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Lincoln's Constitutional Leadership
Few would disagree that Abraham Lincoln was an exemplary leader. But just what sort of leadership did he exemplify, and what might we learn from it? These questions have bedeviled every student of Lincoln who has ever considered them. Did he exhibit the moral grandeur and heroism necessary to steer our nation through its deepest political crisis without sacrificing its founding principles? Or was he an aspiring tyrant, especially in his use of executive power? Moreover, what is the role of leadership in a land where the governed are also the sovereign? Is the very idea of leadership somehow at odds with the ethic of a democratic society committed to equality and to faith in the collective wisdom of the people?
These are difficult questions, but they are essential to a proper understanding of Lincoln. Indeed, the scholars who avoid these questions have tended not to understand him very well. Historian and television commentator Doris Kearns Goodwin, for instance, recently offered a model of how not to think about Lincoln's leadership. Since the publication in 2005 of her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Goodwin has been a regular on the lecture circuit with a talk listing ten qualities that made Lincoln a great leader. Among these qualities, she suggests, are such skills as "an ability to learn on the job," "the capacity to listen to different points of view," and "know[ing] how to relax and replenish." If these sound too much like recommendations for a modern-day CEO, that's because they are: They are from a keynote address Goodwin delivered to the annual conference of SHRM — the Society for Human Resource Management — in Chicago in 2008. Lincoln surely would have been flattered to know that his life's work is applicable to the challenges now confronting human-resource managers. But how does it apply to statesmen?
In order to understand what makes a good political leader, it is necessary to go beyond simply listing a set of generic character traits that could be used to describe virtually any successful person. We would do better to contrast Lincoln's style of leadership to others that have been proposed or tried by statesmen, and to consider what the study of political theory might tell us about the sources of his success. What emerges from such an inquiry is the answer to one of those difficult questions: What does leadership in a constitutional republic really consist of?
THREE STYLES OF LEADERSHIP
Lincoln's distinctive style of leadership might be usefully contrasted with three models in the history of political thought. The first of these can be described as the "Machiavellian" model. Niccolo Machiavelli authored perhaps the most famous leadership manual in Western literature, a book written in 1513 and called The Prince.
The teaching of Machiavelli's Prince is often described as "realism" or Realpolitik, although Machiavelli preferred to speak in terms of the "effectual truth of the thing." Realism is often taken as the opposite of idealism or utopianism. It is thought to be synonymous with pragmatism or a shrewd sense of what will work. But the term realism means more than attention to reality: It suggests that a leader who wants to do good, rather than just to be good, must be prepared to get his hands dirty. Or, as Machiavelli famously put it, "it is necessary to a prince, if he wants to maintain himself, to learn to be able not to be good."
What did Machiavelli mean by this? He intended something very specific. It is a truism that a person in a leadership position must occasionally countenance departures from the ordinary rules of morality and justice in order to achieve his ends. But Machiavelli was making a larger point. He argued that it is a condition of political greatness that the prince should be exempted from obedience to ordinary ethical laws and injunctions. A prince must know how to do right when he can, but must be prepared to do evil when he must. Consider the following passage:
This has to be understood: that a prince, and especially a new prince, cannot observe all those things for which men are held good, since he is often under a necessity, to maintain his state, of acting against faith, against charity, against humanity, against religion. And so he needs to have a spirit disposed to change as the winds of fortune and variations of things command him, and as I have said, not depart from good, when possible, but know how to enter into evil, when forced by necessity.
The image of a successful prince is of one who is willing to adopt and employ any means necessary to achieve his ends. This may include lying and deceit (acting against faith), the selective use of cruelty (acting against humanity), and a willingness to abandon moral standards at will (acting against religion). It is important, Machiavelli counsels, to appear to abide by the traditional Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity, but the actual practice of these virtues will lead to ruin. The prince must learn to be a liar, a dissembler, a man of many masks who is willing to adapt himself to the winds of fortune.
Machiavelli is typically thought of as a teacher of tyranny — names like Stalin and Hitler usually come to mind — but this is not necessarily true. What he wanted the prince to value was, above all else, glory, fame, and honor. These were the virtues sought by the great political founders in history — Moses, Theseus, Cyrus, Romulus. It was the fostering of these qualities — not excellence at justice, fairness, or friendship — that brought memorable greatness and everlasting fame. These qualities, Machiavelli believed, were most conspicuously displayed in the world of "great politics," especially building up the strength of one's country for it to play a role in the game of world history. For Machiavelli, history was the true court of judgment, the final word on success or failure.
