“Think of your forefathers!  Think of your posterity!”–John Quincy Adams


Once again, it’s been forever since I last wrote to you.  Life keeps getting in the way—commencement, end-of-year reports, and two serious family illnesses have conspired to keep me away.  Since I last wrote, there have been a couple of on-line conversations about Americans’ declining interest in history that I would like to weigh in on, but for now I just want to pass on a couple of intriguing quotes from my summertime reading, which is only now really getting under way.

I’ve already told you that one of my goals for the summer is to work through the eight volumes of the papers of Abraham Lincoln.  I am not really going through them word by word, but reading with a particular eye to what Lincoln had to say about democracy, patriotism, and faith.  I get to speak at a church in Gettysburg this November, on the 153rd anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, and I’m searching for inspiration.  My goal is to find something to say about Lincoln that is not only worthwhile but also wholly original, and since there’s been so little written about Lincoln, I don’t think this should be too hard.  Wouldn’t you agree?

At any rate, I’ve been taking notes on the first volume, and I wanted to share a few passages from one of Lincoln’s earlier public addresses, his 1838 speech before the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois.  Lincoln was not quite twenty-nine when he spoke to this local civic organization.  He had recently begun the practice of law and had already completed two terms in the state legislature, so he already had a fair amount of “stump speaking” under his belt, but on this January evening he was clearly trying to deliver something more formal and polished than the norm.  His audience was non-partisan, and Lincoln’s goal was less to promote a political agenda than to articulate widely held beliefs and, more than likely, practice his elocution.

I’ve noted previously that I tend to think about the engagement with the past in terms of metaphors.  History can serve as a kind of mirror in which to see ourselves more clearly, or as a kind of story in which we situate our lives and make sense of who we are and where we are headed.  The study of history can also become a conversation, in historian’s David Harlan’s memorable phrase, “a conversation with the dead about what we should value and how we should live.”  This was the metaphor uppermost in my mind as I read through Lincoln’s Lyceum speech.  I tried carefully to listen, asking myself what in Lincoln’s observations I especially needed to listen to or wrestle with.  You can find Lincoln’s speech easily online (here, among several places), so I encourage you to read it for yourself with the same question in mind.  In the meantime, here are a few thoughts that I had as I tried to listen to young Mr. Lincoln.

This is the earliest known picture of Lincoln, taken in 1846, eight years after he addressed the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois.

This is the earliest known picture of Lincoln, taken in 1846, eight years after he addressed the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois.

First, Lincoln was articulating a common view among thinking Americans in the late 1830s.  There was a palpable sense among Americans that the United States had passed from its infancy into a more mature stage of national existence.  Most of the best known Founding Fathers had long since passed from the scene, and the rank and file of Americans who had taken part in the Revolution were mostly gone as well.  What would this mean for the next generation of Americans?  What role would they play in the nation’s life?  The Founding generation had bequeathed a land to posterity, Lincoln observed, as well as a set of political principles and institutions designed to promote liberty and equal rights.  The work of the current generation, he noted, was not to establish but to perpetuate—to preserve the land from the foot of the invader, and to transmit the political edifice to the succeeding generations “undecayed by the lapse of time, and untorn by usurpation.”

The country’s republican experiment, though successful so far, would always require the people’s vigilant care.  The main threat, Lincoln told his audience, would not come from a foreign invader, however.  “At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected?”  The answer was sobering: “If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be our author and finisher.  As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”

Subsequent writers have long been captivated by Lincoln’s wording here.  The sentence became the springboard for Oz Guinness’s fine book, A Free People’s Suicide.  (You can read my review here.)  At bottom, Lincoln’s point (as Guinness aptly observes), is that the twin works of establishing and ordering liberty were the finished accomplishments of the Founding generation.  The work of sustaining liberty, the third great challenge of a free people, is a never-ending task that each generation must take up in turn.

Surveying the national landscape in 1838, Lincoln identified several alarming trends that might ultimately endanger the people’s liberty.  One was an increase in incidents of popular violence: episodes of vigilante justice that Lincoln equated with “mob law.”  (Among other incidents, he was surely thinking about recent lynchings of southern slaves suspected of conspiring against their masters, as well as attacks on abolitionists much closer to home.)  The real danger of such episodes, he commented, was that they gradually contributed to a mindset that the government was not a reliable protector of the lives and property of the people.  When this happened, Lincoln noted ominously, “the strongest bulwark of any Government . . . may effectually be broken down and destroyed—I mean the attachment of the People.”

