Lincoln and Democracy

Allen Guelzo

Spring 2023

In the vast collected writings of Abraham Lincoln, the word "democracy" occurs just 137 times. Yet no other term described what he saw as the most natural, the most just, the most enlightened form of human government. Nothing could be "as clearly true as the truth of Democracy," Lincoln declared. And nothing demonstrated that truth more clearly in Lincoln's mind than the American democracy, which embodied "the one great living principle of all Democratic representative government."

Lincoln's confidence in democracy was based on three kinds of evidence. First was his own experience of the opportunities made possible by America's commitment to equal opportunity and hostility to rigid hierarchies, and his perception of how that openness enabled others whom he admired to rise and contribute to American life. Second was the natural law, which seemed unequivocally to require a kind of democratic equality. And third was the American story, past and especially future, which seemed plainly to describe a movement toward a democratic conception of social and political life.

Together, they made for a case for liberty and equality that came to define both Lincoln's idealism and his practical aims. And they pointed him toward an idea of democracy rooted in a firm grasp of the danger of its opposite — slavery and oppression. Lincoln's profound understanding of the preconditions for genuine democracy, and of its necessity, were rooted in this rich soil. And with his help, ours could be, too.


The absence of a permanent hierarchy in American life permitted anyone to transform himself from poverty to wealth, from the margins to the center, and no one had enjoyed that transformation more than Lincoln. To him, "the principle of 'Liberty to all'" was "the principle that clears the path for all [and] gives hope to all — and, by consequence, enterprize, and industry to all." As soon as he had entered into adulthood, he was intent on taking that path and "cutting entirely adrift from the old life" he had known on his father's farm. He was "not ashamed to confess" in 1860 "that twenty-five years ago I was a hired laborer, mauling rails, at work on a flat-boat — just what might happen to any poor man's son!"

He was not ashamed because, in America, there were no artificial restraints of class or state; "every man can make himself." He had been "a strange, friendless, uneducated, penniless boy," but in the democratic air of America, the "prudent, penniless beginner in the world, labors for wages awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land, for himself; then labors on his own account another while, and at length hires another new beginner to help him." He can even aspire to the highest office of that democracy. "I happen temporarily to occupy this big White House," he told an Ohio regiment outside the Executive Mansion in August 1864:

I am a living witness that any one of your children may look to come here as my father's child has. It is in order that each of you may have through this free government which we have enjoyed, an open field and fair chance for your industry, enterprise, and intelligence; that you may all have equal privileges in the race of life, with all its desirable human aspirations.

In a world still teeming with aristocracies and dictatorships, "such a race of prosperity ha[d] been run nowhere else."

No one seemed more clearly to illustrate the power of democracy to transform "any poor man's son" than the man Lincoln admired most in American politics: Henry Clay, his "beau ideal of a statesman, the man for whom [he] fought all [his] humble life." Like Lincoln, Clay was a "self-made man" — someone "who had risen by [his] own efforts and industry to professional and political distinction" — which was exactly what a democracy made possible. Clay was not only shaped by democracy, but devoted himself to promoting it. The "primary and all controlling passion" of Clay's life was "the cause of human liberty" for "the oppressed every where," and if Clay loved his country above all others, it was not a vainglorious or selfish nationalism, but "because it was a free country," and its "advancement, prosperity and glory" were the means to "the advancement, prosperity and glory, of human liberty, human right and human nature."

Still, Clay was not a perfect model: "Mr. Clay was the owner of slaves," Lincoln acknowledged. But this was only incidental, he argued (though not entirely convincingly). Clay had been "[c]ast into life where slavery was already widely spread and deeply seated." To Clay's credit, Lincoln insisted that he "ever was, on principle and in feeling, opposed to slavery." But in practical terms, Clay "did not perceive" (and neither did Lincoln) "how it could be at once eradicated, without producing a greater evil, even to the cause of human liberty," by disrupting, and even destroying, the American democracy. But that still placed Clay at a far distance from "an increasing number of men, who, for the sake of perpetuating slavery, are beginning to assail and to ridicule...the declaration that 'all men are created free and equal.'"

Self-transformation, especially on the order of a Henry Clay, might serve for Lincoln as a justification for democracy. But for others, democracy needed a more transcendent rationale, and that was what Lincoln found in natural law.