The second model of leadership — one most identified with the great German sociologist Max Weber — can be called charismatic leadership. Weber's idea of the charismatic leader was in part an answer to his lifelong question: "What makes authority possible?" Why, Weber wondered, do people submit themselves to the authority of others? His answer was that people submit to authority for three different reasons. Some submit because that is the way it always has been; this he called justification by tradition. Some consent to obey because of rationally established rules that are administered by impartial authorities; this he called legal-rational authority. And others are enchanted by the extraordinary grace or special qualities of an exceptional individual; this he called charismatic authority. Today, of course, the language of charisma has been vastly cheapened, as was vividly depicted in Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind. We apply it more or less indiscriminately to leaders of all different kinds. But Weber used it quite specifically for a very special type of leader; he was thinking of religious figures like Moses or Buddha (today we might add the Dalai Lama).
Weber developed his theory of charismatic leadership in an essay titled "Politics as a Vocation," addressed to a student audience shortly after World War I. He outlined the qualities necessary for authentic political leadership as follows: "One can say that three pre-eminent qualities are decisive for the politician: passion, a feeling of responsibility, and a sense of proportion." On the surface, it appears that Weber was asking his reader to follow a moderate course of action, stressing such qualities as responsibility and proportion, but in fact the first term — passion — is the crucial one. By passion Weber meant "the sense of matter-of-factness, of passionate devotion to a ‘cause,' to the god or demon who is its overlord." Weber's claim is that our ultimate ends — the objects of our passionate attachments — are matters of faith, somewhat like religious beliefs. The charismatic leader is measured by the level of devotion or passionate attachment that he can muster in himself and others to defend a cause.
Politics, as Weber emphasized, is ultimately a faith-based enterprise judged by the strength and devotion of our commitments. But the question is always, "How does one measure the authenticity of our commitments?" How does one distinguish the charismatic leader from the demagogue or fraud? How does one distinguish the true from the untrue prophet? This, of course, is one of the oldest questions in history. And Weber provides no acid test for charisma; charisma is very much in the eye of the beholder. In recent American history, Ronald ("The Great Communicator") Reagan and Barack ("Yes We Can") Obama have been seen as charismatic leaders by their followers, while Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush have not. Yet to refer to a leader's charismatic properties is to say little about the quality of his governance. There are no fixed principles of action beyond the demand for authenticity.
The third style of leadership can be called the progressive model. The idea of the progressive leader has its roots deep in the European Enlightenment, with its belief that all the truly important problems facing human civilization — from poverty to ignorance to disease — are technical in nature and can be solved on the basis of scientific knowledge that is, or soon will be, available to mankind. This idea of the leader as scientific manager was perhaps best exemplified by 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis, who insisted that he was interested in competence, not ideology. It is a view that somehow suggests that this kind of statesman is above politics, a detached observer who looks at political things in the way that an ichthyologist looks upon big fish swallowing small ones. The development of this view of leadership is directly related to the rise in the prestige of the social sciences in the last century. This kind of enlightened progressivism has generated an army of dedicated apostles and many famous defenses, from Harold Lasswell's Politics: Who Gets What, When, How to Herbert Simon's Administrative Behavior to Robert Dahl's A Preface to Democratic Theory. All of these works can be fairly described as progressive for their belief in the power of rational planning to produce a safe, healthy, and prosperous society.
The progressive leader — American examples include Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson — typically thinks of politics as something subject to continual evolutionary change. (The heyday of the Progressive era coincided with the popularity of Darwinian theories of evolution and adaptation.) The older idea of certain permanent natural rights of the kind enumerated in the Declaration of Independence seemed to the progressives an outmoded way of thinking that needed to be replaced by a theory of organic change. Accordingly, progressive leaders developed a theory of the "living Constitution" to show that the document is not time bound and therefore should be interpreted in the light of changing standards and the shifting needs of society. The successful leader is one who is able not only to adapt to change, but to anticipate it as society moves in ever new and unforeseen directions. Rather than simply accommodating himself to change, it becomes the duty, even the obligation, of the progressive statesman to work for the acceleration of progress. Indeed, there is an implication of immorality in not working to bring about progressive ends. To resist progress is to be deemed a conservative, a reactionary, even an enemy of the people.