I am very much struck by Lincoln’s axiom.  How important is the “attachment of the people” to the government essential to the sustaining of our liberty?  None of the Founders would have advocated an unquestioning submission to government in all things.  The United States was born in resistance to government, after all.  The colonists’ belief that George III and Parliament were systematically subverting their liberties is the fuel that propelled the American Revolution.  And it was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, who voiced the foundational principle that free government is grounded not in trust but in suspicion.  As Jefferson wrote in 1798, “Free government is founded in jealousy, and not in confidence . . . In questions of power, then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief with the chains of the Constitution.”

And yet the Founders also believed that a degree of popular faith in the government was essential to its survival.  This was because popular disgust with the government could, itself, endanger the people’s liberty.  The Founders’ views on this were complicated, and we need to understand that they simultaneously held two different truths in tension with one another.  On the one hand, when government becomes too powerful it may eventually exercise tyranny over the populace.  On the other hand, when the citizens of a free society conclude that government can no longer protect their interests, that also becomes a breeding ground for tyranny.

It was this latter axiom that Lincoln had in mind when he shared with the Lyceum audience what was at stake if “the attachment of the People” to the government should be broken down.  From time to time individuals of genius and ambition would spring up with an unsatisfied thirst for power or celebrity or acclaim, Lincoln observed.  In broad strokes, he sketched the distinguishing features of such ambition:

“It denies that it is glory enough to serve under any chief.  It scorns to tread in the footsteps of any predecessor, however illustrious.  It thirsts and burns for distinction; and if possible, it will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen.”

Individuals of such ambition will arise, Lincoln insisted.  And they will prosper, he predicted, in historical moments when the people are widely disgusted with the government.  In such settings, emotion will drown out reason, and the majority will be “not much averse to a change in which they imagine they have nothing to lose.”

Is this a timely warning?  Tell me what you think, and then I’ll weigh in with some thoughts of my own.


“Think of your forefathers!  Think of your posterity!”–John Quincy Adams


One of my goals for this summer is to work through the eight volumes of the papers of Abraham Lincoln.  I recently finished the first volume, which covers Lincoln’s life to 1848, and I’m taking vol. 2 with me when I head out momentarily on a road trip to see my dad down in Tennessee.

Volume 1 was a bit tedious.  A fair amount reflects Lincoln’s early law practice, so much of it involves correspondence with clients over small-potatoes legal cases–suits for unpaid debts and disputed property boundaries, etc.  But you can already see glimpses of Lincoln’s political values and his political world, and this part is fascinating.

Sam Wineburg (author of one of my favorite books of all time, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts), says that our forays into the past always involve encounters with both the familiar and the strange, and that certainly applies here.  Two of the themes of these early papers are partisanship and patronage.  Lincoln was fiercely loyal to the Whig Party during the 1830s and 1840s, and he repeatedly criticized those who would claim to support the party without submitting to party decisions.  The latter part of the volume covers most of Lincoln’s lone term to the U. S. House of Representatives, and much of his writing during that period pertains to political appointments–responses to office-seekers appealing for his aid or letters of recommendation on their behalf.  This sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

The earliest known picture of Lincoln, taken around the time of his election to Congress in 1846.

The earliest known picture of Lincoln, taken around the time of his election to Congress in 1846.

But there is also much that feels strange–passages that remind us that we wouldn’t feel at home in Lincoln’s world, nor would he be entirely comfortable in ours.  His speeches were far longer, far more complicated, and far more substantive than the sound bites and slogans we take for granted today.  His arguments for transportation projects and protective tariffs were more than appeals to self-interest, but rather detailed rationales designed for thinking audiences.

