Was Lincoln Liberal or Conservative? Our Next Debate

By Edward Epstein

Washington, D.C.

Tuesday, August 30, 2022


Mark you calendar for 6 p.m. on Tuesday, October 18 when the Lincoln Group will debate a question central to Abraham Lincoln's legacy -- was he a political conservative or a liberal?


It's a question that constantly arises today as political figures from across our polarized country take one side or the other as they frequently cite Lincoln to bolster their position. Our debate and discussion, featuring two of our scholarly members on a Zoom-only program, will try to get beyond the political labels to discuss Lincoln's underlying political philosophy and how he viewed the role of government in America life.


Go to the events section of the Lincolnian.org web site to sign up to attend the program via Zoom.


Arguing for the position that Lincoln was a liberal will be Dr. Tom Peet, a longtime educator in Ohio and co-author with David Keck of the voluminous Reading Lincoln: An Annotated Bibliography, a book that gives thumbnail reviews of hundreds of books about the 16th president.


Taking the side that Lincoln was a conservative will be Burrus "Buzz" Carnahan, a lawyer, Air Force officer, State Department diplomat and law lecturer. He has authored books on Lincoln and the law during the Civil War.


The October 18 debate will mark the second the group has held, following one last year on the issue of whether Lincoln was a visionary leader or a pragmatic, day-to-day president buffeted by events. The program was well received, leading us to set up a second one.


The program will work as follows: The moderator will state the question and everyone on the Zoom call can vote to take one side of the question or the other. Buzz and Tom will then each get up to 10 minutes to make their case and then the program will be thrown open to everyone for questions to the debaters or comments. There will then be a concluding vote to see if any minds were changed by all the discussion.


The program will start at 6 p.m. with a business meeting. The debate should start at 6:30 p.m., with a view toward wrapping things up by 8 p.m.


The question at the center of the debate has to be viewed through the prism of today's issues and politics and has been the focus of many books. Progressives say that Lincoln favored an expanding role for government.


"Lincoln was progressive and pragmatic," former New York Democratic Gov. Mario Cuomo said in 2004, when his book Why Lincoln Matters was published. "Lincoln said the Constitution brought us together to establish a government to do collectively what we can do together that we cannot do individually."


"He favored the market system unless the market was insufficient," Cuomo said in a C-SPAN interview.


Another book making the case for Lincoln the progressive was historian Fergus Bordewich's Congress at War, which recounts the many pieces of domestic legislation the Republican Congress and Lincoln enacted, fulfilling Lincoln's Whig beliefs.


On the other side, conservative author Rich Lowry wrote in his 2013 book Lincoln Unbound that Lincoln wanted everyone to have an opportunity to advance, "but through up-by-the-bootstraps individualism; a greater tolerance for economic inequality; a deeper commitment to bourgeois moral norms; a more realistic view of human nature and a keener sense of constitutional limits and of natural rights than liberals do today," Lowry added.


Lowry said Lincoln's policies aimed to strengthen America's market economy "with more people better equipped to pursue their own advancement without government interference or guarantees."


These diverging views should make for a lively, informative debate. Sign up now.