“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.


  1. I wonder if the modern emphasis on the presidency has to do with the cultural homogenization and de-localization that has emerged since the New Deal, and has ever since been exacerbated by technology and mass media. The lack of this emphasis on the executive (and thus, the relative emphasis on the legislature) seems to be in line with the localism of early America. Where localism is strong, the strongman has no political purchase. Where culture is tied to locality, no single personality can dominate the national stage. And where power is already dispersed (and it truly was), the president is automatically less relevant. Those seem to be some of the major societal conditions that separate early America from the present. What a chasm it is.

    • Good thoughts, Daniel. I think you have identified several key factors that have contributed to our modern cult of the presidency. TM

  2. Jim Cunningham

    Re: “The founders’ understanding of the office was rather more modest.”

    I suspect that the country would have been better off had the founders’ understanding prevailed. If we are looking for people to blame for the fact that it did not prevail, some historians contend that we should start with none other than Mr. Lincoln, who greatly expanded the role of the president.

    • Jim: You are right that Lincoln bears some responsibility for this change. At the very least, he defined the war powers of the presidency more expansively and exercised them more aggressively than any of his predecessors. TM

  3. 16 May 2016


    re: “We look to the president to be our political savior. The founders’ understanding of the office was rather more modest.”

    The founders probably had these verses from the Psalms as part of their consciousness:

    “It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man.
    It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in princes.” Ps 118:8-9 [ESV]

    Not sure why we as humans want to place our hope and trust in one man for the office of the President unless we know how well he or she can deal with Congress…

    Gary Hotham

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