General Zachary Taylor

General Zachary Taylor

I was also struck by Lincoln’s defense of the Whig presidential candidate in 1848, General Zachary Taylor.  Taylor had emerged from the Mexican War as a national hero, but he had no political experience to speak of, and during the campaign he had written a widely circulated letter in which he basically agreed to support any legislative measures that both houses of Congress might approve during his administration.  When Democrats cried that Taylor had no principles, Lincoln rose to defend him in a speech before the House.  Hear what Lincoln had to say:

Now this is the whole matter.  In substance, it is this: The people say to Gen. Taylor: “If you are elected, shall we have a national bank?”  He answers, “Your will gentlemen, not mine.”  “What about the Tariff?”  “Say yourselves.”  “Shall our rivers and harbors be improved?”  “Just as you please.”  “If you desire a bank, an alteration of the tariff, internal improvements, any, or all, I will not hinder you; if you do not desire them, I will not attempt to force them on you.  Send up your members of congress from the various districts, with opinions according to your own; and if they are for these measures, or any of them, I shall have nothing to oppose; if they are not for them, I shall not, by any appliances whatever, attempt to dragoon them into their adoption.”

How would we respond to a presidential candidate today who took such a position?  My guess is that we would be suspicious, if not appalled.  But why is that?  What does this say about us and the political system we take for granted?  The framers of the Constitution did not expect the president of the United States to be, by definition, the leader of a political party (they opposed political parties generally), and in the system of checks and balances that they constructed, they envisioned that the role of the president would be not to make law but to execute it.

In sum, while the founders hoped that the electoral college would select individuals of wisdom and integrity to fill the president’s chair, they never dreamed that the nation would someday expect candidates to fashion elaborate policy proposals or make innumerable pledges of what they (seemingly alone) will accomplish immediately upon taking office. We look to the president to be our political savior.  The founders’ understanding of the office was rather more modest.


“Think of your forefathers!  Think of your posterity!”–John Quincy Adams


” To judge from the conduct of the opposite parties, we shall be led to conclude that they will mutually hope to evince the justness of their opinions, and to increase the number of their converts by the loudness of their declamations and by the bitterness of their invectives.”

I’ve been thinking about these words from Alexander Hamilton quite a lot this election season.  He was referring to the angry debate over the newly proposed Constitution, but in many ways his description of the political climate in 1787 sounds a lot  like 2016.  Indeed, the quote above, originally published in a New York newspaper over the pseudonym “Publius,” could come straight out of the op-ed section of one of today’s newspapers, except for the fact that columnists can’t use words like “declamation” and “invective” any more and hope to be understood.

In the same essay (which we now remember as Federalist #1), Hamilton went on to sound a word of warning that I also keep thinking about during this bizarre presidential campaign:

. . . a dangerous ambition more often lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people than under the forbidding appearance of zeal for the firmness and efficiency of government.  History will teach us that the former has been found a much more certain road to the introduction of despotism than the latter, and that of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people, commencing demagogues and ending tyrants.”

Your thoughts?


Confederados I

OK–I’ll give you three guesses: where was the picture above taken?

If you guessed Santa Barbara D’Oeste, Brazil, you hit it on the nose.  One of the more odd Civil-War-related articles I’ve seen in a while was carried by USA Today over the weekend.  (You can read it here.)  The article, titled “Why These Brazilians Love the Confederate Flag,” was timed to coincide with an annual festival in this south Brazilian city sponsored by the Fraternidade Descendencia Americana.

The F.D.A. is an organization of descendants of southern Confederates who emigrated to Brazil at the close of the Civil War.  The “Confederados,” as they are known locally, gather each spring to celebrate their Confederate heritage.  They dress up like rebel soldiers and southern belles, consume large quantities of fried chicken and watermelon, and proudly exhibit Confederate flags–lots of them.

The thrust of the article–written, for reasons that I can’t explain, by a British-born sports writer–is to stress that the Confederate battle flag means something very different in Brazil than it does in the United States.  Here the flag has long been divisive, hailed by defenders as a reminder of a proud heritage, descried by critics as a symbol of hate.

This is not the case in Santa Barbara D’Oueste, apparently.  Everyone interviewed–from the president of the Fraternidade Descendencia Americana to a local historian to nine-year-old Bruno Lucke–agree that the flag carries no racist connotations whatever.  “To me,” little Bruno says, “the flag is a symbol of love.”

The Confederate battle flag is a "symbol of love" to this nine-year-old Brazilian.

The Confederate battle flag is a “symbol of love” to this nine-year-old Brazilian.