The model of the progressive statesman is that of the policy scientist, the planner, or the engineer. The idea behind this model is that all political questions are ultimately administrative questions, and therefore ultimately questions of means rather than of ends. The idea that politics can be removed from the messy process of democracy and become a science has been the constant hope of political progressives everywhere. The progressive leader must be a kind of mouthpiece of society, ready to interpret public opinion or the public mood wherever it might go.
The question that must always be asked about the model of progressive leadership is, "By what standard is change or progress to be measured?" When do we know whether progress has met its limits? How are we to know exactly how much progress is enough? How do we even know that progress is actually "progressive" unless we have some fixed standard by which to judge? To these questions, progressivism has not yet found satisfactory answers.
Each of these three styles of leadership incorporates an essential element of the task of the statesman. Yet each also raises problems that present themselves especially acutely in democratic societies. Such societies, it seems, may require a combination of the three that amounts to a fourth model of leadership.
Constitutionalism is one of the great themes of Western political thought and is the unique property of the Anglo-American political tradition. From the Magna Carta, habeas corpus, and the Toleration Act to the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Federalist Papers, there has been a slowly developing consensus over the fundamentals of constitutional government. Constitutions are devices for controlling the uses of power. Governing in a constitutional manner means governing with respect to forms, by which is meant certain formal procedures (rule of law, due process, trial by jury, and the like). In some respects, constitutional government cares more about forms than about outcomes: What is important is that certain formal procedures be followed, and following these procedures confers legitimacy on the outcome.
The very term "constitutional leadership" therefore suggests a paradox. Leadership involves boldness, decisiveness, action, even a willingness to go it alone; constitutions impose forms and rules, checks upon power, and limits on executive initiative. How can one both lead and accept the limitations of constitutional restraint? Or, as Abraham Lincoln stated the problem in his Special Message to Congress of July 4, 1861: "Must a government, of necessity, be too strong for the liberties of its own people, or too weak to maintain its own existence?"
It is in fact the statecraft of Lincoln himself that most vividly illustrates a path toward understanding and addressing this tension between liberty and law. And the first step on that path requires understanding the tension between preservation and change. To be sure, every constitution, if it is to survive, must contain the means of self-correction and adaptation to new circumstances. "A state without the means of some change," Edmund Burke wisely wrote, "is without the means of its conservation." A constitution that is not flexible will not be sustainable. But change within a constitutional government presupposes the priority of fixity and stability of certain legal forms. These forms set limits to the kinds of changes that are permissible.
The privileging of preservation over change was the explicit theme of Lincoln's first great speech, titled "The Perpetuation of our Political Institutions" and delivered to the Young Men's Lyceum in Springfield in 1838 (when Lincoln was only 29 years old). Here Lincoln addressed the danger of what he called the "mobocratic spirit" then abroad in the land. This was the age of Jacksonian democracy, which saw the introduction of a new kind of populism into American politics. Lincoln began his speech by lamenting the rise of precisely the kind of populist lawlessness symbolized by lynch mobs and other forms of rough justice. "[T]he increasing disregard for law which pervades the country," he said, "the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions, in lieu of the sober judgments of the Courts; and the worse than savage mobs, for the executive ministers of justice...[are] common to the whole country."
What accounted for this sudden surge in lawlessness? Lincoln's answer was a decline in reverence for the Constitution and for the rule of law. This had been the result — the necessary result — of the dying off of the founding generation and the rise of a new class of citizens without the same passionate attachment to the cause of constitutional government. The question Lincoln asked his audience to consider was how to re-attach the feelings and sentiments of citizens to their form of government after the founding generation had withered away.
It was a difficult question not only because of America's historical circumstances, but also because of an unchanging fact of human history: Every generation, Lincoln said, will produce a type of man — a man of ambition and talent, perhaps a man like Lincoln himself — who will not be content to preserve existing constitutional forms but who will seek the honor and glory of founding a new order. These are the kinds of princes that Machiavelli praised so highly. These Machiavellian leaders can never be content simply to walk in the footsteps of the great men who have come before, but will set out on a new voyage of discovery to conquer "new modes and orders." Lincoln provided a brilliant characterological analysis of precisely this type of transformative political leader:
Many great and good men sufficiently qualified for any task they should undertake, may ever be found, whose ambition would aspire to nothing beyond a seat in Congress, a gubernatorial or a presidential chair; but such belong not to the family of the lion or the tribe of the eagle. What! think you these places would satisfy an Alexander, a Caesar, or a Napoleon? Never! Towering genius disdains a beaten path. It seeks regions hitherto unexplored. It sees no distinction in adding story to story, upon the monuments of fame, erected to the memory of others. It denies that it is glory enough to serve under any chief. It scorns to tread in the footsteps of any predecessor, however illustrious. It thirsts and burns for distinction; and, if possible, it will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen.
