"A Great Student of the Fitting Opportunity": Lincoln as Ambitious Politician

Steven Hayward

February 1, 2009

Writing shortly after the centennial of Lincoln’s birth 100 years ago, Lord Charnwood averred in his biography of Lincoln that that hewas telling a tale “which has been well told already and in which there can remain no important new facts to disclose.” Today, on the occasion of the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth, after every conceivable scrap of evidence about Lincoln’s life has been sifted and run through the Academic-Literary Establishment’s equivalent of a mass spectrometer, can there be anything new to say about Lincoln? Is there really something we have missed?

Rather than something new, perhaps we ought to say something old. As we raise the mental pedestal on which we place Lincoln, we lose sight of certain of his strengths. Our beatification of Lincoln is understandable. The power and poetic depth of his words, the greatness of his cause, and his tragic end (“this tragedy almost parallels that of the Son of God,” James Garfield said the day after Lincoln’s shooting) incline us to near-worshipful approaches. Above all, our elevation of Lincoln enables us to absolve him of that dubious trait necessary for political life—ambition. Ambition, which Alexander Hamilton called “the ruling passion of the noblest minds” but which in modern times has become (in Joseph Epstein’s phrase) the “secret passion,” is often unlovely in practice, especially in our political figures. It is certainly unworthy of one to whom we would, with Garfield, ascribe a sacred martyrdom. “I charge thee, fling away Ambition,” Shakespeare writes in Henry VIII; “By that sinne fell the Angels.”

Despite the well-known remark ofWilliam Herndon that Lincoln’s ambition “was a little engine that knew no rest,” or Lord Charnwood’s understated note that Lincoln was “a great student of the fitting opportunity,” Lincoln’s ambition tends to be neglected or discounted, because it draws our attention to the fact that he was—gasp—a politician! Yet even when using the title “statesman” for those with the character and achievement of Lincoln or Churchill, we should remember that they had to engage in the rough trade of office-seeking and manipulation.

Acknowledging Lincoln’s high skills in the low arts of politicking opens the door precisely to the charge Lincoln’s critics on the far right like to throw at him: that he was America’s Cromwell, a tyrant responsible for the transformation of America into the leviathan state of the 20th century. Lincoln’s own meditation on political ambition, in his 1838 Lyceum speech, has been given a perverse construction such as to seem a foreshadowing of Lincoln’s later role.The “towering genius” of the politically ambitious “thirsts and burns for distinction; and, if possible, it will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen.” Lincoln’s conservative critics say he fulfilled his ambition by doing both.

On the surface this reading of Lincoln, most memorably made by Edmund Wilson in Patriotic Gore, seems plausible. Wilson noted that Lincoln’s description of the “towering genius” who would just as soon destroy as build “seemed to derive as much from admiration as from apprehension,” and that “it is evident that Lincoln has projected himself into the role against which he is warning them.” But “did Lincoln,” Harry V. Jaffa wrote, “all the years he was, to put it bluntly, a hack politician, secretly fancy himself in the stupendous drama he had contemplated in the Lyceum speech?” As Jaffa showed, and Charnwood discerned on a broader canvas, this is a deficient reading of Lincoln’s insight and purpose. Lincoln understood that our constitution of liberty could be destroyed as readily by abolishing slavery in haste as by extending it, if we lost sight of the architecture of our democratic system in so doing. Navigating this sharp dilemma became the central focus of Lincoln’s statecraft.

The current fashion, owing chiefly to Doris Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, is to celebrate Lincoln’s skillful management of fractious cabinet and party leaders. Rightly so; as Charnwood observed, Lincoln “ruled through a group of capable men of whom he made use, and whom no other chief could have induced to serve so long in concord” (emphasis added). But the classic case study in Lincoln’s political skill remains the Emancipation Proclamation, which he drafted, previewed to his cabinet, and effected with a timing that transformed by degrees the nature of the conflict, while threading together the irreconcilable positions: pro-Union northern Democrats, anti-slavery radical Republicans, and tenuously loyal slave-owning border states. Perhaps because this episode has been so well and fully told, we may overlook its mastery. Every side on this question had a compelling argument. Could any of Lincoln’s talented rivals have held the cause together? Doubtful.

To be sure, political skill in the ordinary sense requires attention to the self-interest of citizens, and paradoxically it is exactly this solicitude that generates populist contempt for politicians. “How low of you to listen to our demands!” seems to be the cognitive dissonance of democratic peoples. But one cannot hope to transcend this petty democratic vanity without taking account of it—indeed, harnessing it. As Jaffa explained, “Men may be led toward higher purposes of which they are scarcely conscious, if those who hold these purposes first show concern for and an ability to gratify their less noble demands.”

Understanding this aspect of politics in general, and Lincoln’s case in particular, is hard work; hence, most modern Lincoln biographers gloss over the subtlety of his constitutional teaching, preferring instead tomake Lincoln “relevant” to our time by turning him into an epigone of Bill Clinton (David Herbert Donald’s 1996 biography) or, today, Barack Obama (see: almost any article in Time or Newsweek). We prefer to focus on the Lincoln of Gettysburg, or the train ride to Washington in 1861, rather than the backroom manipulations of his career in Springfield or the Republican Party nomination process in 1860; we dwell on the poetic and even theological dimensions of his Second Inaugural Address rather than the sober political and constitutional brief that is the heart of his First Inaugural Address. It is the Second Inaugural Address, of course, that has become the model modern presidents attempt to emulate. Few are the presidents who ever attempt a constitutional argument any more. Yet those ambitious pols of our time who would seek to join the exalted ranks of statesmen would do better to study and imitate Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address. And we should celebrate, rather than avert our gaze, from Lincoln’s skill at the backroom maneuver. Considering Lincoln’s ambition as a politician does not diminish his greatness of character or cause.

Steven F. Hayward, an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center, is the
F. K. Weyerhaeuser Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.