I wouldn’t read this piece expecting to learn much about either the recent or the distant past of the United States.  The author alludes to Dylann Roof as a 21-year-old who “allegedly” gunned down black worshipers in Charleston last year after posing with the rebel flag.  (Why “allegedly”?  Does anyone doubt this?)  He cites unnamed “historians” to contend that Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest (founder of the Ku Klux Klan) “in later life . . . fought racism.”  (This is a silly claim that professional historians don’t take seriously.)  Above all, he accepts uncritically the Confederados’ claim that the presence of slavery had nothing to do with their ancestors’ choice of Brazil as their new home.  In 1866 Brazil was the last remaining nation in the western hemisphere where slavery was legal, and historians agree that the desire to distance themselves from free blacks was “almost universal” among Confederate emigres.

On the plus side, the story does remind us that contemporary context is hugely important in determining how historical symbols are remembered.  The Brazilian Confederados’ memory of their noble Confederate heritage is as flawed and fantastic as anything you could find in the U. S. South today (e.g., among groups like the Sons of Confederate Veterans or the League of the South).  The difference is that, four thousand miles farther south, no one in Santa Barbara D’Oueste seems to care.


For more on the Confederate battle flag in historical context, check out my previous posts on the topic here, here, here, and here.

Confederados II


Graduation season is almost here—Wheaton College will be holding its 157th “commencement” in a little over two weeks—and it dawns on me that some of you may soon be shopping for a meaningful gift to give a new college graduate.  If so, I have a couple of recommendations to share.

Most graduates have a palpable sense of heading into the unknown, and the lifelong questions “What will I do?” and “Why will I do it?” will seem unusually relevant, even urgent.  This is why I often give graduates a book that will help them think Christianly about vocation.  There are two that I especially recommend.  Each is short, inexpensive, challenging, accessible, and wise.

GarberThe first book is Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good, by Steven Garber.  The author heads up the Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation, and Culture in Washington, D. C. He writes from an explicitly Christian foundation, but graciously, winsomely, and non-dogmatically, and I would not hesitate to give this book to anyone wrestling with questions about the purpose and meaning of life.

The book hinges on one simple, haunting question: “what will you do with what you know?”  Knowledge always comes with moral responsibility, Garber insists. This is one of the key truths imbedded in the account of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in Genesis chapters 2-3. The questions “What do you know?” and “What will you do with what you know?” can never be divorced, as much as we might like to pretend otherwise.

From this initial premise, Garber observes that the hardest thing we are called to do in life is to know and still love. Knowing and persevering in love is rare. To know those around us truly is to know the brokenness of the world and to share in its pain. To ease our pain, our natural response is to build a wall around our hearts made of stoicism or cynicism. The stoic trains her heart not to care about the world; the cynic convinces himself that all efforts to help are naïve or futile.

Visions of Vocation is filled with stories of men and women who have refused to give in to stoicism or cynicism. Garber describes his teaching philosophy as “come-and-see” pedagogy. “We learn the most important things over the shoulder, through the heart,” he writes, and so he doesn’t waste much time on abstract assertions. Because “words always have to be made flesh if we are going to understand them,” he spends most of his time introducing us to people he has walked with, individuals who have become “hints of hope” to a hurting world by choosing to know and still love.

Two convictions distinguish these men and women, Garber finds. First, they refuse to accept the delusion of individual autonomy that shapes the modern western world. They realize that “none of us are islands. . . . We are we, human beings together. Born into family histories, growing up into social histories, we live our lives among others, locally and globally, neighbors very near and neighbors very far.” Second, in acknowledging this relationship, they have accepted also that they are obligated to others and implicated in their suffering. In sum, in acknowledging relationship they have accepted responsibility, and after accepting responsibility they have chosen to take action.

PalmerThe second book is Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation, by Parker J. Palmer.   A couple of years ago I led students in an informal book discussion centered on this book, and for a long while I kept a box of extra copies in my office to give away as opportune moments arose.  It’s a great book on many levels.

The author has long been one of my favorite writers.  Although I have not always agreed with him–and still do not–I find him wonderfully challenging and provocative in the very best way.  Palmer began his adult career on an academic track, earning a Ph.D. in sociology from U.C.-Berkeley.  Although he left the Academy after a few years, he has devoted most of the past four decades to writing and lecturing on the nature of education and the relationship between the intellectual and the spiritual.  I first encountered Palmer in the pages of his 1983 book To Know as We Are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey, a work that still informs my approach to teaching and my views on how education shapes the heart.

