We have in many ways ruined Abraham Lincoln. I love him because of his flaws. He was surely a work in progress. Yet, the progression of his thought is a work of beauty in and of itself.
He was not a pretty politician (though he was a good one). He was not a pretty man. But he brought with him a humility and a moral vision of the nation-state which in many ways correctly many of the major failings of the founders.
I think that the image of “Honest Abe” makes Abraham Lincoln to be a far more simple or innocent man that he actually was. He was a very ambitious man. No person is elected President without have a large amount of ambition. So, how can I call him humble? Well, humble is relative. Lincoln was not the ideologue that many wanted him to be, nor is he the ideologue that many still wish he was.
Lincoln’s rhetoric was very much in the mold of John Locke. His early criticisms of slavery where criticisms of the idea that one could profit from the labor and sweat of somebody else. This is very much rooted in a Lockean view of property where property gains value and the status of a right because of the labor put into it. Slavery is a gross violation of this conception.
Yet, Lincoln had a vision of the state that was more Rousseau than Locke. Rousseau viewed the state as a key element of liberty. We cannot be free without it. Nature may have been a nicer place, but that place is gone and it is not coming back.
Lincoln’s recognition of the United States, and not the states, as the key unit for preserving liberty goes in the face of many ideologies which still exist today. Lincoln also pushed us toward a more democratic vision of American freedom.
We were not founded as a nation “of the people, by the people, and for people.” Instead, Lincoln used the horrible tragedy of the Civil War as an opportunity to transform our vision of the Constitution. It is Lincoln’s aspirational vision of the Constitution that I sustain, not that of the founders.
Now, we did not become a nation “of the people, by the people, and for the people” immediately after the Civil War. We are still not such a nation. However, the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendment (direct outgrowths of the Civil War) made our progress in that direction possible. We are still striving. We are approaching justice.