Skip to main content Accesibility Help
  • Print publication year: 2012
  • Online publication date: April 2013



Abraham Lincoln occupies a unique place in the American pantheon. Symbol, sage, myth, and martyr, he is an American icon and touchstone – Honest Abe and The Great Emancipator, a Janus-faced demigod sculpted in marble. But that is the post-assassination Lincoln. During his lifetime Lincoln elicited very different reactions. To the abolitionist agitator Wendell Phillips, he was “that slave-hound from Illinois.” To the abolitionist author and orator Frederick Douglass Lincoln was “preeminently the white man’s President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men.” In the eyes of southern slave-holders and sympathizers Lincoln was a radical abolitionist turned tyrant, a view shared by John Wilkes Booth. “Sic semper tyrannis!” – thus always to tyrants – Booth shouted after shooting Lincoln.

My purpose here is to look at Lincoln as a political thinker. This is a more difficult task than might at first appear, for we cannot hope to understand Lincoln the thinker without understanding the constraints under which he thought and wrote and spoke. For Lincoln was, above all, a canny and shrewdly practical politician who had to win elections in order to accomplish anything at all. He was not an armchair philosopher who had the luxury of thinking and discoursing candidly (much less publicly) on the great moral and political issues of the day – slavery in particular. As president he steered a complex course between the shoals of radical abolitionism and pro-slavery secessionism, southern sympathizers in the North and border-state loyalists. He was more on the abolitionists’ side than they knew or acknowledged; but his actions were constrained by the Constitution, by his oath to uphold it, and by practical political necessity. If we are to understand Lincoln the political thinker, then we must put primary emphasis on the adjective “political,” for his thought is embedded in his actions and the justifications he offers in their defense.

Recommend this book

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this book to your organisation's collection.

  • Online ISBN: 9781139034784
  • Book DOI:
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to *
Wilson, Douglas L.Davis, Rodney O.Herndon’s Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements about Abraham LincolnUrbanaUniversity of Illinois Press 1998 704
Douglass, FrederickOration delivered on the Occasion of the Unveiling of the Freedman’s Monument in memory of Abraham Lincoln, April 14, 1876Holzer, HaroldThe Lincoln Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and LegacyNew YorkLibrary of America 2009 226
Hofstadter, RichardThe American Political Tradition: And the Men Who Made ItNew YorkKnopf 1973 125
WHHWeik, Jesse W.Herndon’s Life of LincolnAngle, Paul M.Greenwich, CTFawcett Publications 1961 304
Smith, Bruce JamesPolitics and RemembrancePrinceton University Press 1985
Maier, PaulineAmerican Scripture: Making the Declaration of IndependenceNew YorkKnopf 1997 197
Union and Liberty: The Political Philosophy of John C. CalhounLence, Ross M.Indianapolis, INLiberty Fund 1992 557
Fehrenbacher, Don E.The Dred Scott Case: Its Significance in American Law and PoliticsOxford University Press 1978
Commager, Henry SteeleDocuments of American HistoryNew YorkAppleton-Century-Crofts 1963 339
Foner, EricFree Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil WarOxford University Press 1995
Holzer, HaroldLincoln at Cooper Union: The Speech that Made Abraham Lincoln PresidentNew YorkSimon & Schuster 2004
Faust, Drew GilpinThis Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil WarNew YorkKnopf 2008
Selected Writings of Francis BaconDick, H. G.New YorkModern Library 1955 137
The FederalistBall, TerenceCambridge University Press 2003 353
Adair, DouglassFame and the Founding FathersIndianapolis, INLiberty Fund 1974