Let Your Life Speak can sound a little “New Age-y” if you don’t understand where Palmer is coming from.  Like most of the great Christian writers who addressed the concept of vocation during the Reformation, Palmer believes that our talents and passions are valuable clues to our ideal vocations.  When he counsels the reader to listen to the voice within, he can sound like a secular humanist (or a script-writer for the Hallmark Channel), but he is absolutely not advising us to look within our own hearts for the ultimate guide to wise living.  Instead, he is urging us to take seriously the truth that God has designed us with specific abilities and desires, and that our life’s vocation should unfold at the intersection of those personal traits and the needs of a hurting world.

We must understand vocation, Palmer writes, “not as a goal to be achieved but as a gift to be received.” He goes on to explain,

Vocation does not come from a voice “out there” calling me to be something I am not.  It comes from a voice “in here” calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given me at birth by God.

In sum, “we are here on earth to be the gifts that God created.”

With refreshing candor, Palmer reminds us that, “despite the American myth,” we simply cannot do or be anything we desire.  “There are some roles and relationships in which we thrive and others in which we wither and die.”  One of our goals, then, should be to learn our limits, distinguishing between the limits that are a product of the nature that God has implanted in us, and the limits “that are imposed by people or political forces hell-bent on keeping us ‘in our place.’”

Finally, I would note that Palmer intersperses his observations with intimate reflections on the path that he personally has traveled.  These include hard-earned insights from two extended bouts with depression as an adult.  Refreshing in its honesty and transparency, Let Your Life Speak will be encouraging both to those seeking direction for the future as well as to readers trying to make sense of suffering.  I heartily recommend it.



Last week I attended a wonderful presentation here at Wheaton by my friend and colleague Bryan McGraw.  In addition to being a connoisseur of southern barbecue, Dr. McGraw is also a first-rate political philosopher.  In the course of his presentation, McGraw highlighted an extended passage from one of my favorite writers from the nineteenth century, Alexis de Tocqueville, and I was so struck by its relevance during this election season that I wanted to pass it along.

Tocqueville posed for this portrait around 1850, nearly two decades after his American odyssey.

Tocqueville posed for this portrait around 1850, nearly two decades after his American odyssey.

As many of you will know, Alexis de Tocqueville was a French aristocrat who traveled to the United States during the height of the period of Jacksonian democracy.  In 1831, at the age of twenty-six, Tocqueville was commissioned by the French government, in tandem with another young aristocratic Frenchman, Gustave de Beaumont, to travel to the U.S. to investigate and report on the American penitentiary system.  Tocqueville and Beaumont spent nine months exploring the country, traveling by stagecoach, steamboat, and on horseback from the urban northeast to the edge of the western frontier and back again.

Upon returning to France, Tocqueville and Beaumont filed their report on penitentiaries, and then Tocqueville began to pen a much broader set of reflections on American politics, American institutions, American culture, and the American people.  The result, Democracy in America, remains one of the most remarkable commentaries ever penned on the interrelationship of liberty, equality, religion, and popular government. I would be surprised to learn that any of this year’s leading presidential aspirants has ever read it.

A sympathetic critic of American democracy, Tocqueville wrote partly to praise but also partly to warn.  Quick to highlight the “benefits which democracy promises to mankind,” he also purposed to “point out the distant perils with which it threatens them.”  Chief among the latter was the potential for tyranny.  As Tocqueville observed, “I noticed during my stay in the United States that a democratic society similar to that found there could lay itself peculiarly open to the establishment of a despotism.”

Title Page of the first American edition of Tocqueville's classic, published in 1838.

Title Page of the first American edition of Tocqueville’s classic, published in 1838.

So how might this come about?  Tocqueville believed that there were certain attributes of the popular democratic mindset in the United States that would gradually facilitate the centralization of governmental power.  In the extended passage below (from volume II, part 4, chapter 6), Tocqueville shows how the individualist, materialistic ethos that he encountered among Americans might encourage the inexorable growth of government.  Read it and see what you think.

