Few biographers and historians have taken Lincoln’s ideas seriously or placed him in the context of major intellectual traditions. In What Lincoln Believed, the most comprehensive study ever written of the thought of America’s most revered president, Michael Lind provides a resource to the public philosophy that guided Lincoln as a statesman and shaped the United States.
Although he is often presented as an idealist dedicated to political abstractions, Lincoln was a pragmatic politician with a lifelong interest in science, technology, and economics. Throughout his career he was a disciple of the Kentucky senator Henry Clay, whose “American System” of government support for industrial capitalism Lincoln promoted when he served in the Illinois statehouse, the U.S. Congress, and the White House.
Today Lincoln is remembered for his opposition to slavery and his leadership in guiding the Union to victory in the Civil War. But Lincoln’s thinking about these subjects is widely misunderstood. His deep opposition to slavery was rooted in his allegiance to the ideals of the American Revolution. Only late in his life, however, did Lincoln abandon his support for the policy of “colonizing” black Americans abroad, which he derived from Henry Clay and Thomas Jefferson. Lincoln and most of his fellow Republicans opposed the extension of slavery outside of the South because they wanted an all-white West, not a racially integrated society.
Although the Great Emancipator was not the Great Integrationist, he was the Great Democrat. In an age in which many argued that only whites were capable of republican government, Lincoln insisted on the universality of human rights and the potential for democracy everywhere. In a century in which liberal and democratic revolutions against monarchy and dictatorship in Europe and Latin America repeatedly had failed, Lincoln believed that liberal democracy as a form of government was on trial in the American Civil War. “Our popular government has often been called an experiment,” Lincoln told the U.S. Congress, insisting that the American people had to prove to the world that “when ballots have fairly, and constitutionally, decided, there can be no successful appeal, back to bullets.” If the United States fell apart after the losers in an election took up arms, then people everywhere might conclude that democracy inevitably led to anarchy and “government of the people, by the people, for the people” might well “perish from the earth.”
“He loved his country partly because it was his own country, but mostly because it was a free country.” What Lincoln said of Henry Clay could be said of him as well. In What Lincoln Believed, Michael Lind shows the enduring relevance of Lincoln’s vision of the United States as a model of liberty and democracy for the world.
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Michael Lind, well known for his controversial writings, shatters the stereotypes and the almost instinctive veneration that mark most biographies of Lincoln, shedding new light on the president's motivations and conduct. This provocative, intellectual biography uncovers the heart of Lincoln's public philosophy and places his ideals and presidential decisions within the context of his times. He asserts that Lincoln fought the Civil War not to free the slaves, or even to preserve the Constitution, but to ensure the survival of democracy. With the failure of numerous liberal revolutions throughout Europe in 1848 heightening the possibility that democracy itself would be deemed a noble but failed experiment, Lincoln realized that the stakes in the Civil War were nothing less than the future freedom and prosperity of all mankind. It was this conviction that determined his policies and compelled him to wage the war to the bitter end.
WHAT LINCOLN BELIEVED dispels the popular image of Lincoln as a self-made man and a naive, inspired genius, and shows that the president, who laid the foundation for the America of today, was very much a product of his time and place, influenced by the pragmatism of his fellow Kentuckian Henry Clay, and by Enlightenment thinking. In a strikingly original portrait, Lind reveals that Lincoln?s fervent Unionism and economic nationalism can be traced directly to Clay; that Lincoln was not a Christian, but a deist who believed in the abstract deity posited by Enlightenment philosophers; and that although Lincoln believed slavery was evil, he opposed the idea of a multiracial country and supported the relocation of black Americans abroad.
A fascinating re-interpretation of Lincoln?s role in history, WHAT LINCOLN BELIEVED brilliantly illuminates how this great president kept the flame of democracy alive at home and throughout the world.
Michael Lind is the best-selling author of a number of books of nonfiction, fiction, and poetry, including The Next American Nation (1995) and Hamilton’s Republic: Readings in American Democratic Nationalism (1997). A former editor or writer for Harper’s Magazine, The New Yorker and the New Republic, Lind is the Whitehead Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C.
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