Greatness and the Mere Politician
THE SOURCE: “Lincoln’s Constitutional Leadership” by Steven B. Smith, in National Affairs, Fall 2012.
In his first major political speech, “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions,” a young Abraham Lincoln lamented the “mobocratic spirit” and lynch mobs of the Jacksonian era, then in full swing. Americans, he said, needed to rekindle their “reverence for the Constitution and laws.” Lincoln gave the speech in 1838, at age 28, in Springfield, Illinois.
A quarter-century later, as president of the United States, Lincoln stayed true to his own counsel, embodying what Yale political science professor Steven B. Smith calls the constitutional style of leadership. The constitutional leader, Smith says, preserves constitutional order while promoting liberty and change. It’s a balancing act that requires equal parts boldness and restraint. Lincoln cast the challenge of this style of leadership in the form of a question included in an 1861 message to Congress: “Must a government, of necessity, be too strong for the liberties of its own people, or too weak to maintain its own existence?”
To read the rest of this article, please consider becoming a WQ subscriber, which allows online access to the current WQ issue as well as archive content. Other access options are below.
Research, browse, and discover more than 35 years of articles, essays, and reviews by preeminent scholars and writers. Our searchable archive of back issues is free for WQ subscribers.