There are so many Abraham Lincolns. There is the ruthless Lincoln willing to suspend habeas corpus and who, as president, presided over record levels of bloodshed on American soil. There is the political opportunist Lincoln who declined to take the bold stand against the Know Nothings that some of his contemporaries did, Lincoln preferring to let the movement implode without much action on Lincoln’s part. Lincoln also famously hung back from outright abolitionism for decades, believing that the time was not yet ripe for freeing the slaves. There is the Lincoln who exercised presidential power to an extent that made Andrew Jackson look meek by comparison. There is the Progressives’ Lincoln who saw in him a pioneering backer-in-chief of big government programs such as the creation of land grant colleges and big infrastructure spending such as on a Pacific railroad. There is the Lincoln who supposedly lorded it over Congress like some mafia kingpin demanding fealty and no questions asked. There is Lincoln as the leader of the so-called Second American Revolution who, by destroying the quasi-feudal southern social system and passing landmark economic legislation, drastically reshaped America.
Not so fast, says Jon D. Schaff in his book Abraham Lincoln’s Statesmanship and the Limits of Liberal Democracy (SIU Press, 2019). Rather than smashing societal structures willy-nilly and wielding presidential power like a bludgeon, Schaff’s Lincoln was far more deferential to Congress than many of us realized. Schaff fascinatingly shows how Lincoln’s Whig allegiances and distrust of autocratic figures like Jackson and Lincoln’s own background as a legislator at the state and national levels shaped his presidency and governing preferences. And, far from being a proto-New Dealer, Schaff’s Lincoln was very much preoccupied with sound money, making him seem more like a McKinley or a Hamilton than an FDR.
Anyone interested in American government, the presidency, Congress and the mainly domestic aspects of Lincoln’s presidency should read this book. There is even an intriguing comparison of Lincoln’s ideas with those of the Catholic-associated economic theory of distributism.
And those who long for an account of a harmony-seeking governing style will find this a congenial read. Give a listen.
Hope J. Leman is a grants researcher.
Hope J. Leman is a grants researcher in the biomedical sciences. She is particularly interested in the subjects of natural law, religious liberty and history generally.