If the times hadn't demanded he confront the great issues of preserving the United States and ending human slavery, Abraham Lincoln might have pursued his other interests. Like his idol, Henry Clay, Lincoln favored urbanization and industrialization. He wanted to promote the building of canals and railroads that would modernize the raw young American republic. Had he been free to pursue this agenda, we surely would have found him of little interest today.
But larger issues framed his years. While many of Lincoln's domestic policies are obsolete, his principles endure. Lincoln's ability to espouse them with special eloquence "as theologian of America's civil religion," says Michael Lind, explains why Lincoln, as Edwin Stanton said of him on his deathbed, "belongs to the ages."
Our 16th president should best be remembered as The Great Democrat, Lind argues in "What Lincoln Believed." At the time of the Civil War, only one sizable nation on earth could claim to be a functioning democratic republic: the United States of America.
Could it, or any government like it, endure? Lincoln asked in his speech at Gettysburg. The experiment was ongoing. The conclusion uncertain.
Should the South succeed in its rebellion, the concept of a democracy as a strong, cohesive, permanent form of government would be shaken. Monarchies and military dictatorships would be seen as made of sturdier stuff. But a Union victory, Lincoln wrote, would prove that "among free men, there can be no successful appeal from the ballot to the bullet."
Through the years the image of Lincoln has been appropriated for service in a number of causes. But each of these "half truths" has "a crust of falsehood" around it, Lind says. In his role as the Great Commoner, a Horatio Alger story brought to life, Lincoln appealed to the leftists of the 1930s (hence the Abraham Lincoln Brigade of American volunteers in the Spanish Civil War). This version of Lincoln sparked Herbert Hoover to remark: "I was under the impression he was a Republican."
As the Great Emancipator, he was a patron saint of the civil rights movement, his memorial in Washington the site of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech and many other rallies.
It is true, Lind says, that in the years leading to the Civil War, a few white abolitionists were able to imagine a day when blacks would be free and integrated into the mainstream of American society. But Lincoln, along with the vast majority of white Americans of his day, was not one of them.
While Lincoln "passionately rejected the idea that whites had the right to rule blacks," he hoped they could be returned to Africa and form their own democracies. The great expanses of the American West were meant for whites, either those escaping the poor economic prospects for laborers in the slaveholding South or immigrants escaping European monarchies.
That's not to say that Lincoln agreed with the secessionist slaveholders. "Lincoln affirmed the natural equality of all races in theory," Lind says. And he also saw the dangerous path between denying rights to African slaves and denying rights to others. In debating Stephen Douglas before the war, Lincoln excoriated Southern attempts to reinterpret Jefferson's paean to universal liberty, "all men are created equal," as though it had been meant only for whites, not black slaves. He saw that as an attack on the founders themselves. "In those days, our Declaration of Independence was held sacred by all, and thought to include all," Lincoln said; "but now, to aid in making the bondage of the negro universal and eternal, it is assailed, and sneered at, and construed, and hawked at, and torn, till, if its framers could rise from their graves, they could not at all recognize it."
Some readers may not recognize their own cherished Lincoln in Lind's well-researched and reasoned book. Yet it adds a valuable perspective to the vast arena of Lincoln scholarship. New "Lincolns" are perpetually discovered and rediscovered in the context of new times. Lind's aim is to give us a Lincoln in the context of his own times, as a man who lived within history and not above it.
• Gregory M. Lamb is on the Monitor staff.