Lincoln as Civic Educator

Sanford Kessler

Fall 2022

The United States today is at a crossroads almost as perilous as the moment before the Civil War when Abraham Lincoln declared, "[a] house divided against itself cannot stand." Once again, we are split morally, politically, and geographically in ways that could lead to a dire national conflict. Lincoln, of course, made the historic decision to fight rather than allow our country to break apart. Few know, however, that he also designed a national framework for civic education that would unite all Americans by strengthening our allegiance to our foundational principles. That framework, with some modifications, offers a promising blueprint for helping to heal America's divisions today.

Our founding principles, which stem chiefly from the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, once formed our national identity — or, as Walt Whitman put it, the "common skeleton" that holds us "all close." Roughly speaking, they are that God endows all human beings with equal natural rights; that government's chief purpose is "to secure these rights"; that political freedom requires constitutionalism and the rule of law; that in America, the people rule, but not directly; that the nation, rather than the states, is sovereign; and that we act as a country under God's watchful eye.

Until the 1960s, most Americans understood and revered these principles while fully acknowledging their limitations in practice. We knew, for example, that African Americans and other minorities did not enjoy equal rights, that our laws were often ignored or disobeyed, and that our government did not always reflect the will of the people. These shortcomings and more still exist today. Yet our strong attachment to these principles enabled most of us to love our country, to respect our past, to feel a kinship with our fellow Americans, and to be hopeful about the future.

Unfortunately, too few Americans subscribe to our foundational principles today. Far-right extremists reject their essence despite calling themselves "patriots," while far-left extremists believe that they privilege whiteness, wealth, and power. Others consider them worthy but discredit them on the grounds that they are inconsistently applied. Still other Americans know little about these principles and thus don't feel much attachment to them.


This ignorance is due partly to a long-term decline in the quantity and quality of civic education. Prior to the 1960s, most Americans deemed civic education an essential prerequisite for good citizenship, and most public schools endorsed this view by making it a key part of their curricula. Yet in the post-Sputnik era, these schools began to neglect civic education in favor of more science- and technology-oriented curricula. By 2018, according to the Center for American Progress, only nine states and the District of Columbia required one year of U.S. government or civics, 31 states required half that amount, and 10 states had no government or civics requirement at all. Today, according to the American Bar Association, the federal government invests $54 per K-12 student for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics instruction; for civic education, it invests a mere 5 cents per student.

Fortunately, efforts are now afoot to reverse this trend. Several states and local school districts have increased their financial support for civic education, and in March 2021, a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced a bill in Congress called the "Civics Secures Democracy Act." The legislation aims to strengthen civic education nationwide through a variety of grants to states, non-profits, institutions of higher education, and civic-education researchers. It was reintroduced this past June but has yet to become law.

Progressive and conservative groups have also sought to revive civic education by proposing new plans of study for state and local officials to adopt. These include Generation Citizen and the New York Times/Pulitzer Center's 1619 Project on the left, as well as the National Association of Scholars' Civics Alliance and Hillsdale College's 1776 Curriculum on the right. While these groups claim to be non-partisan, their proposed curricula generally reflect their own political orientations and have, as a result, generated intense partisan controversy.

A more ideologically diverse group of civic educators introduced a novel project last year called "Educating for American Democracy." Funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the U.S. Department of Education, this project provides a detailed roadmap for teachers that seeks to avoid partisan controversies by setting forth a series of themes and questions for student consideration rather than a content-oriented curriculum. Yet it, too, has been subject to vicious partisan attacks, especially from the right.

Much of this controversy concerns "critical race theory," an academic and legal concept that asserts that our foundational principles have always supported, and continue to support, white supremacy and systemic racism. The 1619 Project endorses elements of this theory by linking our nation's origins to chattel slavery rather than to our founding documents. Its proponents claim that America's founders sought to perpetuate this evil and create an unjust caste system that they believe still exists today.

Conservative civic educators strongly oppose this and other such projects on the grounds that they unfairly malign our country by failing to teach young Americans about its good qualities or its inspiring history. Thus, the Civics Alliance supports efforts by state legislatures, local school boards, and concerned parents to forbid the use of curricular materials linked to the 1619 Project in public schools.