Modern jurisprudence has relegated much of natural-law jurisprudence to the historical attic, but in Lincoln's day, it remained a potent intellectual resource, since natural law proceeded easily from the assumption — fostered mutually by the Enlightenment, Christian scholasticism, and classical philosophy — that the universe is a morally well-ordered place. If the physical universe functioned by natural physical laws, the argument went, the moral world should likewise reveal evidence of moral law.

"Every law is found to be in perfect harmony with every other law," reasoned Brown University's Francis Wayland, whose works Lincoln "ate up, digested, and assimilated." Hence, "every thing teaches us that the universe, with all its changes, is nothing more than the realization of one single conception," and morality forms itself around natural moral law as readily as physics forms itself around natural physical law. "We know immediately and intuitively that love is good, and malignity evil," wrote Wayland's contemporary, Mark Hopkins of Williams College. Noah Porter of Yale was persuaded that "[n]o man was ever known to exist...who did not recognize certain ethical distinctions as real, and esteem them as of supreme importance." From these natural laws, one could abstract a list of natural rights, since there never was a human community where "some relations of duty or right were not accepted and enforced."

Lincoln absorbed from the American intellectual environment in general, and the Declaration of Independence in particular, the sense that natural law had hardwired certain natural rights into every human consciousness, and that "among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." The "love of liberty," for instance, is an instinct "which God has planted in our bosoms"; it is a love that is "the heritage of all men, in all lands, every where."

For Lincoln, the enjoyment of these rights could only exist fully within a democratic framework of self-government. Natural rights were "a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for"; they rendered "the doctrine of self-government...right — absolutely and eternally right."

It was not always clear whether these rights were a natural imperative or simply a natural regularity. Either way, though, there could be "no just rule other than that of moral and abstract right," and that rule began with "the right of a people to 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.'" Those "maxims" also rendered slavery morally wrong — not merely inconvenient, and certainly not a "positive good," but wrong, since "there can be no moral right in connection with one man's making a slave of another." Indignantly, Lincoln demanded, "[i]s not slavery universally granted to be...a gross outrage on the law of nature? Have not all civilized nations, our own among them, made the Slave trade capital, and classed it with piracy and murder? Is it not held to be the great wrong of the world?" It was a loathing so fundamental that Lincoln could not "remember when [he] did not so think, and feel."

Finally, democracy shone for Lincoln because it had the sanction of both the American past and the American future. It almost rings naïve, in our weary ears, to hear the abolitionist Wendell Phillips announce in 1864 that "the future and inevitable form of all governments is to be democratic; that all progress tends to that final and happy goal." And yet Lincoln was similarly confident democracy would not only triumph through the Civil War, but provide a "vast future" for generations to follow.

Even in the depths of the war, Lincoln seems never to have doubted for a moment that the eventual outcome would be a vindication of democracy. The "popular principle, applied to government," he told Congress in December 1861, has produced an increase in everything "which men deem desirable," and will continue to do so "if firmly maintained...for the future." Americans must "diligently apply the means," he wrote in 1863, like an Old School Presbyterian exhorting his congregation to use "the means of grace" to obtain salvation, "never doubting that a just God, in his own good time, will give us the rightful result." But that result, if achieved, would, "we hope and believe...liberate the world."

Just as powerful was the vindication given to democracy by the American past. Lincoln inherited from 18th-century politics the sense that political orders tend toward decay and degeneration, rather than evolving upward into something different and improved. "There is a sound maxim," said Lincoln's contemporary (and later, secretary of state) William Henry Seward, "which teaches that every government is perpetually degenerating toward corruption." The solution was "the resuscitation of its first principles and the re-establishment of its original constitution," and especially the principles of the American Revolution (a resuscitation that had also been urged by Clay).

In Lincoln's imagination, the Revolution had been more than a mere domestic rebellion against British taxing authority. He could remember from his boyhood reading of the Revolution's history that "there must have been something more than common that these men struggled for." Why else would the revolutionaries have fought so tenaciously? "No oppressed people will fight, and endure, as our fathers did, without the promise of something better, than a mere change of masters." That something better "gave liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but hope to the world for all future time."

The founders, Lincoln observed, "knew the tendency of prosperity to breed tyrants." Thus,

they established these great self-evident truths, that when in the distant future some man, some faction, some interest, should set up the doctrine that none but rich men, or none but white men, were entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, their posterity might look up again to the Declaration of Independence and take courage to renew the battle which their fathers began.

