Our Ancient Faith: Lincoln, Democracy, and the American Experiment, by Allen Guelzo (Knopf, 272 pp., $30)

It has become commonplace to say that Americans are more divided now than at any time since Abraham Lincoln’s presidency. The country is “confronting the greatest strain to its fundamental cohesion since the Civil War,” Ronald Brownstein argued in January 2021. Americans are “more divided than at any time since the Civil War,” Robert Reich opined in January 2024.

Such comparisons make for lurid copy but bad history. When Lincoln was elected president in 1860, Americans were divided not over the republic’s founding culture itself, but its scope. Were the rights and liberties in the Declaration of Independence of universal application (as Lincoln believed)? Or did they (as Jefferson Davis thought) attach only to those with the right racial credentials?

Today it is the classical liberalism of the Declaration itself that divides Americans. On the left, Allen Guelzo writes in a new book on Lincoln, progressives are “impatient to the point of contempt” with a liberal individualism that allows the powerful to “oppress the marginalized.” On the right, “religious ‘integralists’ and ‘national conservatives’” reject rights and liberties that emancipate citizens “from morality, tradition, and even biology” in ways corrosive of culture.

Against the skeptics of American democracy, Guelzo summons the “one figure” who has always been able “to confound the doubters”—Lincoln himself. Our Ancient Faith is a masterly exposition of the sixteenth president’s application of his philosophy to the struggle over chattel slavery; even those who know something of Lincoln are likely to close the volume with a new idea of the depth of insight that drove his statecraft.

What is less clear is whether Guelzo’s Lincoln speaks as usefully to today’s crisis of culture. When Guelzo identifies property ownership, religious morality, toleration, and electioneering as the four pillars of Lincoln’s democratic culture, the heart sinks.

Even were homeownership to increase dramatically, it would not overcome the decay of Americans’ attachment to place, a disaffection sufficiently deep that some stoop to cyber alternatives. Nor is religious morality likely to redeem the shallowness of the modern self in a society largely secular in its self-culture. As for electioneering, few would argue that we need more of it amid a partisanship so intense as to be Manichean in its calculus of good and evil.

Lincoln’s idea of culture was inadequate even in his time, when the country’s cultural deficits were less painfully felt than they are now. Frustrations that gnaw at the soul today were eased by the newness of a republic with a vast, sparsely populated continent in front of it. When pent-up social pressure could be relieved by lighting out for the territory, there was less need for elaborate cultural safety valves.

America would not run out of frontier until 1890, but a half century earlier Ralph Waldo Emerson grasped the underlying problem. Shortly after he published his essay “Self-Reliance” in 1841, he experienced a spasm of disillusion, shuddering at the “vulgar trite” life of his hometown of Concord, Massachusetts, the dust of its “streets and shops,” the meanness of its “hucksters and taverns.”

Self-reliance, that touchstone of classical liberal society, was not enough. It had need of sterner cultural stuff. Or so Emerson thought during moments of “ecstatical” perception that summer, when groping for a solution he seized on the “Joyous Science” of poetry, borrowing the term from the medieval troubadours. He actually believed its “occult harmonies” would do America good.

Emerson had been touched by Romanticism. So, too, had Lincoln himself. (The term was not one either man would have used at the time; Heine’s The Romantic School had appeared in 1837, but it dealt mainly with Germany.) Emerson, who was acquainted with Wordsworth and Coleridge and was the close friend of Carlyle, knew all about the subject; Lincoln’s knowledge of Romantic poetry was “limited,” and he had “failed to get more than halfway through that paragon of Romantic novels, Ivanhoe.”

But it was less Romanticism as literature than as countercultural heterodoxy that made an impression on the young Lincoln. In letters he alluded to struggles with “the hypo” (hypochondriasis), a pseudo-medical synonym for Romantic melancholy. The world-weariness of Byron and the ennui of Chateaubriand popularized disaffections that would haunt the nineteenth century, not least through the medium of the Bildungsroman or culture-novel, in which characters like Carlyle’s Diogenes Teufelsdröckh, Stendhal’s Julien Sorel, and Tolstoy’s Pierre Bezukhov struggle to make sense of themselves.

