By Tom Peet Columbus OH
Thursday, May 13, 2021
Editor’s note: The Lincoln Group’s study forum meets monthly, currently via Zoom, to read and discuss books about Abraham Lincoln and relevant issues arising out of his life. The current book is Lincoln and the American Founding, by Lucas Morel (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2020; 176 pp). Morel writes how Lincoln drew inspiration from the nation’s founders. Below is an abridged version of a review of Morel’s book by Tom Peet, an insightful Lincoln scholar and a prodigious reader of books about Lincoln. Peet is the co-author of an acclaimed Lincoln resource titled, Reading Lincoln: An Annotated Bibliography.
Lincoln and the American Founding is the 26th volume in Southern Illinois University’s Concise Lincoln Library series, which will extend to approximately 30 volumes when completed. The premise of the series is to let readers quickly engage at a sophisticated level with selected Lincoln topics by noted Lincoln scholars. Morel, a professor of politics and head of the politics department at Washington and Lee University, offers his first contribution to this excellent series of compact volumes, and it’s one of the most original.
Morel shows how Lincoln took significant intellectual and moral guidance from George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. However, Lincoln didn’t accept all their arguments or examples: he picked and chose that part of each man to hold up as worthy of emulation. According to Richard Brookhiser in Founder's Son, Lincoln would come to reject Thomas Paine’s religious skepticism, perhaps even turning towards God the Father at the end of his life, but he thoroughly embraced Paine’s brilliant and effective style of argumentation.
Morel agrees that Lincoln kept Jefferson’s greatest accomplishment, the words found in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal,” working diligently to make those words a reality, unlike his mentor who effectively retired from his own cause. From Washington Lincoln drew the lesson never to forget what was being fought for in the Civil War: liberty, which had been driven from every other shore of the world to her last refuge, the United States.
Lincoln was certainly aware of the message in Washington’s Farewell Address that the Union was more important than its parts. Morel’s work dovetails with Brookhiser’s thesis, dedicating chapters to Washington (the founder, par excellence), the Declaration of Independence (the ends), the Constitution (the means), the unfortunate but necessary compromise over slavery, and the original intent of the founders (their ongoing relevance).
Morel presents a carefully crafted and succinct argument as to how the founders’ first principles shaped Lincoln’s political thought and how these same arguments should shape ours. All the pieces fit together to help answer the question Lincoln raised in his first major speech: How to perpetuate self-government? Lincoln saw that the greatest danger to the Union’s survival came from within and not outside of the young republic.
In Lincoln’s case the most divisive and polarizing issue was slavery and it took a traumatizing war to partially resolve it. And yet systemic racism has endured, thanks to a failed Reconstruction, to once again tear at the fabric of our vulnerable nation. Will a third American revolution be necessary and successful? Morel suggests that if we are to be successful it won’t be because the example Lincoln set was that of being a conservative or liberal, but one of a conservator. “In Lincoln, one finds no blind follower of the American founding but a thoughtful and thought-provoking citizen who became a statesman by inviting all Americans to believe that what the founders had achieved was the best, most prudent, and therefore most relevant means of securing their safety and happiness.” (p. 117) May our generation become as successful as Lincoln’s without the need for a war.
All members of the Lincoln Group are invited to join in the book discussions. To join, go to the Study Forum section on the Lincolnian.org home page, go to the bottom, fill in the requested contact information and send it on to us.