What Americans must do in this new age, he reasoned, was "re-adopt the Declaration of Independence, and with it, the practices, and policy, which harmonize with it." If "you have been inclined to believe that all men are not created equal in those inalienable rights enumerated by our charter of liberty," he told Congress in July 1861, "let me entreat you to...[r]eturn to the fountain whose waters spring close by the blood of the Revolution."

Lincoln described democracy as his "ancient faith," and his certainty of its triumph rose to the level of the serene. By the same token, those who have been the most distrustful of Abraham Lincoln have displayed more than a little distrust of democracy, too.


Lincoln did not merely espouse democracy; he looked like democracy. He was as common-looking and homely as a democratic people were themselves common and homely. Robert Wilson, who first met him in 1834, remembered that Lincoln "had nothing in his appearance that was marked or Striking." He was "Stoop Shouldered," long-armed, with "large and bony" hands. He was indifferent to clothing as long as it was "clean & neat," and an attender of the Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1858 found "his general appearance anything but prepossessing" and "his phiz...truly awful."

Above all, he was "not stiff" or formal. Jane Martin Johns described him in 1849 as "a gentleman of the old school, unaffected, unostentatious." Lincoln himself liked the idea of being "a gentleman," but only in the sense of possessing self-controlled, middle-class manners; in any other sense he would, as he admitted, never have "the outside polish." Even after his election as president in 1860, Ada Bailhache could spend "an evening at Mr. Lincolns" before his departure from his home in Illinois, scarcely realizing that she "was sitting in the august presence of a real live president." William Howard Russell, the Times of London's reporter in America in 1861, was startled to meet a man of "shambling...gait" and "flapping and wide projecting ears," and amazed that at Lincoln's White House receptions, "any one could walk in who chose."

After Lincoln reviewed the Army of the Potomac in 1862, a private in the 19th Indiana thought that Lincoln's "beard unshaven gave him a rough camp look," which made him "altogether...the man to suit the soldiers." Even the hat he wore en route to Washington and his inauguration sent a democratic message: It was a "soft wool hat" with a wide brim and a tall crown, known as a "Kossuth hat" from the style worn by Hungarian revolutionary Louis Kossuth.

Despite his reverence for and embodiment of democracy, Lincoln did not offer a specific, or even lengthy, definition of the term — or one of "representative" democracy, "a Representative republic," or a "constitutional republic." A republic to Lincoln was clearly a democratic space, since its opposite was the suppression of "meetings" in order "to shut men's mouths," and he had no hesitation in jumbling together "republic" and "democracy" as though they were synonyms. But Lincoln's only attempt at defining democracy occurred, almost in passing, in a note he jotted in the days leading up to the Lincoln-Douglas debates:

As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy.

This is a peculiar definition, since Lincoln makes no formal attempt at specifying the components of democracy (such as the location of sovereignty) and makes no allusion to elections or even majority rule. What Lincoln did instead was draw a contrast between slavery and democracy, so as to illustrate what democracy was not, and that contrast hinged on the point of consent. A slave is someone who has no autonomy, no say in his status, whose consent is unsolicited and undesired, and who has no prospect of being delivered from that status. The slave is without kin, without a country, without any identity apart from the will of the master. The slave is, in short, the antithesis of democracy.

There is an oddity in Lincoln connecting his only attempt at defining democracy with this antithesis. But then again, the nearest and most constant challenge Lincoln saw to democracy in America came from slavery and the contradictory energy with which American slaveholders defended the institution; it was this contradiction with which Lincoln labored all his life. Consent, after all, was how sovereignty was exercised: His objection, in 1848, to war with Mexico over the disputed region between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande was based on whether the people in that region had ever "submitted themselves to the government or laws of Texas or of the United States, by consent or by compulsion." As he put it in 1854, "according to our ancient faith, the just powers of governments are derived from the consent of the governed."

This was one of the foundational arguments Thomas Jefferson had made in 1776 in the Declaration of Independence — that "Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed" — and Lincoln translated Jefferson's "axiom" to mean "that no man is good enough to govern another man, without that other's consent. I say this is the leading principle — the sheet anchor of American republicanism." Slavery, thought Lincoln, might have some justification if the slave is not a human being and incapable of consent: "If he is not a man, why in that case, he who is a man may, as a matter of self-government, do just as he pleases with him." But a slave plainly is "a man." So, Lincoln reasoned, "is it not to that extent, a total destruction of self-government, to say that he too shall not govern himself?" When one man "governs himself that is self-government; but when he governs himself, and also governs another man" without that vital element of consent, "that is more than self-government — that is despotism."

