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Professor Allen Guelzo illuminates President Abraham Lincoln’s character

On February 8, 2018, Professor Allen C. Guelzo, spoke at The Institute of World Politics regarding the statesmanship of the 16th President of the United States Abraham Lincoln. He discussed the criticisms of President Lincoln and defended the reputation of President Lincoln.  

Professor Guelzo began his lecture by discussing the aftermath of the assassination of President Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth. He described how the nation struggled to cope with the disaster. Professor Guelzo explained that society came to a standstill.

One of the key messages of Professor Guelzo’s talk was that President Lincoln saw himself as a public servant rather than a ruler. This was due to President Lincoln’s strong belief in the rule of law. Professor Guelzo stated that the rule of law is the gradient between the state and the people and that democratic societies have vertical boundaries instead of horizontal boundaries. It is how the state can moderate the people’s behavior while not crossing the line into dictatorship and authoritarianism. Professor Guelzo explained that President Lincoln took a pragmatic approach and that he thought the ultimate role of government was to uphold the rule of law.

Professor Guelzo did point out that during President Lincoln’s time, he had many detractors who alleged that President Lincoln was an authoritarian who was overstepping his powers as President and not following the Constitution of the United States. The evidence of the critics was that President Lincoln temporarily revoked the writ of habeas corpus, fired over 1,000 federal employees, had the military interfere with elections, shut down newspapers, and arrested people who spoke out against his policies such as the draft.

However, Professor Guelzo refuted the claim that President Lincoln was an authoritarian by returning to the idea of the rule of law. He pointed out that in order to maintain the rule of law and democracy, those who wanted to walk away when things did not go in their favor could not be tolerated. This viewpoint was opposite of President James Buchanan, President Lincoln’s predecessor who refused to clamp down on the South. Professor Guelzo explained that many of President Lincoln’s critics such as John C. Calhoun of South Carolina were using their criticism as a cover to keep the federal government from interfering with slavery.

Professor Guelzo also explained that President Lincoln’s negative effects on the rule of law were temporary and did not come from malice. On the other hand, the Confederacy would have done permanent damage to the nation and the rule of law. President Lincoln took the practical steps needed to preserve the country in the long term, even if there were some negatives in the short term. He saw that it was his responsibility to preserve the United States.

Professor Guelzo stated that President Lincoln did keep to Constitutional limits as seen in his Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln used his power as commander-in-chief to create the Emancipation Proclamation as a military strategy to weaken the economy and base of the Confederacy. He did not free slaves in the North as they had not rebelled and were not military targets. This showed President Lincoln’s belief in reverence for the law versus obedience to the law.

Professor Guelzo ended his lecture by discussing how the Confederacy was the real authoritarian, bureaucratic state instead of the Union. He explained that the Confederacy never set up a Supreme Court, Confederate President Jefferson Davis never met with state governors, the Confederacy created the draft first. Furthermore, John Wilkes Booth, President Lincoln’s assassin had ties to the Confederacy’s secret service and it showed that the Confederacy was willing to stoop to the level of assassination to win the Civil War.

Professor Allen C. Guelzo is the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era, and Director of Civil War Era Studies at Gettysburg College. He is the author of Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President (1999), Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America (2004) and Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates That Defined America (2008). His book on the battle of Gettysburg, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion was a New York Times bestseller in 2013. He also won the Lincoln Prize three times for his writing. He is currently serving as the William L. Garwood Visiting Professor in the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University.