Allen Guelzo of Gettysburg College is emphatically not of two minds about the Abraham Lincoln. Writing in The Claremont Review of Books, he laments Conservative ambivalence about, and castigates Conservative antipathy for, this same Lincoln who bulks so big in our history. While I share Guelzo’s impatience with Lincoln-hatred, it just won’t do to conflate ambivalence and antipathy. He cites, for instance, Willmoore Kendall’s judgment (argued most extensively in Basic Symbols of the American Tradition) that Lincoln “derailed” the American political tradition by replacing the Constitution (i.e., self-government) with the Declaration of Independence (i.e., equality) — and, what’s more, with a single passage from the latter document, at the expense of the rest of it. This would seem to locate Kendall among the Lincoln-haters, a strange place to locate a man who also named Lincoln as standing among Shakespeare, Milton and Burke — the great masters of the English language and rhetoric.
In short, there is hatred of Lincoln, which Guelzo rightly censures; and there is ambivalence about him. The two are not the same; and the project to establish a rigid orthodoxy of unqualified approbation is one unworthy of Prof. Guelzo. In my admittedly amateur judgment, Lincoln, like many a great man, is too much of an enigma to merit unqualified anything. One writer (could it have been our own Zippy, some years ago?) once referred to Honest Abe as a “Calvinist agnostic.” The phrase alone, which only appears facile, is a virtual treatise on the mystery of the statesman and the man.
I’ll conclude this mere sketch of an argument with a little anecdote. Some years ago I called my wife over to read through an essay I had just completed, which included a long quotation from Lincoln’s Lyceum Address. I believe the topic was the rule of law — in the context of judiciary usurpation or immigration or something like that. She read it carefully, paused, and said, “pretty good, Paul, but I like Lincoln’s part best.”
So do I. So do I.