Upon Investment of Lynn Chair
hank you. I am humbled almost beyond words at this honor. But the true honor here must go to the Vaden family for their investment not so much in any individual as in perpetuating study of Abraham Lincoln and his world. I am the temporary occupant of the chair but their commitment abides and the university and the state and study of Lincoln and his world are the richer for it. Thank you seem meager words indeed. Others to thank must begin with my wife whose constant and enduring support make it all possible, my colleagues in the History department at the University of Kansas, my mentor Harold Hyman, historians like Bob Johannsen from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, those in the department and administration here at UIS who have made me feel welcome and to former Chancellor Lynn for her role in bringing this professorship to fruition.
I've wondered what can be said to fit the occasion. Id like to regale you with humorous Lincoln stories. One of my favorites being Lincolns comment about General Fremont. As Lincoln told John Hay Fremont reminded him of Jim Jetts brother. Jim Jett always used to say that his brother was the damndest scoundrel that was ever borne; but by the infinite mercy of providence he was also the damndest fool.
But beyond the pleasure that Lincolns humor provides I think that his life and thought have something more significant to say; something that is profoundly important to understand these days given our current political environment. I think it is imperative that we ask Lincoln to join our conversation about where we are, what our options are, above all, what we are capable of, what we are at our best.
It seems to me that modern political discussion is deeply flawed. Its greatest flaw is not its ideas -- conservatives and liberals seem to offer equal amounts of substance and silliness. I am more concerned about the style of our discussion, what many people have observed as its lack of civility. A cartoon in the airline magazine captures this feeling: A man sits watching TV, and the announcer says, The following is a paid, political vendetta.
Im not just speaking of name-calling; Im speaking more generally about a frame of mind that underlies the personal insult and innuendo. These examples of what concern me come to mind: When politics is discussed, people do not listen, they wait for the trigger words which will tell them whether this person is on our side or not. They look for reasons to close their minds rather than to open them. Political spin-doctors compete to see how quickly they can spin their own views into Gods truth and how fast they can discredit people who disagree with them. It is a world where people mistake the meaning of the courage of our convictions. We wrongly define it as being willing to shout them out loud. I think the proper meaning is that we are willing to present those convictions to the most challenging and searching examination, by ourselves as well as by others. But that does not seem to be much in evidence today.
Historian of religion at the University of Chicago, Martin Marty observes that most of the committed people he meets are not civil and most of the civil people he meets are not committed.
What explains this breakdown of civility? There may be several reasons: It may be endemic to a two party system with its winners and losers consequences. It may be the medias desire to present politics in terms of horse races and victories and defeats. Two explanations are,I think, fundamental. One is the very way that we think about discussion and even analysis. When we imagine almost any serious discussion we think too much in terms of either/or, of arguments that force others to agree. We talk about winning and losing arguments, unassailable or knockdown arguments and victories and defeats. The very way we think about our discussion implies that someone must ultimately be shut up. And (here is the second explanation) this breakdown of civility may arise from the passion for ideology in our time. In a world that changes so quickly, that proclaims and endorses change and revolution we seem to need something sure, something to hold on to--and our ideals, our principles appear to save us, must save us, by providing certainty in a confusing and complex world. This passion for certainty easily becomes self-righteousness, which quickly erodes the civility of our discussion.
We need ideals. We have to have something to aspire to. I believe that Lincoln certainly had them: a faith in equality, a belief in the Union and the Constitution. But the crucial point that I think Lincoln reminds us of is the need to believe in more than our ideals, to be committed to something else as well.
Our belief in an ideal and the merit of the ideal itself is tested by the way in which we implement it, the way in which we integrate the ideals into the better traditions, institutions and customs of daily life.
In our time I believe we must think very seriously about how Mr. Lincoln tried to bring to life the ideals he espoused. What I want to emphasize is Lincolns passion for process, his basic civility, the way he lived out his recognition that, as Learned Hand put it, The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not sure that it is right. Other people have put that idea in similar words. Reinhold Niebuhr suggested that a democratic leader cultivates an uneasy conscience. The prophet Micah said that what God requires is to Do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with thy god.
I think Lincoln exemplified that spirit in several ways and for several reasons. Lincolns frame of mind, his civility, arose from a combination of things. One was his familiarity with, his bone deep connection to, the political constitutional process. He understood that the constitutional system required negotiation and bargaining. He knew that debate, but also conversation and discussion were the lifeblood of politics and that ideologues, who treated opponents as devils, had but a small place in the legitimate political arena. Both these commitments, to the constitution and to the political process were the products of a career of nearly twenty-five years in law and politics. Lincoln learned civility by having to practice it throughout his adult life.