This passage, though characterized by the kind of rhetorical overkill of someone giving his first major address, makes a profound point. Lincoln's speech essentially divides mankind into two different species: the heroic creators of new orders — the Alexanders, Caesars, and Napoleons — and the non-heroic, ordinary sorts. It is clear that he believed the American founders, like Washington and Jefferson, belonged to the first sort.
But Lincoln went further. He argued that preserving and maintaining institutions may be more difficult than founding them. The task of the constitutional statesman is precisely to check and restrain the ambition of those potential leaders and conquerors that Lincoln designates as descending from the lion and the eagle. This task seems peculiarly self-effacing and humble in contrast with the tasks of the political founders, yet it is also more difficult — as it requires channeling great ambition in the direction of preservation rather than of change, where such ambition is naturally inclined to go.
How might this difficult task be accomplished? The authors of the Federalist Papers believed they had the answer in the form of the institutional device of checks and balances. By separating powers between the three branches of government, they believed they could eliminate the possibility of demagogues and usurpers who might seek to overturn the Constitution and its laws. But Lincoln seemed to think otherwise. In his view, no institutional device could control human nature; some men of "[t]owering genius" and ambition would always be among us. The task of constitutional statecraft, he thought, is to deter them. Lincoln's advice was lapidary in the extreme: turn the Constitution and the rule of law into the civil religion of the nation.
Let reverence for the laws, be breathed by every American mother, to the lisping babe, that prattles on her lap — let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges; — let it be written in Primmers, spelling books, and in Almanacs; — let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice. And in short, let it become the political religion of the nation.
Lincoln's statecraft rests on instilling in the public a "reverence for the Constitution and laws." This is the first task of the constitutional leader.
Simply preserving a tradition, however, is not enough. It is necessary also to grasp what one seeks to preserve. Traditions are not self-sustaining; people must understand what they wish to keep, lest their desire to preserve become an empty shell. The constitutional leader will therefore stress an appreciation not just for preservation over change, but for the central principles — the organizing concepts and categories — of constitutional government. A recourse to first principles must be a priority for leaders, especially at times when those principles are in danger of becoming confused or incoherent.
But what are these principles? On what does constitutional government ultimately rest? Is it divided government, the separation of powers, the rule of law, judicial review, property rights, or freedom of speech? For Lincoln, the answer was clear. It meant a return to the principle of equality as the pole star of American constitutional government.
For Lincoln, the concept of equality was not simply an abstract idea plucked out of thin air. It was embodied in a central clause of the Declaration of Independence, which Lincoln more than anyone else elevated to core status in the American experiment in self-government. When we think of the Declaration today, we do so in terms that Lincoln established. "I have never had a feeling politically," he declared in a speech in Philadelphia on his way to the White House in 1861, "that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence." This was not just a dutiful nod to the founders on the occasion of a stop at Independence Hall. It cut to the very heart of Lincoln's leadership.
Lincoln's earliest foray into government came at a time when the principle of equality was under assault both by the defenders of slavery who sought to protect their interests and by constitutional conservatives who believed that the framers had wisely agreed to leave the slavery issue alone. Lincoln saw the trajectory of American history as a gradual descent from a period of heroic greatness to one of uncontrolled passions and lawlessness. "Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid," he lamented to his friend Joshua Speed. "On the question of liberty, as a principle," he wrote to George Robertson, "we are not what we have been." To Lincoln, history seemed to be moving in a regressive direction — and only a return to the founding principles on which the republic had been based could reverse its course.
Lincoln's references to Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration, and the principle of equality are too abundant to fully enumerate here, so two examples will have to suffice. The first occurs in the context of Lincoln's response to the Supreme Court's infamous Dred Scott decision in 1857. In contrast to the Taney Court's declaration that the Constitution was bound to protect the spread of slavery in the territories, Lincoln wrote of the constitutional framers:
They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.
The second comes from an 1859 letter Lincoln wrote on the occasion of the anniversary of Jefferson's birth:
All honor to Jefferson — to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that today, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.