These curricular battles, which are now firmly embedded in our culture wars, have further divided Americans and greatly diminished the prospects for congressional passage of the Civics Secures Democracy Act. Given the strong link most culture warriors see between civic education and our national identity, this unfortunate development is not surprising.


Why should we turn to Lincoln for guidance amid this turmoil? After all, not everyone admires Lincoln today. Some on the right blame him for needlessly causing and unconstitutionally prosecuting the Civil War, while some on the left consider him a racist for being a reluctant abolitionist and for supporting colonization for free African Americans rather than social and political equality between the races. Yet Lincoln is still the one figure in the pantheon of great American leaders who commands the most respect among the vast majority of our people. No other figure in American life looms so large or is so widely admired.

Lincoln also had one important virtue that is sorely needed in today's toxic political environment: charitableness. Lincoln never demonized his political opponents; he firmly believed that civic charity fosters good citizenship and that "kind, unassuming persuasion" is the best and only way to change minds. A "drop of honey," he once quipped, "catches more flies than a gallon of gall."

Lincoln was a statesman, not an educator as we now understand the term. He wrote no books, designed no curricula, and taught no classes. Yet as a young man, he concluded that Americans must prioritize civic education — including the study of history — in order to "duly appreciate the value" of both our free political institutions and the foundational principles that shape them.

During the course of his career, Lincoln sought to weave these principles into a civic fabric that would make Americans better, more virtuous citizens and help unite us despite our differences. He pursued this task with increasing urgency in the years just prior to the Civil War, when sectionalism and sectarianism were tearing our country apart, and during the war itself, when he sought a means to help "bind up the nation's wounds."

To this end, he argued for a "political religion," or national civic creed, fashioned not from divinely revealed truth, but from the "solid quarry of sober reason." He outlined the core of this secular faith in an early speech titled "The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions," which he delivered in 1838 before the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois. He developed it further as he became a national leader in the 1850s and during the years of his momentous presidency. The chief requirement of Lincoln's civic creed is reverence for all our foundational principles, and especially for the concept of equal natural rights.

Lincoln hoped that teachers, statesmen, indeed all Americans in positions of authority would become civic educators by promoting his political religion. He did not intend this religion to replace American Christianity, which he deeply respected, but rather to support it by strengthening the political framework that enables it to thrive.

Although the idea of a national civic creed now seems odd to us, it was actually a staple of early American political thought. In fact, Thomas Jefferson, a chief founder of American civic education, considered the establishment of a rational "political faith" central to his pedagogy. The "essential principles" of American government, he wrote in his first inaugural address, constitute the "creed" of this faith and its "text of civic instruction."

While Lincoln admired Jefferson, he held Jefferson's political faith partly responsible for the national identity crisis that led to the Civil War. Lincoln modified this faith substantially throughout his career to address that crisis and to help future generations avoid similar crises. Today, however, most progressive and conservative civic educators endorse key elements of Jefferson's political faith while ignoring Lincoln's efforts to improve it.


Jefferson asserted that civic education should focus chiefly on our rights and how best to secure them against the abuses of political power. He considered the people, once properly taught, the best guardians of these rights. He favored direct democracy, and advised Americans to distrust government and delegate as little political power as possible to public officials. Civic educators should prepare us for self-government, he argued, by requiring us to study political history, to keep fully abreast of public affairs, and to monitor the behavior of our magistrates closely. Without these salutary measures, he warned, all government officials are likely to become "wolves" over time.

Jefferson hoped that civic educators would also attach us to our "republican constitution," which, as he interpreted it, created a loose union that privileged state sovereignty and local control of affairs, including education. While he considered the Constitution sufficient to check abuses of political power under most circumstances, he also advised Americans to resist oppression by using force when necessary. Although he abhorred political violence, he deemed it an evil that could lead to good if it prevented free government from sinking into tyranny.

Jefferson sought to advance his political faith chiefly through popular enlightenment. Thus, he held near the end of his life the conviction that the Declaration of Independence gave the "unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion" its proper place in human affairs and hoped that young Americans would learn to rely on reason rather than authority when considering important political matters.