Now politics and law as careers do not always lead to basic civility, but Lincoln added other elements. His civility also arose from his religious faith. He doubted that God issued clear marching orders. He believed in firmness in the right, but also insisted that the purposes of God were often beyond human understanding. When a group of ministers came to him to announce what God wanted President Lincoln to do, the president wryly responded with the answer If it is probable that God would reveal his will to others on a point so connected with my duty, it might be supposed he would reveal it directly to me. But despite seeking some clear revelation, none came. and Lincolns view of politics was connected in other ways to his religious attitude. As Sidney Mead has argued, the processes of democratic government were vital to Lincoln because they were the means whereby people could work out and understand Gods plans for the nation. Since God did not provide a clear blueprint of His purposes for America, the open discussion between and among diverse views offered Americans the only way of discovering and understanding what Gods providence was. Lincoln thus opposed secession because it threatened to destroy the constitutional processes whereby Gods purposes for them and their future were unfolded. When we see this connection between religion and politics we get a clearer understanding of Lincolns thought. For example, the style as well as the substance of the Gettysburg address makes more sense. He spoke of preserving a government that was dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal and he spoke in biblical language and metaphors.
These experiences and beliefs meant something in terms of personal relations; in the way Lincoln treated people. While he firmly believed in his own ideals he did not think that his opponents were scoundrels or sinners. What other politician could write to another politician God help me, I seem to have offended you? What modern political figure could have as his favorite saying, I believe in short statutes of limitations in politics? The politics of resentment and accusation were fundamentally alien to Lincoln. The great black abolitionist Frederick Douglass put it this way. Mr. Lincoln was a great man; too great to be small in anything.
That greatness was large enough to accommodate uncertainty and tolerance. Even while attacking the evils of slavery, he admitted that he was not sure that he knew just how it might be ended. Even while conducting the bloodiest war in the nations history, Lincoln never called Confederates or Confederate leaders evil people. With malice toward none was not just a call to reconciliation after the war. It was not just an admonition to white southerners and northerners to be decent to one another and the former slaves. It reflected his basic disposition about dealing with people and about conducting the office of president. What I deal in is too vast for malicious dealing Lincoln said. He was speaking about the war, but I think that the comment might fit other situations as well.
This basic respect for the integrity of other people should not mislead us into thinking of Lincoln as fundamentally a democrat. To do so would lead us to misunderstand his legacy and the way that he can provide an alternative to our modern dilemma. Modern politicians quickly evoke the people whenever they advocate a policy. The American people want usually precedes any position publicly advocated by either side. Modern parties worship the spirit of Andrew Jackson who said: Never for a moment believe that the great body of citizens can deliberately intend to do wrong.
Lincoln was not in the Jackson mode. He worried about the dangers of a people misled, stampeded by pandering to their worst instincts. Lincolns first major speech on the political system attacked the world that Jackson had made and asked that respect for laws, not the will of the people, be made The political religion of the nation. He practiced a deliberative style himself, worried about letting emotions control his reason. He seldom spoke off the cuff; he carefully considered and crafted his own thoughts and words to the people. Lincoln as talk show host is unthinkable. I believe Lincoln saw his duty not as finding out what the people wanted and then doing it. I think his better goal was to make sure that they thought carefully and aspired to their best ideals, that they protected a process that not only reflected their opinions, but also more importantly improved and ennobled their understanding of the issues before them.
Lincoln understood that leaders in a republic do not just reflect public opinion; they have a higher duty. They shape that public opinion, and more significantly and precisely they have a responsibility for the quality and the nature of that opinion. Public sentiment can be mean spirited, ignorant, and self-destructive. It needs to be generous, decent, informed and vital. When, in the debates with Douglas, Douglas played the race card, Lincoln rebutted with an argument for the basic equality in the Declaration of Independence. Lincoln seems to have understood that the nations leaders were responsible for evoking the nation at its best not its worst. In short, I think Lincoln wanted the republic to be a place where the ideals of civility based on mutual respect prevailed; where personal civility prepared and schooled people for citizenship.
There is something so appealing about Lincolns attitude. The way people speak to us tells us what they think of us. The demagogue does not think well of us. He treats us as though we are stupid, irrational, guided by our worst impulses. Lincoln seems to have seen us and spoke to us as people capable of reason and responsibility. He believed in us at our best and so kept alive the idea that we could be our best.
Where have you gone Abraham Lincoln? Occasions like this permit us to ask such a question and to ask how his ideas and his style might fit our world. It is the kind of inquiry that I think he would have enjoyed, participated in, listening and questioning, testing the courage of his convictions, asking about the courage of ours. Were not alone here, thank God.
Thank you all again for this honor, this investment. I'll do my best to be worthy of it.
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of Illinois at Springfield