‘Lawless and mob-ocratic spirit” is how a prominent critic described the president’s aggressive populism. “It is spreading with rapid and fearful impetuosity, to the ultimate overthrow of every institution, or even moral principle.”

Was this the #Resistance blasting both cannons at the former president? A card-carrying Never Trumper bemoaning the fundamental challenge to democracy presented by the MAGA movement? No. It was Abraham Lincoln in 1837, then a member of the Illinois state legislature, lambasting arch-populist President Andrew Jackson, who was completing his second term.

If Lincoln sounds like an implacable small-d democrat, that’s because he was one, as the Lincoln scholar Allen Guelzo observes in Our Ancient Faith, his timely and elegant reminder of the nonnegotiable centrality of the tenets of liberalism to the American experiment.

At a moment when a bombastic provocateur seeks to retake the presidency from a senescent blowhard in hock to leftist extremists, voting Americans are understandably despairing over their distinctly unappealing options. But we have Guelzo, who summons Lincoln’s profoundly inspirational statements about democracy before he reprimands us for surrendering to despair; our 16th president prevailed under far graver circumstances.

A Princeton professor and the author of 15 books on Lincoln, Guelzo scours his subject’s speeches, correspondence, and other writings, along with numerous contemporaneous third-party accounts, to discern a cohesive approach to individual rights, civic virtue, and governance. The book traces Lincoln’s views on liberty, reason, political economics, democratic culture, civil liberties, race, and the shortcomings of liberalism and allows his words to penetrate the discourse of his day and ours.

Guelzo sensibly contends that democracy revolves around three central elements. They are the consent of the governed, majority rule, and submission to law. Weakening any of these three legs wobbles the democratic stool. In addition, a properly functioning liberal democratic polity requires three tools: citizens possessing equal rights and responsibilities, regular elections, and forums for discussion and association.

In Guelzo’s telling, these tenets and tools have come under attack both from “woke progressives” who insist that “the promises of American democracy are falsehoods, maintained by the powerful in order to oppress the marginalized” and by “religious integralists and national conservatives” who “welcome the bureaucratic state as the most dependable provider of security, health, and safety.”

Against these polar extremes, Guelzo positions Lincoln as a consistent and stentorian voice for a liberal democratic order. “The principle of ‘Liberty to all,’” Lincoln thundered on the House floor in 1848, represented “the principle that clears the path for all—gives hope to all—and, by consequence, enterprise and industry to all.”

For Lincoln, of course, slavery was the malign force animating both his career trajectory and his political philosophy. When a man “governs himself,” he intoned in an 1854 speech in Peoria, “that is self-government. But when he governs himself, and also governs another man…that is despotism.” Guelzo concludes that Lincoln anchored his worldview in natural rights, “a standard maxim for a free society, which could be familiar to all and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for.”

As a certified anti-populist, Lincoln elevated reason above emotion. In an 1842 address, he lauded the day “when, all appetites controlled, all passions subdued, all matters subjected, mind, all conquering mind, shall live and move the monarch of the world. Reign of reason, all hail!” In parallel, Lincoln cooled anti-democratic passions by vigorously championing a nationwide economic expansion—bolstered by technological leaps such as the steamboat, the telegraph, and the railroad—in part because “commerce brings us together, and makes us better friends.”

Lincoln unambiguously favored democratic mores and was outspoken on the peaceful transition of power. When his electoral prospects dimmed in August 1864, he acknowledged it “exceedingly probably that this Administration will not be re-elected” while remaining determined that “it will be my duty to so cooperate with the President-elect.” He steadfastly opposed the “Popular Sovereignty” movement embraced by his nemesis, Stephen Douglas, whom he flogged on the stump for his weather-vane-like sensitivity to the whims of public opinion.

But Lincoln famously struggled to reconcile the liberal democratic values enshrined in our constitutional order with the exigencies of preserving that order from collapse. During the Civil War, he suspended the writ of habeas corpus, authorized spying on civilians, and shuttered newspapers that published what we would today call fake news. “Must a government, of necessity, be too strong for the liberties of its own people,” he wondered, “or too weak to maintain its own existence?” Guelzo thoughtfully weighs—but rejects—the harshest criticisms of extremist civil-rights activists who found Lincoln’s behavior wanting. In fact, as Guelzo reminds us, the Constitution itself allows for suspending the writ “in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion,” and all of Lincoln’s admitted trespasses on civil liberties were temporary, in word and in deed.

And, of course, Lincoln’s views on equality for blacks, while inadequate to a 21st-century sensibility, were relatively advanced for his time. Here, too, Guelzo offers a fair hearing to many of Lincoln’s presentist adversaries, including the likes of contemporary “antiracism” advocates, but insists that we judge him in the context of his time and more broadly. Lincoln openly argued that “the good earth is plenty broad enough for white man and negro both,” and he exhorted the U.S. marshal of occupied Arkansas to “do all you can, in any and every way you can, to get the ballot into the hands of the freedmen!”

Moreover, Guelzo reckons, his issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, while belated for the abolitionists, likely did more for the cause of racial harmony than any other single act in human history. Ultimately, his views on abolitionism, like his opinions on the radical temperance movement, were of a piece with his basic outlook on extremism and reason: When such fundamentalists lionized passion and declared that “they would ‘do their duty and leave the consequences to God,’” they were merely providing “an excuse for taking a course that they were not able to maintain by a fair and full argument.”

At times, Guelzo dips his toe unnecessarily and anachronistically into modern-day issues. We needn’t speculate about how Lincoln would confront the vicissitudes of today’s administrative state, how he would approach diversity, equity, and inclusion requirements, or how he would regard the insurrection clause of the 14th Amendment to appreciate how essential to proper governance are prudence, decency, and resoluteness—virtues Lincoln cultivated every day of his adult life.

But quibbles aside, Guelzo convincingly makes the case for the timelessness of Lincoln’s ideals. “Just as we, as a nation,” Guelzo implores, “were once rescued at the last gasp by an intervention so unlooked-for as to defy hope, I take up his principles with the yearning that once again, this last, best hope of earth may yet have a new birth of freedom.” If the famously melancholic Lincoln never wavered on the importance of the American democratic project, who are we to succumb to despair?

Photo: AP Photo

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