Today is Lincoln’s birthday. Might I suggest a book on the man who may have been our greatest president?
It might be said of Abraham Lincoln, born on this day in 1809, that if he had not existed, we would have needed to invent him. With very rare exception, no person in American political history has had such a lasting and permanent effect on the American psyche, revered with an awe usually reserved for the founding generation.
Whether it was his ability to turn a phrase, tell a story, or move men (and the nation) with the power of his words, Lincoln stands unique among American presidents. He stood astride one of the most tumultuous times of our nation’s history, perhaps as more than just the coincidental president when the crisis of the question of slavery divided our nation.
In his monograph on the Lincoln-Douglas debates–Crisis of the House Divided–Harry Jaffa analyzes Lincoln’s political principles from his reentry into politics in 1854 to his Senate campaign against Stephen Douglas in 1858. His theory is intriguing: “had not Lincoln challenged Douglas in 1858, there would probably have been no subsequent crisis, or at least none of the same nature.”
In other words, by taking on Douglas, and destroying him as the leader of a national political coalition, “dividing him from Republicans and the South,” Lincoln consciously set the nation on a course that would constitutionally commit it to his view of national political responsibility, a view at odds with the South’s interest in maintaining slavery.
At the relatively young age of “fourscore” years, our nation still allowed the institution of slavery a place, leaving as yet unfulfilled the promises of the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness[...]
What happened next was the deadliest conflict in American history, killing between 620,000 and 851,000 men in battle, to say nothing of civilian deaths. When it ended, the South lay in ruins, Lincoln was dead by an assassin’s bullet, and despite constitutional amendments ending slavery, decades more would pass before the children of slaves would begin to see the equality under the law that Lincoln believed was embodied in the Declaration of Independence.
What was it about the debates, and Lincoln’s political philosophy, that had the power to move the nation in such a dramatic, and violent, way?
The book is Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Issues in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates by Harry Jaffa, and though it is over fifty years old, it remains a classic on the topic. As you celebrate President’s Day, take a moment to learn a little more about how Lincoln steered our country and cemented his place in history, starting before he ever took on the mantle of the Presidency.