Scott Malcomson has given Michael Lind’s new book, What Lincoln Believed: The Values and Convictions of America’s Greatest President a terrific review.
Whereas Malcomson picks up on the important point in Lind’s book that in the time of Lincoln, democracy as model of government was disappearing from rather than proliferating through the world.
“IN 1863,” Michael Lind begins, “the democratic republic as a form of government was rare — and in danger of extinction.” He then looks around the world at the governmental forms prevalent in that year. This seems an odd way to start a study of Abraham Lincoln, but such indirection is Lind’s way of saying: if you want to read my book, you’re going to have to do it my way. Happily, Lind is not just demanding; he is intellectually bold and an enthusiastic researcher.
In large doses, “What Lincoln Believed” can get claustrophobic. But taken a little at a time and in a generous spirit, it will almost certainly change the way you think about America and one of its greatest presidents.
Malcomson continues this commentary on Lind’s theme:
Among the world’s ruling classes, Lind shows, opinion was running against democracy in 1863. Republics had been coming and going since the French Revolution, but mostly they had been going, and it looked possible that the form might soon be gone. For Lincoln, “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” as he put it in his speech at Gettysburg, was the essential promise of the American Revolution and of the United States.
If the Union could be pulled through this civil war, democracy might endure. If the Union fell, democracy might fall with it.
This zeal to secure democratic government as a covenant for future generations, against the political tide of the times, is what Lind finds most worth celebrating in Lincoln.
He calls him the Great Democrat. This picture is set against three previously prevalent images: the Great Commoner, the Savior of the Union and the Great Emancipator.
I highly recommend Michael Lind’s book on Lincoln because it makes one think about what it takes to preserve a functioning democracy — even in the worst of times.
Whereas Lincoln helped to revitalize and restore the American form of democracy in the 1860s, it is disconcerting that American leadership today seems reckless with the ecosystem of our democratic republic today.
Gary Hart made a similar point at a conference in New York on Wednesday sponsored by the Security and Peace Institute. He was directing his concerns at the tension between empire and democracy and said that “if America does fashion itself in the shape of empire, then it will no longer be a republic.”
— Steve Clemons