Jefferson also believed that popular enlightenment inevitably leads to moral and intellectual progress, and that human nature itself will improve over time. These changes will, of necessity, require constant political reform. "[L]aws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind," he wrote, and "keep pace with the times." So too must civic education, which should teach young Americans to reject the authority of the past, to be wary of its influence on the present, and to chart a more rational, more just course for the future.


While Lincoln derived his "text of civic instruction" from the same American sources as Jefferson did, his view of human nature was grimmer than Jefferson's — and his hopes for America's political future more guarded. While he, like Jefferson, feared that despotism could one day be our fate, he considered our own character flaws more likely to beget this evil than unchecked political ambition. "If destruction be our lot," he warned, "we must ourselves be its author and finisher."

For Lincoln, civic education should seek not to enlighten and further empower the citizenry, but to check these character flaws. This change in orientation first appears in Lincoln's "Perpetuation" speech, where he implicitly rejects Jefferson's view that popular enlightenment will make us wiser and better over time. This view, he argued, underestimates the destructive role that the passions often play in human affairs — including the ordinary passions of daily life like "jealousy," "avarice," and "envy," as well as the more dangerous, "deep rooted" passions of hatred and vengeance.

Jefferson's error regarding the passions, according to Lincoln, led him to assume that once enlightened Americans accepted the self-evident truth of human equality, they would inevitably strive to abolish slavery as fast as circumstances permitted. The "spirit of the master is abating," Jefferson wrote in 1785, and "that of the slave [is] rising from the dust." Although Jefferson's hope in this regard dimmed considerably during his old age, he never fully abandoned it.

Lincoln argued that Jefferson's optimism regarding the gradual abolition of slavery was ill-conceived. Indeed, while most of Jefferson's peers considered slavery a necessary but temporary evil, by the 1850s, many Americans came to view it as a morally acceptable, if not positive, part of our national life.

Technology initiated this change in outlook by making slavery more profitable. Prominent statesmen like Stephen Douglas furthered the shift by ignoring the injustice of slavery and claiming that America's government "was made by our fathers on the white basis...for the benefit of white men and their posterity forever." Finally, Chief Justice Roger Taney sanctioned this change constitutionally in the infamous Dred Scott decision by defining slaves as property rather than rights-bearing human beings.

Lincoln feared that this "obvious violence" to the principles of the Declaration would eventually make slavery legal nationwide. In contrast to Jefferson, whose commitment to abolition was lukewarm at best, Lincoln considered the gradual elimination of this evil America's greatest moral imperative.

To this end, Lincoln made the concept of equal natural rights the chief tenet of our national civic creed. He hoped this concept would soon become a "standard maxim" for American society, "familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated and thereby...augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere."

The second doctrine of Lincoln's creed is democracy, which he famously defined in the Gettysburg Address as "government of the people, by the people, for the people." While the Declaration of Independence doesn't technically require democracy, Lincoln considered it the best, if not the only, political means by which to one day elevate the condition of all human beings.

Although Lincoln's understanding of democracy had Jeffersonian roots, he argued in his first inaugural address that the Constitution gave greater sovereignty to duly constituted national majorities than Jefferson was willing to allow. Since Lincoln knew that these majorities can and often do abuse their power, he maintained that "constitutional checks and limitations" must be in place to prevent them from oppressing minorities. Yet he also insisted that disgruntled minorities must abide by the results of fair national elections in order for American democracy to survive.

Lincoln's fear of the "wild and furious passions" also led him to view direct democracy much less favorably than did Jefferson. He blamed the populist rhetoric of the Jacksonian era in part for the nationwide increase in mob violence that occasioned his "Perpetuation" speech. Mob violence, in his view, leads to the loss of innocent life, encourages the "lawless in spirit" to become "lawless in practice," and, worst of all, undermines the attachment of the American people to constitutional government. This loss of affection, he warned, could someday dispose us to surrender our freedom to a would-be tyrant who promises order to a country weary of turmoil.