I am trying to imagine under what novel features despotism may appear in the world.  In the first place, I see an innumerable multitude of men, alike and equal, constantly circling around in pursuit of the petty and banal pleasures with which they glut their souls.  Each one of them, withdrawn into himself, is almost unaware of the fate of the rest.  Mankind, for him, consists in his children and his personal friends.  As for the rest of his fellow citizens, they are near enough, but he does not notice them.  He touches them but feels nothing.  He exists in and for himself, and though he still may have a family, one can at least say that he has not got a fatherland.

Over this kind of men stands an immense, protective power which is alone responsible for securing their enjoyment and watching over their fate. That power is absolute, thoughtful of detail, orderly, provident, and gentle. It would resemble paternal authority if, fatherlike, it tried to prepare its charges for a man’s life, but on the contrary, it only tries to keep them in perpetual childhood.  It likes to see the citizens enjoy themselves, provided that they think of nothing but enjoyment. It gladly works for their happiness but wants to be sole agent and judge of it.  It provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, makes rules for their testaments, and divides their inheritances.  Why should it not entirely relieve them from the trouble of thinking and all the cares of living? . . .

Having thus taken each citizen in turn in its powerful grasp and shaped him to its will, government then extends its embrace to include the whole of society.  It covers the whole of social life with a network of petty, complicated rules that are both minute and uniform, through which even men of the greatest originality and the most vigorous temperament cannot force their heads above the crowd.  It does not break men’s will, but softens, bends, and guides it; it seldom enjoins, but often inhibits, action; it does not destroy anything, but prevents much being born; it is not at all tyrannical, but it hinders, restrains, enervates, stifles, and stultifies so much that in the end each nation is no more than a flock of timid and hardworking animals with the government as its shepherd.


If you’d like to read more on Tocqueville’s critique of American democracy,  check out these earlier posts by clicking here, here, here, and here.

George Caleb Bingham, "The County Election," 1852

George Caleb Bingham, “The County Election,” 1852


Think of your forefathers!  Think of your posterity!

—John Quincy Adams—


So what would you make of the following scenario?

In a highly charged election year, the Republican Party faces a showdown at its impending national convention.  The field of presidential contenders has been large, and no single candidate will come to the convention with a majority of the delegates behind him.  Candidate A of New York is the clear front runner, and for months his rank-and-file supporters have considered him the presumptive nominee.  But Republican elites are lukewarm about A.  His reputation as an extremist gives them pause, and despite the enthusiasm of A’s followers, they worry that A will fare poorly in the general election.  They fear that A is unelectable, and by nominating him they will not only sacrifice any chance at the presidency but harm Republican candidates for state and federal offices as well.  The future of the party hangs in the balance.

As the opposition to A becomes ever more outspoken, a “Stop A” movement works frantically behind the scenes to rally behind a single alternative.  The number of potential nominees makes this difficult, however, and the divisions within the “Stop A” movement look to be crippling.  Candidate B is a southern conservative with tenuous links to party leaders.  Candidate C is an economic and social conservative who has risen to prominence in the Senate but made too many enemies along the way.  Candidate D is a northeasterner with a following in his own state but viewed elsewhere as a corrupt opportunist.  Candidate E has none of these liabilities, but as the convention approaches this Midwesterner is the first choice of only one state: his own.

Although candidate A commands a sizable plurality of delegates when the convention opens, candidate E’s campaign team goes to the convention determined to deny A a first-ballot nomination and open the door for E.  Unabashedly pragmatic, their message to delegate after delegate emphasizes expediency.  E is electable.  A is not.  E lacks A’s negative baggage and is widely respected.  He is a unifier who has been careful not to denigrate the other candidates.  E’s promoters encourage A’s delegates to consider E as a good second choice if it becomes clear that A cannot win a majority on the convention floor.  Where it promises to be helpful, E’s team makes thinly veiled offers of future political favors to delegations willing to switch their support to E after the initial ballot.  A significant number of wavering delegates are even willing to shift their allegiance before the balloting begins.

In the end, the strategy works.  On the first ballot, A takes 37% of the vote to E’s 22% (with candidates B, C, and D trailing even farther behind).  But as delegates are released from their first-ballot pledge to support A, the momentum shifts decidedly toward E on the second ballot, and by the third ballot E claims the nomination over A.  E’s margin of victory?  A razor-thin 50.5% to 49.5 percent.

