating the lesson that some drew from the war. It is necessary to caution the reader that the South fiercely argued that they were right, that slavery was a positive good. No one argued the right to be wrong. But the right to be wrong is a kind of romanticized libertarian take on the war. In other words, the line between Calhoun and Cato isn’t always that long. This is a painful lesson that many traditional Americans do not want to hear. However, its follow-up lesson is one that many progressive Americans have forgotten or denied. Our civic salvation is not to be found in some unmoored notion of progress, but in the eternal natural rights to life, liberty and property.

  4. RE Mant

    Someone showed me the Post section today. I agree with Mr Anderson above. But leaving aside the extent of Lincoln’s Whiggism, or the natural rights theory of Southern politicians, wouldn’t it be ironic if all that northern Progress turned out to be ultimately chimerical, based on impoverishing and enslaving people?

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