Our Ancient Faith: Lincoln, Democracy, and the American Experiment by Allen C. Guelzo


Review by Brian Tanguay

Abraham Lincoln believed that democracy was the single greatest achievement in human history. How Lincoln came to this belief is less well known than other aspects of his life and times. In Our Ancient Faith, Allen C. Guelzo, a research scholar in the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University, explains how Lincoln’s deeply held and unshakeable faith in democracy developed, and how it guided his governing philosophy during the Civil War. 

The book is remarkably compact and accessible, nine chapters, with an Epilogue titled, “What if Lincoln Had Lived?” In his Author’s Note, Guelzo describes the book as a brief essay in a time of shadows. These ideas have gestated, appearing in preliminary and speculative form in various publications over fifteen or more years. “To all those who have despaired of the future,” Guelzo writes, “or whose lives have been ruined by the failures of the present, I offer this man’s example.”

What did Lincoln believe about democracy? Foundationally, that it was a regime of reason and law rather than unreason and passion. Lincoln recognized that people often abandoned reason for passion, but the antidote to excess passion wasn’t more or equal passion, it was the rule of law. The law was public reason uttered by the public voice. Over and over again, in speeches, letters, notes and state papers he emphasized that America and its institutions belonged to the people who inhabited the country. Lincoln never doubted that Americans would suffer much for the safekeeping of their democracy. 

Lincoln was intimately familiar with the Bible and many of Shakespeare’s plays, and these sources influenced his thinking and writing, but as Shelby Cullom, who served with Lincoln in the Illinois legislature and later in Congress observed, Lincoln also had formidable knowledge of political economy.  In the 1840s and 1850s, Lincoln studied the leading theorists of his day, including Henry Carey and John Stuart Mill, whose ideas informed Lincoln’s thinking about the legitimate objects of government, one of which was “protecting, as far as possible, every member of the society from the injustice or oppression of every other member of it.” Lincoln spoke often about advancement and improvement of condition and the value of labor. Canals, roads, schools, and towns were, to Lincoln’s mind, all tools of improvement worthy of government support. Even facing secession by the Southern states, Guelzo notes that Lincoln and the new Republican Party pushed an aggressive domestic agenda, including a national platform of tariffs and the creation of a federal currency. 

But of course it was slavery, secession, and the Civil War that challenged, perplexed, and occupied Lincoln in ways no other American president has faced. Slavery was wrong in Lincoln’s personal view and he didn’t condone it. What wasn’t as evident to him was whether or not anything could, or should, be done about slavery in the states where it already existed. Lincoln focused instead on halting slavery’s expansion into new territory in the west, reasoning that slavery would die a natural death if it could be contained. This hope was sundered by the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska bill in 1854, which allowed for slavery if the people in the territory expressed a desire for it. 

“Lincoln is also an unhappy example,” writes Guelzo, “of how opposition to slavery did not necessarily guarantee any sort of enlightenment on race, and there is an uncomfortable zigzag in much of Lincoln’s thinking on racial issues.” Thus could the man who signed the Emancipation Proclamation also enjoy blackface minstrel performances. It’s worth noting that Lincoln’s proclamation only applied to slaves in the rebellious Confederate states, but excluded Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland and Delaware. Lincoln’s long time law partner and biographer, William Herndon, said that at no time did Lincoln advocate for the equality of the white and black races. 

For all his faith in democracy, Lincoln was aware of its potential deficits and pitfalls. In what now seems prophetic, Lincoln feared that democracy required habits of behavior that people couldn’t sustain, and that in certain circumstances oppression might masquerade as democracy. When the South finally capitulated, Lincoln warned his closest advisors that one of the surest ways to undermine democracy was for it to become a vehicle for unlawful vengeance. Because he was an uncommonly wise and sober man, Lincoln understood the temptations of power; he knew that demagogues feast on revenge. 

Professor Guelzo has written more than a dozen books about Abraham Lincoln. He sees Lincoln’s attributes as well as his shortcomings as clearly as anyone I have ever read on the subject. Ultimately, the tone of Our Ancient Faith is optimistic, perhaps more than seems warranted in a moment when the Party of Lincoln has become the Party of Donald Trump, a demagogue obsessed with revenge. The ideals of reason, debate, compromise, and respect for the rule of law so revered by Lincoln are under extreme duress, while the better angels of our nature to which Lincoln referred in his first inaugural address seem to have gone into hiding. 

I would like to believe that we can draw encouragement and hope from the fact that many of our current frustrations and fears were navigated by Lincoln a century and a half ago. Lincoln, as Guelzo reminds us, “endured a political environment polarized between extremes that had little hope of reconciliation. Uncanny, yes, but also comforting that these frustrations are not novelties.”