Consent could come in several forms. It could mean active agreement, either vocal or participatory. Democracy encourages "the people to judge and act for themselves," and in a functioning democracy, "ALL the governed" exercise "an equal voice in the government." In some contexts, consent could come with reservations. Lincoln himself would "consent to the extension" of slavery into the republic's Western territories "rather than see the Union dissolved, just as I would consent to any GREAT evil, to avoid a GREATER one" — although he suspected that yielding such consent would disregard any consent by the people living in those territories, forcing "Governors, and Secretaries, and Judges on the people of the territories, without their choice or consent," to tolerate slavery.

Or, consent could mean simple passive acquiescence. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 "was settled by the Northern members consenting to the admission of Missouri, with the understanding that in consideration thereof the South consented that slavery should forever be prohibited from entering any territory north of 36 degrees 30 minutes." This, however, was a low form of consent, offered in a grudging spirit, and only out of necessity to preserve the Union (and American democracy with it) from heading off disaster's cliffs. And it was at least better than the conniving sort of consent Lincoln had known, in which shady lawyers "in advance, consent to be [knaves]."

That slavery persisted in the American republic only by this low form of consent was suggestive of how inconsistent slavery and consent really were. In slavery, the "master not only governs the slave without his consent; but he governs him by a set of rules altogether different from those which he prescribes for himself." It appropriates the slave's labor, the slave's personality, even the slave's sexuality, as it allows the master to exploit the slave's physical being in "forced concubinage." And it fosters a political environment in which consent is disregarded not only between master and slave, but between citizen and citizen.

The crime of the "famous" Kansas-Nebraska Act, which erased even the Missouri Compromise and opened all Western territories to the possibility of legalized slavery, was that it "was done without the consent of the people" in those territories "and against their wishes, for if the matter had been put to vote before the people directly, whether [theirs] should be made a slave territory, they would have indignantly voted it down." From that point in 1854, the record of James Buchanan's failed presidency was little more than a series of what one historical account characterizes as "fraudulent attempts of the administration and the slave power to force institutions upon a free people against their consent."

On those terms, slavery is a condition Lincoln would not wish for himself or his countrymen — all the more so because he had tasted something of slavery in his own crude, backwoods upbringing. As an adolescent, Lincoln's father Thomas had quite literally rented him out to neighboring farmers and flatboatmen, with all the proceeds going back into his father's hands. The memory still rankled Lincoln four decades later, leading him to claim that "I used to be a slave," but "now I am so free that they let me practice law."

It rankled still further when protectors of slavery argued that slavery was a positive good for the slave, because American slavery was confined to a race of natural inferiors — as though slavery were a benefit to those incapable of appreciating democracy. Far from excusing slaveholders, for Lincoln it made them indistinguishable from monarchs, as kings "always bestrode the necks of the people, not that they wanted to do it, but because the people were better off for being ridden." This excited nothing but contempt in Lincoln: "As a good thing, slavery is strikingly perculiar, in this, that it is the only good thing which no man ever seeks the good of, for himself."

In short, for Lincoln, slavery was the enemy of consent; it prescribed what one must do, or must not do, irrespective of any thought or gesture on the part of the enslaved, and rendered the slave incapable of registering either. Lincoln had "never [known] a man who wished to be himself a slave"; if that man would not consent to be a slave, he had no business overriding the consent of others and making them slaves. "[I]f any should be slaves," he told the soldiers of an Indiana regiment during the Civil War, "it should be first those who desire it for themselves," and only then "for others."

Democracy thus implied a political Golden Rule: What you do not want done to yourself, do not try to impose on others. Those who wish not to have consent trampled on must not be party to such trampling themselves. If not a slave, then not a master; that is democracy — or at least one aspect of it. This, Lincoln insisted, is "a world of compensations; and he who would be no slave, must consent to have no slave." If consent rules the democratic understanding, then consent eliminates slavery. There is no separation of people into the categories of those who are born naturally to freedom and those who are, in Aristotelian terms, born with slavish traits, unable to live on any higher plane than subservience and unintelligence.