Lincoln's chief antidote for mob violence and other internal threats to freedom was constitutionalism, or reverence for the Constitution and the rule of law. This doctrine, the third of his political religion (albeit the first he discussed), requires Americans never to violate any laws sanctioned by the Constitution and "never to tolerate their violation by others." Lincoln knew, of course, that bad laws will always exist, as will legitimate grievances that the law often fails to address. Yet he urged concerned citizens to use legal, constitutional means to tackle these evils rather than to engage in disobedience, civil or otherwise.

The fourth doctrine of Lincoln's political religion is reverence for the Union. Jefferson considered the Union little more than a league of sovereign states that could individually nullify national laws at will. Although he never argued for secession, his understanding of the Union helped lay the groundwork for it.

Lincoln rejected Jefferson's doctrine of state sovereignty in his first inaugural address by arguing that the framers of the Constitution sought to make the Union "more perfect" in order to protect us against this doctrine's anarchic political tendencies. He also believed that a strong Union was necessary to make his civic creed an effective bulwark against our own moral failings. Without national adherence to this creed, he warned, we would never muster the will to end slavery or to preserve American democracy as the "last best hope of earth."

The fifth and final doctrine of Lincoln's national civic creed gives God a prominent role in American political life. Lincoln argued that God will punish or protect the American people according to how faithfully we adhere to our foundational principles. Thus he described the Civil War in his second inaugural address as God's chastisement of all Americans, Northerners as well as Southerners, for the terrible sin of slavery. Here he followed Jefferson, who warned in 1785 that God's justice with respect to this evil "cannot sleep forever."


Lincoln's political thought can greatly enhance our current efforts to strengthen civic education, but only if we take his warnings seriously. Lincoln cautioned that unless we prioritize these efforts, we are likely to see an increase in the hatred, vengefulness, violence, and demagoguery that could very well destroy our free political institutions. Given the manifest brokenness of our country today, can anyone doubt he was prophetic?

Lincoln sought to ground American civic education in a national civic creed that promotes a widespread, unshakable faith in our foundational principles. If Lincoln is to guide us, we must reject all attempts from the far right to empty these principles of content, as well as all efforts from the far left to discredit them by claiming they foster or support white supremacy. These latter efforts, if successful, would vindicate the arguments of Douglas, Taney, and others who misinterpreted these principles so egregiously during Lincoln's time.

We must also attend to Lincoln's subtle but powerful critique of Jefferson's political faith. While Lincoln built on Jefferson's effort to promote a national creed, he rejected some of Jefferson's leading assumptions on the grounds that they make such a faith impossible to sustain. Since most civic educators today base their pedagogy on these assumptions, we should challenge them as pointedly as Lincoln did.

The first assumption is that civic education can promote good citizenship by relying on reason alone. The authors of the Educating for American Democracy project, for example, support a rational, "inquiry-based" approach to civic education that teaches young Americans how to think critically about our national character, our political institutions, our capacity for change, and our place in the world. This approach would also teach them how to discuss and debate these and other important public matters civilly and constructively.

Lincoln shared these goals — indeed, he always assumed that the American public would consist of "intelligent and reading" individuals who would "peruse...weigh...and then judge" the merits of his arguments. Yet he also maintained that, in order to be fruitful, any discussion or debate about matters of substance must be grounded in our firmly held foundational principles.

Lincoln was right. Today, one can't rationally discuss, say, the "big lie" regarding the 2020 presidential election with those who seek to undermine our democratic processes and our constitutional system of checks and balances. Nor can we rationally debate public policy regarding race with those who consider our political system irredeemably racist.

Most civic-education groups, whatever their politics, now foster distrust of political authority as Jefferson did. Generation Citizen, for example, accuses our national government of systematically marginalizing minorities, while the Civics Alliance accuses the same government of seeking to impose a left-wing agenda on our public schools.

These organizations also share Jefferson's view that American citizens should take to the streets when any part of their government acts in ways they consider oppressive. Generation Citizen incorporates "action civics" into its curriculum so that young Americans can defend their rights directly. While the Civics Alliance strongly opposes student activism, it seeks to prepare students to resist oppression later in life by promoting the Jeffersonian spirit of "populist revolt."

