A Presidency for a Time of Crisis

By Nancy Spannaus

Nov. 3, 2022—On November 30, I will present my third class series of the year on Abraham Lincoln, The Man and His Legacy. There will be two sessions given over zoom to an audience hosted by the Long Island University Lifelong Learning program called Hutton House. Anyone can join for a fee; registration is available here.

A Presidency for a Time of Crisis
The Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. (national park service)

Lincoln’s was truly a presidency for a time of crisis, and provides multiple lessons for us today. As I explained in a post last spring, there can be no better time to study and learn from Abraham Lincoln than our crisis-ridden present.

Lincoln in Depth

One of the unusual, if not unique, aspects of my class series on Lincoln, which have previously taken four sessions, is the emphasis on his speeches. I chose five of Lincoln’s addresses for the students to read and appraise, after which a full class session was devoted to discussing their context and content.

Before the Presidency

The first document, written and delivered in 1838, was “How Can We Save the Institutions of Our Republic? Lincoln gave this speech to the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield, Illinois in the wake of escalating mob violence throughout the nation. I have previously published document on this blog. It speaks profoundly to the question of how to defeat the upsurge of extra-legal activity which threatened to tear the nation apart in his time, and restore the revolutionary spirit of the Founding generation which had passed from the scene.

A Presidency for a Time of Crisis
Statues of the Lincoln-Douglas debate in Alton, Illinois. (Nancy Spannaus)

The second was “On Discoveries and Inventions”, a stump speech given by the candidate Lincoln in 1858. This address exemplifies Lincoln’s philosophical approach to man’s nature as a species uniquely capable of creating progress through developing his mental capacities. In reviewing the context for this speech, I took special note of the fact that Lincoln presented his argument in contrast to the Young America movement. As Lincoln put it, that movement (which included Stephen Douglas, President Polk, and others) saw the solution to every national problem as “expand territory,” rather than coming up with policies for national improvement. This ideology infused the supporters of the Confederacy, and outright imperialist movements later.

Both of these two speeches greatly impressed the students, opening up their minds to the intellectual depth of the politician Lincoln, who is often mis-portrayed as a conniving pragmatist.

The third document I chose was a doozy, the final debate in the Lincoln-Douglas encounters of 1858. Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, no one in either of the classes ever read the full transcript, which includes the text of a full three hours of interchange between the two men. But the core concept of all the debates – the conflict over the morality of slavery – was heavily explored in our discussion.

In the Presidency

For the fourth document, I chose Lincoln’s Annual Address to Congress in December 1862. Here was an example of what is today called the State of the Union, given at a time of extreme tension in the Civil War, just prior to the announced implementation of the Emancipation Proclamation, and at a time that Union victory was by no means assured. Lincoln’s comprehensive summary of the international and economy situation formed the bulk of the address, which then concluded with his last-ditch attempt to present the South with a plan to end slavery and the war.

Abraham Lincoln

Different people reacted differently to this document, some impressed by the scope of Lincoln’s thinking, and others chagrined at his discussion of the conflicts with the Indians in the West, and the gradualist approach to ending slavery. Yet what was clear was that Lincoln was desperately seeking a way to maintain his moral approach to slavery while minimizing the horrible bloodshed (and expense) of the war.

You can disagree with some of what he says, but yet get an insight into his statesmanship in the face of horrific options.

The final document I presented was the Second Inaugural, rightfully regarded as an iconic presentation for its spirit of post-war reconciliation. What is often forgotten, however, is that the war was not yet over; much less were the concrete policies required to rebuild the union decided upon. What President Lincoln was doing was defining the spirit in which policies needed to be formulated. Tragically, this was not to be, and we are still paying the price for that today.

What’s to be Learned?

As is my current custom, I did not draw any specific policy lessons for today from this study of Lincoln.[1] But the contrast between the thoughtful, even philosophical, approach of our 16th President, and the habits of concentrated, extensive debate of the time, cannot fail to strike people.  One is also impressed by Lincoln’s reliance on the centrality of education of the general population, understood in a depth all too scarce today, as the pathway toward the restoration and prosperity of our Republic.

For more, I hope you will consider taking the LIU class. If not, please find the Lincoln documents I cited above. Let this statesman challenge the politics of sound bites and sectarianism in the time of crisis we are living through today.

[1] Lincoln’s American System economic policies, which I covered in one of the four sessions, represents an exception to this approach. More on those can be found on this blog and in my book, Hamilton Versus Wall Street: The Core Principles of the American System of Economics.