Half a century ago, Lincoln biographer David Herbert Donald surveyed the pious pleadings of an unlikely assortment of politicians who testified to Abraham Lincoln's certain endorsement for their policies. Agreeing on little else, they were all "getting right with Lincoln." The struggle to define Lincoln's place in American history began immediately with his death. Squabbling Republicans fought for the title to Lincoln's legacy as each side claimed to be the rightful heir to Lincoln's true intentions. Lincoln's memory was invoked to support or oppose any number of legislative or reform proposals no matter how remote from the America of the 1860s. By the 1930s, according to Donald, Lincoln was "everybody's grandfather"--whether New Dealer, communist, socialist, vegetarian, or prohibitionist. (1) The question "What would Lincoln Do?" had become as common in political circles as the soul-searching query "What Would Jesus Do?" among earnest social gospel reformers.
Given his impatience with sentimentalists, humanitarians, and "uplifters" of all kinds, it is surprising at first glance to find Irving Babbitt among those "getting right with Lincoln"--even to a modest degree--especially at the height of the Progressive Era's dreamy infatuation with the Lincoln mystique. To be sure, Babbitt offered few direct comments about Lincoln and his legacy. Beyond one reference in Literature and the American College (1909) and a handful in Democracy and Leadership (1924), Lincoln hardly appears in his works. In contrast with his extensive treatment of Woodrow Wilson, for instance, Babbitt's near silence regarding the Great Emancipator hardly seems to merit passing comment let alone close analysis. Nevertheless, what little Babbitt did say about Lincoln is so sweeping that it cannot be ignored.
Lincoln appears in Literature and the American College within Babbitt's stinging criticism of the false conception of democracy then being experimented with at Charles Eliot's Harvard in the form of the elective system. Babbitt traced this misguided enthusiasm for autonomy, impulse, and immature judgment to Rousseauist assumptions. A Rousseauist "pseudo-democracy," he warned, exalts the will of an individual or of a momentary popular majority and jettisons the time-tested and slowly accumulated "standards of judgment" of civilized society. In contrast to this temperamental romanticism, Babbitt chose Lincoln to represent "true democracy" built on the "permanent element of judgment" and what he called a "selective democracy of the sober second thought" that resists the easy temptation of the "passing impression." (2) While Babbitt nowhere in this context mentions the South and secession, presumably the South's bid for independence stood in his mind for the contrasting spirit of false liberty and restless, willf ul democracy.
Building on this early insight, Babbitt used Lincoln much more extensively sixteen years later in Democracy and Leadership. By this point, Lincoln had come to represent one side in the ongoing conflict in American culture and constitutional thought between impulsive democracy and restrained "unionism." Babbitt carefully distanced Lincoln from the Rousseauist and Jeffersonian temperament, denying that he allowed his Arcadian dreams to affect his conduct in office. Far from a utopian demagogue frolicking in the Elysian fields with Rousseau, Lincoln represented the self-restrained, model statesman and ethical realist who preserved the true "liberty of the unionist" as the nation stood on the brink of dissolution. Babbitt projected onto American history as a whole the dualism of the individual human heart. He found two principles at war in the American soul: tugging in one direction, a passionate Rousseauist temperament revealed in the political principles of Thomas Jefferson, a tendency to overestimate human goo dness, the abstractions of the Declaration of Independence, a fondness for direct democracy, the impulsive states' rights doctrine of John C. Calhoun, and the anarchy of secession; pulling against all this, a restrained Burkean spirit manifested in the political principles of George Washington, a recognition of human frailty, the institutional bulwarks of the Constitution, the need for a veto power somewhere over individuals and states, the jurisprudence of John Marshall, and the sanity of unionism. "By his preoccupation with the question of the union," Babbitt wrote, "Lincoln became the true successor of Washington and Marshall." (3) As the culmination of the "unionist" tradition at the moment of its greatest crisis, Lincoln occupied a particularly important niche in Babbitt's constitutional and ethical thought. He represented the man of ethical control who passed the test of leadership that Woodrow Wilson so miserably failed elsewhere in the pages of Democracy and Leadership. (4)
Anyone even casually familiar with Babbitt's work knows that certain historical figures often served him as convenient shorthand for an entire cultural tendency or intellectual current. Most extensively, Babbitt used Francis Bacon as the embodiment of scientific naturalism and Jean-Jacques Rousseau as the embodiment of romantic sentimentalism. Babbitt wrote first and foremost as a literary and cultural critic, not as a historian. Figures like Bacon and Rousseau mattered most to him as cultural types who represented tendencies far beyond the scope of their narrow context of time, place, and circumstance. Babbitt's use of Lincoln, therefore, needs to be approached with this rhetorical device in mind. The elusive "real Lincoln" mattered less to Babbitt than it would to the historian or biographer. And yet, Babbitt claimed to be rescuing Lincoln from the sentimentalists of his day; he claimed that he knew the "real Lincoln." He protested in Democracy and Leadership that Lincoln was being remade in American memory into "the great...