Although Abraham Lincoln is usually reckoned by almost any standard as our greatest president, he is not often thought great for being a man of ideas. Yet Lincoln, for all his famous lack of education and simple upbringing, was extraordinarily self-educated in texts that ranged from Joseph Butler and William Paley to Thomas Brown and Jonathan Edwards, and even more important, educated himself in some of the most vital intellectual currents of the 19th century.
As an admirer of John Stuart Mill and Francis Wayland, he was committed to the classical liberal tenets of progress, reason, and individualsim; as a rebel against his family’s Jeffersonian agrarianism, he embraced Henry Clay and the Whig party in his youth, and with them, the entire project of the 19th-century ’market revolution’; and although raised in an ultra-Calvinist household, he rebelled against
his ancestral Calvinism to become a youthful “skeptic” and devotee of the “long Enlightenment”.
And yet, even in that last rebellion, he never entirely lost the controlling sense of determinism, and the tribulations of the Civil War forced upon him an exploration of the possibilities of a divine, but inscrutable, Providence in the course of the war and the decision for emancipation of the slaves.
Much as Lincoln is lauded as a politician, he impressed all who knew him as a man of “metaphysical” and “philosophical” interests, from geology to philology. And when he was elected to the presidency in 1860, he brought with him to the formulation of wartime policy all of the intellectual contexts he had nurtured over fifty years.
Understanding Lincoln as a man of ideas will give a radically different picture of Lincoln himself; but more, it will demand substantial re-thinking of our picture of the intellectual history of antebellum America.
Dr. Allen C. Guelzo is the Dean of the Templeton Honors College at Eastern College (St. Davids, PA), where he is also Grace F. Kea Professor of American History.
He is the author of Edwards on the Will: A Century of American Philosophical Debate (1989), The Crisis of the American Republic: A New History of the Civil War and Reconstruction (1995),
and editor of Josiah G. Holland’s Life of Abraham Lincoln (1998). His biography of Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President (1999) was the co-winner of the Lincoln Prize for 2000.