ARTHUR SCHLESINGER JR., the distinguished historian, wrote recently that George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt are by common agreement America's three greatest presidents.
That's so. When it comes to assessing political figures generally, we get into all kinds of arguments. But on the exceptional contributions and greatness of these three presidents -
we are very close to consensus.
Each is recognized primarily for his successful leadership in meeting enormous challenges: For Washington, securing the independence of a new nation and providing it with sound political institutions; for Lincoln, preserving the Union and purging it of slavery, a profoundly un-American institution; for FDR, guiding the country through its greatest economic crisis, the Depression, and its biggest foreign challenge, World War II.
In each instance, though, the successful leadership was rooted in a profound and far-developed sense of the American nation. Each of our three most eminent presidents could lead the country steadfastly through such difficulties because he understood the essential premise and promise of what he was leading.
Of the three, Lincoln's understanding was easily the most developed theoretically. Like Washington and Roosevelt, he was a practical politician whose public conduct was animated by large ideas. Unlike them, though, he was also a theorist. His ideas weren't set forth in scholarly monographs, of course, but in letters and speeches. Nonetheless, his argument has all the formal coherence and reach of classical political theory.
At first encounter, it may seem a bit strange to think of a man raised on the frontier, given little formal education, and known as ``Honest Abe,'' the great commoner, as first and foremost a theorist of American democracy, but that's what Abraham Lincoln became.
What's more, his theoretical starting point was the last thing one might have expected from a man of practical affairs: Lincoln was a thoroughgoing philosophical idealist.
In philosophy an idealist isn't someone with ``ideals'' - though he may have them, as Lincoln certainly did. Rather, he holds that the real is in the nature of thought or ideas. He is at the opposite pole from the materialist - who sees, as Marx did, ideas as epiphenomena - mere products of social structure or other material realities.
Lincoln's idealism proceeded from the idea which he believed was entirely formative of the American nation. He saw his country as of creedal origins. It was built, not primarily on blood and history, but instead on political beliefs: ``Our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.''
This ideological foundation of the American nation was set forth in sufficient exactness for all time, Lincoln thought, in the Declaration of Independence.
Slavery was a problem of overwhelming magnitude not simply because of the harm it did to African Americans; it challenged the entire basis of a nation founded on egalitarian and individualist premises.
It wasn't in the first instance a practical problem so much as a philosophical one. It is not possible to build a nation on the idea that all persons are created equal - and then accept the legitimacy of slavery, an institution predicated on entirely different premises. ``A house divided against itself'' - divided philosophically - he was to tell the Republican state convention in Springfield, Illinois, on June 16, 1858, simply ``cannot stand.''
The idea upon which the only American union Lincoln thought was real and worth defending was evident and explicit in the country's founding - and it did not require naive and mushy claims of full equality and perfection.
Those who committed themselves to a nation defined by the Declaration did not, Lincoln said in his great speech attacking the Dred Scott decision on June 26, 1857, ``mean to say all were equal in color, size, intellect, moral development, or social capacity. They defined with tolerable distinctness in what respects they did consider all men created equal - equal in certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.''
``This they said,'' Lincoln went on, ``and this they meant. They did not mean to assert the obvious untruth - that all were then actually enjoying that equality, nor yet that they were about to confer it immediately upon them.... They meant simply to declare the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit.''
``They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society which should be familiar to all and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for and, even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere,'' Lincoln concluded.
As ``the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed'' -
the way G. K. Chesterton put it 70 years ago - the United States is in constant need of leaders who can help it see more clearly where its constituent ideas must lead it. We celebrate Abraham Lincoln's anniversary first and most because he did that.