Lincoln's point in invoking the Declaration was that constitutional leadership requires more than the pragmatic ability to keep the ship of state afloat, or to keep muddling through. It requires the ability to know what the ship is made of, what its cargo is, and where it is going. Lincoln's repeated references to the Declaration were not simply exercises in political piety. These were efforts to educate the "public mind" by drawing attention to the first principle upon which the republic was founded. For constitutional leadership, some attention to first principles must be constantly borne in mind, even amidst the flux and change of events.
SELF-GOVERNMENT AND SELF-RESTRAINT
Geared to preservation and guided by first principles, constitutional government is also, by definition, limited government. Governments may be limited with respect to their means or with respect to their ends. Constitutional government is limited with respect to both; it deliberately leaves some things outside the parameters of political control. Our government, for example, respects the individual's right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These belong to the discretion of the individual, and it is the task of government to protect the exercise of each person's right to use or misuse his freedom as he sees fit. A government that seeks to supervise every aspect of its citizens' private lives is on the way to the destruction of constitutionalism. The slogan "the personal is political" already reveals a deeply totalitarian tendency.
The first and most fundamental way in which restraint is exercised is through the doctrine of consent. Consent is a way of limiting power by making it responsible to the governed. Constitutional government is responsible government. This idea was at the core of Lincoln's opposition to slavery in the years leading up to his presidency. It was axiomatic for him that no one individual is good enough to govern another without that other's consent. He called this belief "the sheet anchor of American republicanism."
The self-restraint imposed by the doctrine of consent was the opposite of the doctrine of "popular sovereignty" proclaimed by Lincoln's great rival, Stephen Douglas. Douglas had argued that it was the right of every state or territory to decide for itself, by simple majority rule, whether to permit slavery. What the majority of people wanted within a designated territory was sufficient to decide the problem. Thus Douglas could declare that it was a matter of "indifference" to him whether slavery was voted up or down. For Lincoln, however, this doctrine of unlimited majority rule was a violation of the very principle of constitutional government. Constitutions are devices for restraining power — whether the power of a king or of a popular majority. If slavery is a good, Lincoln enjoyed chiding his audiences, then it is a good that no man has ever chosen for himself. In Lincoln's mind, consent formed the essence of constitutional government.
Lincoln regarded the institution of free elections as the chief means by which constitutional restraint is exercised. His rejection of the secessionist thesis was that it made the operation of free government impossible. If a minority could secede every time it disapproved of the outcome of the vote of the majority, the result would be a swift descent into anarchy. To be sure, the vote of the majority does not confer on that majority an absolute power to do what it will. But the principle of regular elections, Lincoln believed, could provide a check on what popular majorities would be prepared to do. In any case, to give to the minority a permanent veto over the majority was the negation of self-government. "Plainly, the central idea of secession, is the essence of anarchy," he told his audience in the First Inaugural Address. "A majority, held in restraint by constitutional checks, and limitations, and always changing easily with deliberate changes of popular opinions and sentiments, is the only true sovereign of a free people."
Lincoln even applied this doctrine of constitutional self-restraint to his views of presidential power. To be sure, Lincoln made extraordinary use of his powers during wartime — suspending the writ of habeas corpus, shutting down opposition newspapers, arresting anti-war agitators, and issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, among other acts, all of which seemed to go well beyond the limited powers of a constitutional executive. Lincoln defended these decisions on the grounds of "military necessity." These were measures he deemed essential to saving the Union, and as commander in chief, he was vested with the authority to "preserve, protect and defend" the Constitution. The question, of course, is who is to judge the necessity? Were Lincoln's actions a part of his constitutional office, or were they a foray into Machiavellianism? Does invoking the necessity doctrine not invest the president with the powers of a dictator?
But Lincoln sought to ground his extraordinary actions in necessity precisely to avoid making the exception a rule. When he issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, he knew that he was doing something deeply radical. Until that time, the war had been presented as an effort to restore the Union as it was. Now its goal seemed to be redirected toward the cause of emancipation. Lincoln knew he was treading on thin ice, which is why he cautiously defended his act as an instance of "military necessity." In a letter to James Conkling, he invoked his powers as commander in chief to seize enemy property when needed. If slaves are regarded as property, is it not within legitimate constitutional authority to liberate that property when doing so hurts the enemy? "I thought that in your struggle for the Union, to whatever extent the negroes should cease helping the enemy, to that extent it weakened the enemy in his resistance to you. Do you think differently?" Lincoln asked rhetorically. What he did, he did to strengthen cause of the Union and hasten the end of the war.
