Lincoln, Twain and an Ever Young America

Julie Ponzi

February 1, 2009

To a generation now accustomed—if not quite indifferent—to the celebrating of Bicentennials, it may seem odd to claim that America is yet a young country. It was certainly young when Abraham Lincoln—whose birth is now 200 years past—made some telling observations about the impact of America’s relative youth on the character of her citizens. America, he noted, was young in two senses: it was young in actual age (and compared with most other nations, it is still) but, more important, there is a sense in which America is, and must be, perpetually young. There is a kind of boldness and defiance at her very core which both invigorates and irritates. Our Pilgrim ancestors, after all, gave us our start in a kind of stamping of the foot and moving of the toys abroad. And then, for good measure, we had a little Revolution. It is not to be wondered at, then, that Americans often openly admire a bit of irreverence and disobedience.

The hero of Middle America is not a wise old sage or even a sainted “Founder.” There is, to be sure, still some residue of hushed admiration for George Washington—for how could Washington fail to capture a youthful imagination when fairly presented? But his greatness seems to make him elusive or, perhaps, it shames us a little. And, somehow, he just doesn’t serve as a model for the more ordinary purposes of most of us. So, not having a convenient and everyday hero at the ready, we had to invent one. He is a conglomerate and a fiction: he is Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer.

Lincoln could not have read Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn or any of the subsequent novels in which Tom Sawyer appeared. Twain did not publish the first of these books until eleven years after Lincoln’s death. But it is not a “stretcher”—to use Tom’s or Huck’s parlance—to imagine that Lincoln, like the people he served and loved, would also have loved Tom. It is no accident, after all, that Twain is often called our “literary Lincoln.”

Tom’s antics are not run-of-the-mill boyhood rebellion. They aim at glory, and construct a comic as well as heroic persona. In this way they claim comradeship with many of the revolutionary antics of the nation of his literary birth. Along with a brash resourcefulness, Tom displays a not quite accidental devotion to justice, though it may be a bit of a “stretcher” to say as much. Tom has a way of tying his own interests to those of a righteous cause—provided there is show enough for him in it. Driven by a restless need for adventure, he innovates constantly. At one point he figures out how to make his friends pay him for the privilege of doing his chores; later, trying to impress a girl, he leads her too far into a labyrinthine cave system, gets desperately lost, and then wins her undying admiration by using the kite-string in his pocket to find the way out. In the midst of a quest for treasure and fame, he can be moved to defend the weak and unfairly accused. He produces the evidence to exonerate a man wrongly accused of murder—even though he had taken a vow of silence. Later, struck by pity for the real culprit, he leads the town to the site of the man’s lonely death. At the end of the first novel, Tom has become celebrated and rich, without gravely harming anyone who did not deserve punishment, and without practicing any deceits that did not provide the town hearty amusement and, even, edification.

This mixture of rascality and nobility places Tom squarely between two extremes. He’s neither a beast nor a god. Dabbling in both lines, he embodies what it means to be an American. He transmutes potential tragedy into good-humored comedy. Lincoln would at once recognize this character, admire him, and see what needed to be watched out for in him.

In fact, Lincoln describes this American type in a speech that both admires and good-naturedly chastises him. He gave this speech as a lecture in 1859 (and probably on more than one occasion. Two different fragments of the speech have been preserved). The lecture was, ostensibly, a discussion of American “Discoveries and Inventions.” In fact, it is a lecture on what ought to be the shape of American humility and piety. In it, Lincoln addresses a group he sarcastically calls “Young America.” In 1859, “Young America” was known to be a defunct faction of the Democratic Party which had promoted his rival Stephen Douglas and a host of ambitious plans for American expansion. But while “Young America” was partly an actual grouping of specific people, it—like Tom Sawyer—was also a conglomerate and a fiction representing all of America. Lincoln professes wonder at the new kind of person America has produced, while hinting that the achievement is not unambiguously glorious.

Young America’s focus on the fresh and its rejection of “Old Fogy” has its roots in—of all things!—our history. A long history of human advances led to and made possible our scorn for the old and, as he demonstrates, these “discoveries” and “inventions” came down to us from a long line of old fogies! Our improvements upon them seem very slight when we consider the genius involved in the most important of all inventions for the advancement, prosperity and freedom of mankind: namely, speech. Lincoln shows how the invention of speech, followed by writing and then—even more dramatically—printing have worked slowly but surely to bring man closer to his original design (or God’s original design for him) as a rational animal. These great inventions, Lincoln argues, have worked to help man “cultivate a habit of freedom of thought” by giving him leave to understand that he is capable of “rising to equality” with those who would presume to rule him. Self-government became possible when man began to have a greater understanding of and confidence in his capacities.

Freedom of thought found especially fertile soil in early America where—unburdened by a long and stagnant tradition suggesting our inequality to the task—our way of life was more fluid and open to new habits summoned by our own reason. These habits—in essence if not always in legal fact—had already guided much of our activity in the New World for generations. Lincoln knew that this habit of freedom of thought was, and is, necessary for self-government. It deserves our praise and continued cultivation. But it—like all youthful things—also requires vigilant attention and a structure for its protection. If it is not properly guided, it may even work against itself.

As Lincoln delineated the achievements of Young America in this speech, he indulged a bit of wicked sarcasm. Young America had a right to be prideful, he said, because his breakfast was delivered to him from all corners of the world while the first man—the Biblical Adam—did not even know that there was another corner to the world. Even so, Lincoln notes, Adam had it over us in that he had dominion over all the world—whether he knew about its other parts or not. Young America, in contrast, only seems to wish she had such dominion! Lincoln, of course, did not mean to suggest that the achievements of America were unreal or that pride in them was not deserved. But he did want to remind America of the ways in which the pride of youth can over-extend itself when that youth loses sight of its purpose.

America’s purpose may by now seem old and matter-of-fact. It was four-score and three years old then and has stacked on quite a few years since. But that old idea will always require the inventiveness of a youthful people to find ever more clever discoveries, inventions and, yes, even schemes, to defend it. The idea does not, unfortunately, defend itself. America need not outgrow her admiration for youthful impertinence and innovation, nor should she abandon her extraordinary, but now well established, claim that men can govern themselves. She can—if not always like our Lincoln, then at least in the mode of Tom Sawyer—find ways to tie our interests to our singular and very noble cause. And, if we want, there’s even room for a fair amount of “show” … to say nothing of “stretchers.”

Julie Ponzi, a graduate of the Ashbrook Scholar Program, is a
former professor of American Politics and, now, a stay-at-home
mom. She is also an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center
and a regular contributor to the Ashbrook Center’s blog,
No Left Turns.