Lincoln also struggled to make sense of himself; he had, too, a sadness about him, though a keen sense of humor did not allow it to get in the way. He had no patience for Romanticism’s less savory side, the chauvinism that makes a fetish, Guelzo writes, of “ethnicity, tribe, or soil,” and he worshipped in the lucid temples of the eighteenth century, sharing the “Enlightenment’s reverence for reason” as the regulator of passion. Even so the Romantic suspicion that there is something modernity doesn’t get about the mind stayed with him, long after he got over the hypo.

As early as 1838 he proposed to strengthen America’s democracy with a “political religion of the nation” in which a devoted citizenry would “sacrifice unceasingly” on mock-antique “altars.” The phony religion went nowhere, but in his mature statecraft Lincoln drew on inspirations hardly less archaic. He was not conventionally religious, but as Edmund Wilson pointed out, the book he “knew best” and quoted “more often than anything else” was a premodern one. Doubtless it was politic of a rising politician to phrase “his faith in the Union” in Biblical language congenial to the “evangelism characteristic” of his age. But cynicism alone would hardly have put Lincoln to the trouble of emulating the poetic compression of the old texts, with their epigrammatic power.

In the House Divided speech (a reworking of Matthew 12:25), the Gettysburg Address (with its debt to John 3:3), and the Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln repurposed premodern poetry for modern ends, much as Emerson thought to deepen the culture of Concord by conjuring the troubadours; both men sensed that the abstract prose of such classical liberal masterpieces as Locke’s Two Treatises and the Federalist papers bit only so deep.

The insight drove Lincoln to experiment with a political poetry he hoped would get more psychic mileage. In doing so he became, Garry Wills writes, a “great artist of America’s Romantic period,” a “soberer Edgar Poe.” Adolphe de Chambrun, a young attaché of the French embassy in Washington, thought the president’s words went “to the very depths of the soul.”

Lincoln was a strange American. At a time when his country saw its destiny in the West, he looked East. The Bible and Shakespeare took him, if only imaginatively, in that direction; he hoped to go all the way to Jerusalem itself one day, in the flesh. Or so Mary Lincoln said. She is not a reliable witness, but it is just possible. Greece and Rome figured, too, in his dawnward-directed mind, as he contemplated glorious personal ascendancies on antique hegemonic and dictatorial models. Before he was 30 he was wrestling (in his Lyceum talk) with the “towering genius” of Alexander and Caesar, their thirst for a supremacy that would exalt them above the herd. It was tempting.

We all know how Lincoln overcame the Caesarian temptation and found immortal fame in saving rather than overthrowing a republic. But his preoccupation with Old World poetry did not abate; he took to carrying around a portable Shakespeare, and if Edmund Wilson is right, he began to fashion his life as though it were a dramatic poem. He “always had a sense of drama,” Wilson writes, and he now conceived for himself a starring “role” in a play of his own making: a part he would perform with “conviction and persistence” on the national stage.

The drama was to be Romantic in style, replete with the occult harmonies of those “dreams and premonitions” Wilson makes perhaps too much of in Patriotic Gore. There is Lincoln’s “recurrent dream of a ship on its way to some dark and indefinite shore,” and there is the “ominous hallucination” he experienced after his election as president, when he saw a double reflection of his face in the mirror. There is, finally, the assassination dream, when he came upon a dead president in the East Room, but one whom he did not recognize as himself. The dramaturgy is confusing. Is it a prophecy of Garfield, McKinley, or Kennedy? Or is it the unwillingness of the master-poet to confront the “tragic conclusion” of his own Act V, one Wilson thinks he saw along?

This seems to be crank territory, but if Wilson is right, Lincoln is only doing what other poets do when, in Keats’s words, they sip at the “Morphean fount” of “visions, dreams, / And fitful whims of sleep.” Wilson goes so far as to say that the visions that punctuate the Lincolnian masterwork supply the “element of imagery and tragic foreshadowing that one finds sometimes in the lives of poets—Dante’s visions or Byron’s last poem—but that one does not expect to encounter in the career of a political figure.”