Lincoln knew he was vulnerable to criticism from multiple angles — from those who might be willing to wage war to defend the Union but would balk at the idea of a war to emancipate slaves, as well as from those who believed that emancipation must be the ultimate goal. And he described his motives as entirely consistent with those of the former camp, not of the latter. When his own Treasury secretary, Salmon Chase, argued that the president was not doing enough to end slavery and that the Emancipation Proclamation was not nearly sufficient, Lincoln replied in a letter on September 2, 1863:
The original proclamation has no constitutional or legal justification, except as a military measure. The exemptions were made because the military necessity did not apply to the exempted localities. Nor does that necessity apply to them now any more than it did then. If I take the step [toward complete emancipation] must I not do so, without the argument of military necessity, and so, without any argument, except the one that I think the measure politically expedient and morally right? Would I not thus give up all footing upon constitution or law? Would I not thus be in the boundless field of absolutism?
In other words, Lincoln was aware of the possibility of — and refused to go down the path toward — a Machiavellian use of power, even in the service of a just cause.
A second case of Lincoln's exercise of constitutional restraint concerned the principle of election. As late as the summer of 1864, Lincoln fully expected to be a one-term president, and even many within his own party were urging another candidate. But should the election be postponed as some were proposing, given the exigencies of the ongoing war? Although an election would put the war effort at risk just when victory seemed within reach, Lincoln was absolutely opposed to delaying the election. Suspending elections was unthinkable, even if Lincoln's defeat and perhaps the demise of the Union were easily imaginable consequences of carrying on with the vote. "This morning, as for some days past," Lincoln wrote in a memorandum, "it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re-elected. Then it will be my duty to so co-operate with the President elect, as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such ground that he can not possibly save it afterwards."
To his infinite credit, Lincoln realized that constitutional government should not be sacrificed even if the cost might be the end of constitutional government. For constitutional leadership, the ends do not justify the means.
THE CONSTITUTIONAL STYLE
Constitutional leadership is necessarily bounded leadership. Unlike Machiavellian Realpolitik — as Lincoln demonstrated in his willingness to stake his all on re-election — the constitutional leader will not do whatever it takes to win. Machiavelli's princely legislators are like Lincoln's lions and eagles: They belong to a different species of humanity. They are heroic founders of peoples and nations — perhaps even the fathers of constitutions — but, for precisely this reason, they are ill suited to the more prosaic business of perpetuating constitutional government.
Constitutional leadership is similarly averse to Weber's charismatic leader. Although we are accustomed to speaking of our leaders (generally the ones we like) as being endowed with charismatic properties, this is a vulgarization of what Weber meant. Weber feared the mechanization and routinization of political life that was epitomized by the emergence of the modern bureaucratic state. He saw modern bureaucracy as the rule of "specialists without spirit, hedonists without a heart." In the spirit of Nietzsche's critique of rationalism, he developed the idea of charismatic authority as a means of revitalizing politics by seeking to inspire leaders with the qualities of prophetic grace. There is no room for such an elevation of the leader above the people in a constitutional republic.
And finally, constitutional leadership is different from the progressive model of the leader as the voice or tribune of the people. The progressive leader is not hemmed in by checks and balances. Rather, he has the ability to communicate directly with the people and to serve as the voice of their shifting opinions and moods. There is an indeterminacy about this model, as the ends of progressive leadership remain dependent on the people (hence our modern concern with charting even the most minute mood swings in public opinion). But it would have the executive serve as a direct mouthpiece of those he claims both to serve and to lead.
Constitutional leadership, by contrast to all the above, is political leadership, properly understood. It is a way of ruling within a settled order, bound by law, and with recourse to a minimum of violence and coercion. As Bernard Crick put it in his In Defence of Politics, Lincoln remains the greatest model of a constitutional leader:
The example of Lincoln is not too bad a one on which to rest this case for politics — however much pietistic myths have obscured the grosser human tale of political action. He offended beyond reason many responsible men of his day by rarely being willing to talk seriously in private, by his infuriating retreats into badinage and the telling of old jokes. His dignity was a very variable quality. He seems to have been an indifferent administrator, disorderly, inconsistent, and even slothful; his relations with Congress were often inept and usually bad. But, for all that, he is as great an example of a mere politician as can be found.
It is in this possibility of the mere politician serving as a great leader in times of challenge — a paradox made possible by our constitutional forms — that the hope of our republic rests.
Steven B. Smith is the Alfred Cowles Professor of Political Science at Yale University.