Despite their many flaws, Lincoln considered our political institutions to be rare and fragile blessings. He therefore believed that civic education should endorse a different mindset — one that fosters respect for American government and reverence for all the provisions of the Constitution, including, of course, our First Amendment rights to assemble and protest peacefully. However, he firmly rejected the spirit of "populist revolt" on the grounds that it makes violent resistance to legitimate authority much more likely. Given the events of January 6th and other recent incidents of mob violence, Lincoln's position again seems prescient.

Lincoln also believed that, in order to be effective, our civic creed must be national in scope. If Lincoln is right, we must reject the now-prevalent Jeffersonian view that state and local officials alone should be responsible for determining the content of civic education. Ironically, both progressive and conservative civic educators generally share this view, as do the sponsors of the Civics Secures Democracy Act. If passed, the act would prohibit the use of federal funds for designing or promoting a national curriculum — no doubt including a national civic creed.

Those who support state and local control of civic education are right up to a point. Many curricular decisions must be made at the state or local level because of our constitutional division of powers. And perhaps the national government is too often guilty of overreach, as Jefferson maintained. Yet given the intense tribalism that fractures local communities and pits red states against blue states, I believe we must put the task of refashioning our civic creed in national hands.

While Lincoln hoped today's civic educators would endorse this creed, he did not expect them to adopt its tenets verbatim. He may have rejected Jefferson's belief in inevitable moral and intellectual progress, but he also understood that changed circumstances may require changes in principle. We should therefore be willing to update Lincoln's version of our national creed when necessary.

What we should alter today, however, is debatable. Should we keep Lincoln's doctrine that God intervenes in American history, or should we change it to accommodate our more skeptical and religiously diverse population? Should we reject non-violent civil disobedience entirely, as Lincoln suggests, or make some provision for it?

Lincoln argued in his second inaugural address that atoning for the national sin of slavery might require centuries of suffering and hard work. He contributed to this work near the end of the Civil War by expanding his own rather narrow view of equal rights to include social and political equality for African Americans at some point in the future. Since Lincoln's death, however, the legacy of slavery has continued to poison our national life.

While Lincoln did not share Jefferson's hope that popular enlightenment would significantly improve human nature, he did consider us sufficiently able to address this evil. Indeed, he based his plan for civic education partly on this premise. If we choose to adopt this plan, we must begin by strengthening our adherence to our foundational principles; only then can we determine what achieving racial justice still requires of us.

Lincoln held that, in order for this or any great national effort to turn out well, civic education must shape the hearts as well as the minds of the American people. "[P]ublic sentiment is everything," he observed. "With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed."

Can we follow Lincoln by teaching young Americans to love our country and to revere its foundational principles? Can the "better angels of our nature" learn to check our own evil inclinations? Can we nurture the "bonds of affection" that unite us, and be charitable, as Lincoln was, toward our political foes? How we answer these questions will largely determine our country's fate.


How can we bring Lincoln's plan for civic education to life? Doing so properly would require a full measure of Lincolnian prudence. As a start, however, civic educators of every stripe should study Lincoln's argument for a national civic creed with the seriousness it deserves. The effort would add immeasurably to our current dialogue about civic education, which tends to start from Jeffersonian, rather than Lincolnian, premises.

The congressional sponsors of the stalled Civics Secures Democracy Act should also amend this legislation to enable a panel of distinguished statesmen, scholars, and civic educators to revitalize our national civic creed using Lincoln as their guide. The act should require all states and localities that receive federal funding for civic education to ground their curricula in this creed. While the passage of such a revised act would not, by itself, heal our country's wounds, it would certainly represent a step in the right direction.

Despite Lincoln's warnings, the odds that Congress will soon pass such an act or provide any national support for civic education in the near future are small. Nor is it likely that today's Americans will easily coalesce around a common understanding of our foundational principles. Yet even during the worst moments of the Civil War, Lincoln never lost faith in the basic decency, intelligence, and resilience of the American people. If we are to follow in his footsteps, neither should we.

SANFORD KESSLER is associate professor emeritus of political science at North Carolina State University and adjunct associate professor of political science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.


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