For all Wilson’s extravagance, the fact is that Lincoln does sound this leitmotif of poetry, dreams, and destiny, and continues to do so right up to the end. Chambrun, the French aristocrat in Civil War Washington, finds the president, in his last days, reading aloud from Macbeth: the traitor’s insomnia, the loss of the sleep which is the “chief nourisher of life’s feast.” In the Shakespearean theory, dreams are a font of poetry. Lincoln, if Wilson is right, has absorbed the theory, as he fishes in night visions for a poetry with which to reach places in the American mind the prose of self-reliance doesn’t.

Guelzo is right: Lincoln does speak to our crisis of culture—but in a roundabout way. Having devoted his life to the modernity that created the Declaration of Independence, he finds that he can’t defend it without archaic tools. For John Stuart Mill, it is the paradox of liberal modernity: without a dose of the premodern artistry it abhors, it is condemned to all the evils Dickens, in Hard Times, satirizes in Mr. Gradgrind, who with his narrow “facts and calculations” embodies a stunted idea of human possibility.

Dickens associated the truncated Gradgrind with the utilitarian philosophy of Jeremy Bentham and Mill’s own father, James Mill. Mill the younger devotes a chapter of his Bildungsroman, The Autobiography of John Stuart Mill, to the trauma of his utilitarian upbringing at the hands of his father. The “crisis in my mental history,” as he calls it, occurs when he realizes dad’s mechanical philosophy brings him no “great joy and happiness.” The “whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down,” he writes: “I seemed to have nothing left to live for.” Restored to equanimity by the poetry of Wordsworth, he concludes that modern self-culture is futile unless its prose can be reconciled with “poetry and art as instruments of human culture.”

Lincoln never composed a Bildungsroman. It was left to Wilson to take an imaginative stab at it: in his 1933 essay “The Old Stone House,” he depicts a Lincoln struggling with Mill’s cultural paradox. An ambitious young man from the provinces, Lincoln’s Wilson resembles Stendhal’s Julien Sorel, only he grows up not in the backwater of the Franche-Comté but amid the “crudeness and poverty of the American frontier.” He escapes the “settler’s clearing” to begin the work of “perfecting himself,” but though he steadily rises in life, he is far from a virtuous yeoman vindicating democracy.

On the contrary, Wilson’s Lincoln is an uncanny Romantic “genius,” a “morbid young man” who, in the humble guise of a hick, secretly cherishes an aristocratic idea of himself, at odds with the democratic ideals he overtly champions. He fancies his mother the illegitimate daughter of a Virginia planter of Cavalier stock, from whom he gets his brains, and he yearns “passionately toward the refinement and the training of the East,” which he masters through an “heroic discipline.” Having taken possession of the “creative intelligence” of the older culture, he tries to raise his country to a nobler idea of itself, only to expiate his hubris by drawing upon himself the “miseries” of the Civil War and its “terrible unconscious parturition,” the new birth of freedom he prophesies at Gettysburg.

This is a preposterously Romanticized Lincoln, but it captures the poignance Wilson found in his hero, a leader of extraordinary intellectual gifts forced by the yahoos to conceal them, to adopt the protective coloration of the local fauna. Obliged to cultivate his popular image as a yokel and vulgarian to succeed in politics, Lincoln, as Wilson tells it, lives the cultural paradox of his country, the visionary city on a hill joined at the hip to the Xenith of Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt.

For those who, like Wilson, felt the paradox keenly, Lincoln (the eagle forced to play the ass) enacts their own predicament. “I can hardly bear the thought of Lincoln,” Wilson said. But if Wilson has the highbrow’s disdain for American populism, he also touches a real problem, one Tocqueville pointed to in an uncharacteristically irritable outburst in Democracy in America: “Nothing conceivable is so petty, so insipid, so crowded with paltry interests, in one word so anti-poetic, as the life of a man in the United States.”

If Tocqueville is right about “anti-poetic” America, how, then, did Lincoln become one of America’s greatest leaders, in no small part because of his poetic sensitivity to language?

It is another instance of Mill’s cultural paradox. The revolutions in thought, science, and technology that have shaken the world in the last five or six centuries have so vastly increased our power over our old adversaries (nature, matter, time) that we might be forgiven for thinking poetry obsolete. Why bother with metaphors that figuratively overcome irksome realities, when you might more easily overcome them for real, with machines? Poetry bends time and matter to our will imaginatively: modern innovation does so in the flesh.