Democracy and slavery were so unalike in Lincoln's eyes that those who wanted to live in a democracy could not reconcile that desire with the keeping of slaves. That some people did manage this artful dodging was an evasion of logic and reason, growing out of pure selfishness, pure self-interest. "Slavery is founded in the selfishness of man's nature," Lincoln warned in 1854, and it survived as it did only because some people could not see the inconsistency of democracy and slavery "through 2,000,000,000 of dollars." It did not matter that, technically, democracy is a political system and slavery an economic one; for, in Lincoln's mind, the boundary between economics and politics is thin to the point of evaporation.


Lincoln's "idea of democracy" only establishes what democracy is not, or at least what it cannot include. He never offered a more thoroughgoing definition of what democracy is. But it's not difficult to piece together a larger idea from the vast outpouring of letters, speeches, briefs, notes, and state papers he composed over the course of a public life that lasted 33 years, beginning the day he first announced himself as a candidate for the Illinois state legislature.

Even more than consent, Lincoln understood that democracy is characterized by its location of sovereignty in the body of the people. "This country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it," he announced in his first inaugural address, and the great challenge of the Civil War — even before dealing with slavery — was proving that this was "not an absurdity." A sovereign people can amend their democracy's rules, or even overthrow the rulers (if they misbehave), but it cannot suffer a portion of that democracy to walk away over decisions it does not like and call it "peaceful" secession.

Worse still, if a minority in a democracy balks at the policy endorsed by the majority, and then promptly proceeds to break up the polity by armed force, democracy would appear in the eyes of a not-very-sympathetic world to be a farce. "We must settle this question now, whether in a free government the minority have the right to break up the government whenever they choose," Lincoln explained to his secretary, John Hay, less than a month after the war began. "If we fail it will go far to prove the incapability of the people to govern themselves."

The way they would govern themselves, however, would be by law. "[R]everence for the laws" was one of Lincoln's guiding stars, and it ensured that even a majority did not have the authority to enact outrages. Law was the embodiment of reason, the opposite of "the unreasoning, and uncharitable passions, prejudices, and jealousies." It restrained the state from becoming tyrannical and the people from becoming a mob, and must be applied, Lincoln insisted, as much to the high as to the low. "Allow the President to invade a neighboring nation, whenever he shall deem it necessary," he complained to William Herndon in 1848, "and you allow him to make war at pleasure."

By the same token, "whenever the vicious portion of population shall be permitted to gather in bands of hundreds and thousands, and burn churches, ravage and rob provision-stores, throw printing presses into rivers, shoot editors, and hang and burn obnoxious persons at pleasure, and with impunity; depend on it, this Government cannot last." This did not mean that obedience to law must be unthinking, or that all laws were either perfect or right. "An unconstitutional act is not a law," Lincoln conceded. But the solution lay not in defiance or subversion of law, but in patience, persuasion, the rational judgment of the courts, and the back and forth of argument in the public forums, especially the newspapers.

Law, however, only ensured stability; it could not inspire participation, and in a democracy, the participation of the citizens was indispensable. "If my own strength should fail," Lincoln said in 1861, he was confident that he could "fall back upon these masses, who, I think, under any circumstances will not fail." The principal place of that participation was in elections, since only through elections — through the constant submission of the rulers and the laws to the ruled, and to accountability before the sovereign people — could democracy breathe, learn, and grow. "[T]here can be no successful appeal from the ballot to the bullet," Lincoln warned, since it was "not bloody bullets, but peaceful ballots" that "give the victory to the right."

Even "with its incidental, and undesirable strife," an election is the only way of "demonstrating popular sentiment." Without elections, Lincoln argued, we "can not have free government," and any cause that forces their postponement or cancellation "might fairly claim to have already conquered and ruined us." And yet, even elections are not free of errors; scoundrels and demagogues can be elected as certainly as statesmen. But the solution in such cases is the next election. It is the genius of American democracy, Lincoln pointed out, that its Constitution gives "public servants but little power for mischief; and [has] with equal wisdom provided for the return of that little to [the people's] own hands at very short intervals."

Ultimately, however, a democracy practiced in this way would only function "while the people remain patient, and true to themselves." Patience — and the law it served — would turn out to be in fearfully short supply in Lincoln's America. His case for democracy as both the fountain and the expression of human liberty ought to remind us of the importance of patience in our time.

Allen Guelzo is the Thomas W. Smith Distinguished Research Scholar and director of the James Madison Program's Initiative on Politics and Statesmanship at Princeton University.


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