So how would you evaluate the outcome of this contested convention?  Was it a miscarriage of justice?  An assault on democracy?  A “brokered” behind-the-scenes deal that bartered the wishes of the people? Or was it a politically prudent compromise that secured the best outcome realistically available?

If you say that you don’t have enough information to answer the question, you would be right.  But in thinking through the scenario, it might be helpful to know that it isn’t hypothetical.  It’s my best attempt to summarize the nomination of Abraham Lincoln in 1860.  Candidates A, B, C, and D were Republicans William Seward, Edward Bates, Salmon Chase, and Simon Cameron.  We don’t know how this year’s Republican slugfest will play out, of course, but so far I’d say there are some pretty striking similarities to the 1860 Republican contest.  And although Donald Trump has modestly proclaimed that he is as “presidential” as Abraham Lincoln, right now the person best approximating that role is probably John Kasich.

Abraham Lincoln took 22% of the votes on the first ballot at the Republican National Convention in 1860.

Abraham Lincoln took 22% of the votes on the first ballot at the Republican National Convention in 1860.

So what does this analogy prove?  Can it help us to predict how the race for the Republican nomination will come out?  Can it teach us how it should come out?

Absolutely not.  The point of listening to the past is not to get easy answers to contemporary problems.  I cringe whenever I hear someone in the public opining ponderously about what “history proves.”  We study the past not as a storehouse of simple lessons but as an aid to thinking more deeply, more self-consciously, and hopefully more wisely as we meet the future.  History promotes wisdom, when it does, by expanding the range of our experiences to draw from.  As C. S. Lewis put it figuratively in “Learning in Wartime,” the student of history has lived in many times and places, and that greater breadth of perspective aids us as we seek to think wisely and live faithfully in our own historical moment.

I suspect that much of the popular hyperventilating about the prospect of a contested Republican convention stems from the fact that the last multi-ballot nomination of a major-party candidate came in 1952, before the vast majority of Americans were born.  And because we have no memory from before we were born—only people with historical knowledge can have that—we are vulnerable to all kinds of nonsense from those who would prey on our ignorance.

The reality is that the presidential primary model that we take for granted today has been dominant for less than a half century.  The earliest presidential candidates were chosen without any popular involvement at all, hand-picked by party caucuses in Congress.  Beginning in the 1830s (following the lead of a bizarre coalition known as the Anti-Masonic Party), the major parties established the pattern of choosing candidates in party conventions.  And although some states began to hold presidential primaries as early as 1912, as late as the 1950s conventions still effectively made the final decision, and it was possible for a presidential candidate like Adlai Stevenson to win the nomination without running in a single state primary.

And unlike the conventions of the last half century—which are carefully choreographed, excruciatingly boring infomercials—the conventions between the 1830s and the 1950s were frequently contested.  It wasn’t just Abraham Lincoln who was nominated after multiple ballots.

Future president James K. Polk was nominated on the ninth ballot at the Democratic Convention in 1844.  In 1848 future Whig president Zachary Taylor was nominated on the fourth ballot.  Future Democratic president Franklin Pierce was nominated on the forty-ninth ballot in 1852 (and received no votes at all for the first thirty-five ballots).  Among other future presidents, James Buchanan was nominated on the seventeenth ballot in 1856, Rutherford Hayes on the seventh ballot in 1876, James Garfield on the thirty-sixth ballot in 1880, Benjamin Harrison on the eighth ballot in 1888, Woodrow Wilson on the forty-sixth ballot in 1912, and Warren G. Harding on the 10th ballot in 1920.  And although he lost in the general election, Democrat John W. Davis outdid them all, claiming his party’s nomination in 1924 on ballot number one hundred and three!

There was much that was broken about this system of selecting nominees.  Political bargains in proverbial “smoke-filled rooms” were the norm, and I’m not recommending that we return to them.  But these examples should give us pause and lead us to wrestle with some questions that might not otherwise occur to us about the current Republican contest.  Why, for one, would we assume that a candidate with a plurality of popular support has earned his party’s nomination?  Is it wrong to take “electability” into question in selecting a nominee?  Why do we think that a contested nominating convention is automatically disastrous for the party in question?  I have thoughts about all of these, but I’ll stop here and invite you to share what you think.