Lincoln at 200: still a light for democracy's moral purpose

Critics saw in America a 'pigpen of freedom.' He saw a cause worth dying for.

Can democracy be ugly?

What preoccupied the mind of Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address was precisely his fear that it could. Government of the people, by the people, and for the people might be all well and good in theory, but it can only be as good as the people themselves, and it was the judgment of most of the world in Lincoln's day that the vast majority of the people were very likely to make democracy into a repulsive-looking mash.

Sometimes, this judgment was made by the powerful, by "a king" (as Lincoln said in 1858) "who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor." Sometimes, it came from the self-interested, "from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race."

In our day, we are most likely to hear it from the cynics who argue that democracy only seems to produce the unrooted, unencumbered self, interested only in instant gratification and rampant consumerism. Democracy grants us freedom, rumbles the cynic; but to do what? Can you pursue a vision of the good in a democracy, when all around you, people believe that the only purpose of democracy is to prevent others from imposing any particular vision of the good on them?

This is why democracy's enemies – from Karl Marx to Osama bin Laden – have so much contempt for it. The only freedom democracy appears to guarantee is the freedom to live in the suburbs, read the paper, and have a nice day. This is also why so many of our wisest heads have seemed, and still seem, perversely fascinated with communism, fascism, and other forms of totalitarianism. Why not, when democracy is not only so ugly, but so boring?

How then could Lincoln look out over the cemetery where thousands of those who had been killed in defense of democracy were buried and offer a convincing reason for calling their struggle a great task that would inspire devotion and resolve in this nation?

It was not because Lincoln was naive. Democracy's cynics were as vocal then as now. "Sometimes it comes into my mind/ To sail to America," wrote the German poet, Heinrich Heine, "To that pigpen of freedom/ Inhabited by boors living in equality."

At home, Lincoln had read his fill of justifications for slavery, based on what Sen. James Henry Hammond (D) of South Carolina called the "mud-sill" theory – that every society ultimately rests on a basement, or mud-sill, of forced labor, and that such forced labor was no different if it was done by black slaves or low-wage immigrants. To Hammond and Heine alike, Gettysburg and its honored dead could only be a monument to delusion.

But Lincoln was a fervent believer in a single fundamental fact – the proposition that all men are created equal. In whatever ways the human species differs within itself, there are two universal truths that stand above any cynic's doubts.

The first is that we are created – that we are not thrown into this world by accident, to live helplessly with the unevenness and unfairness that accident gives to things.

The second is that because we are all alike created, we derive a single, common, and equal status from that creation.

Whatever notion of God we subscribe to, there is basic, natural theology that can be read in nature itself, and Lincoln believed that "if anything can be proved by natural theology, it is that slavery is morally wrong." This was "so plain, that the most dumb and stupid slave that ever toiled for a master, does constantly know he is wronged." We may become princes or paupers, but none of us is born that way, booted and spurred and ready to ride everyone else.

Democracy is obliged, not just to take polls, but to conform community life to the contour of that natural law. Democracy is about tolerance – but democracy's tolerance is about forbearance, not indifference. Democracy is about pluralism – but democracy's pluralism is about finding wisdom in many counselors, not in denying that wisdom exists. Democracy is about popular government – but democracy's people are those who seek, not merely what feels good, but what is good.

These are the qualities that make democracy into a great task, rather than an exercise in self-satisfaction. But these are also the things that make it worth sacrificing to save, which made the sacrifices of Gettysburg into hallowed ground – and which impel us to dedicate ourselves to a new birth of freedom, and to save government of, by, and for the people as the last, best hope of the earth.

Allen C. Guelzo is the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College, and the author of "Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President," "Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates That Defined America," and "Lincoln" in Oxford University Press's "Very Short Introductions" series.

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