Although he is revered as one of our greatest presidents, Abraham Lincoln seems to lack the legacy of others like Jefferson or Jackson who brought about new conceptions of American political life. In this study of Lincoln’s political thought, Eric Sands blends political science, history, and political theory to offer a fresh perspective on Lincoln, his thought, and the politics of Reconstruction.
In this new consideration of Lincoln’s “public philosophy”—the nation’s understanding of itself—Sands seeks to determine why the spirit that successfully led the Union through the Civil War was unable to sustain itself during Reconstruction. He defines Lincolnism as a rededication to the principle of natural rights, a narrative of Divine Providence, a sentiment of brotherhood, and an augmentation of founding principles. He then explains how Lincoln’s assassination, Johnson’s succession, and developments in philosophy and science worked to undermine this philosophy after the war.
Sands investigates why the Republican Party was unable to sustain Lincoln’s ideas and why neither Republicans nor Democrats were able to formulate a compelling substitute public philosophy for Lincolnism. He describes how Radical Republicans and Purist Democrats battled for control over America’s public philosophy, then how Moderate Republicans and Legitimist Democrats abandoned battles over first principles completely. By the end of Reconstruction, public philosophy politics were rejected altogether, ultimately frustrating efforts to move the nation toward the realization of full equality under the law.
By reflecting on public policy formation and change, Sands evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of public philosophy politics and shows that the most inspiring and noble kind of politics, even if oriented toward moral principles, can also be dangerous and divisive. His work lends new insight into the role of ideas in politics and offers readers a new understanding of the consequences of Lincoln’s actions and the death of Reconstruction policies—and of why no concept of a “Lincolnian democracy” survived during the Reconstruction era.