Francis Bacon predicted that the new technical knowledge would restore a lost paradise. He was himself of an intensely poetic cast of mind, but he saw the writing on the wall and promptly defected to the techs and quants. There would still be a place for the figurative imagination—on the sidelines. Poetry would swell a ceremonial scene or two, grace a reading in a library; it had no business in “real” life.

Bacon was wrong. The modern revolutions that delivered our unprecedented material abundance—the plenty that in turn underwrites our modern rights and liberties—did not bring about a new heaven or a new earth. Those who bought the stock Bacon was peddling at its height were churlishly embittered, and Romanticism arose to chastise the naïveté of those who had been swindled.

By the time Lincoln rose to prominence in the 1850s, even Americans were ready for the Romantic notes in his song. He did not let them down. In the mature phase of his political poetry, which coincided with the Civil War, Lincoln’s figurative daring might have given Wallace Stevens a run for his money.

The metaphorical audacity of the Gettysburg Address remains the great wonder of American oratory. In that utterance the United States is simultaneously (1) a nation, or mass of people under a common government, (2) the concrete realization of an abstract philosophic proposition about rights and liberties in the order of nature, and (3) a biological organism, not made, but born (in 1776), and capable of being born again (circa 1863). Yet though he was addressing practical, plain-talking Yankees, Lincoln got away with it.

When Don Quixote’s dream-driven poetry fails him, he sickens and dies. Americans who were not in a hurry to meet their maker took what Lincoln offered them.

Guelzo, for his part, has little patience with the idea of a Romantic Lincoln. Invoking the formula that Enlightenment equals reason, Romanticism irrationality, he concludes that Lincoln, being rational, could have no truck with Romanticism, which is irrational.

This is too simple. Lincoln was devoted to a republic whose founders had mostly spurned reason as Enlightenment rationalists conceived it—a republic that owed a greater debt to the sages of the Anglo-Scottish Enlightenment, who thought it a mistake to covet surface rationality, to “subject everything to human reason” as intuited the day before yesterday.

Lincoln, to be sure, was no less remote from the Romantic irrationality of the “ultra-romantic,” mostly German school that exalted what Santayana called the “wild egotistical soul.” But he was quite close to Romantics like Wordsworth and Coleridge, who came round to the deeper reason of the heart found in much traditional culture.

Lincoln’s primary allegiance was always to the Declaration of Independence and the modernity that made it possible; Romanticism was useful to him only because it showed how the parchment could be made more secure. At the same time, Lincoln’s was very much a secondhand Romanticism; he never personally came into contact with those premodern relics—the Tintern Abbeys and Venetian canals—that true-blue Romantics venerated.

Going eastward as his country went westward, Lincoln never arrived at his ultimate destination; had he lived to make a contemplated post-presidency trip to the Old World, he would likely have been struck by the visible traces of a poetry not merely verbal like his own but infused in the life-flesh of particular places. It is possible that electioneering would have fallen a notch or two in his estimation.

Lincoln, the classical liberal who wanted to vindicate the modernity of the Declaration of Independence, needed the help of Lincoln the Romantic, whose archaic tools reached places in the American mind that lay beyond the shallows of the self-reliant American self.

In the typical Romantic critique of modernity (Kierkegaard’s, say, in his riff on Mozart’s Don Giovanni), the self without access to the deep places goes crazy, becomes “ideally intoxicated,” both with itself and its own “anxiety.” In the Romantic theory, we are better off when we are in touch with the neglected spots.

The theory is not credible to us. Why? Because it relies on words which, if they were respectable in Lincoln’s time, are now beyond the pale. “Poetry” (which for us means verse printed in books that lie mostly undisturbed on library shelves) is not an acceptable term in practical discourse. “Dream” has been so sentimentalized through association with things not remotely dreamlike (the “American dream”), and so abused by fraudulent science (such as Freud’s), that it, too, can no longer be taken seriously in a boardroom or on a town planning committee. “Romanticism” joins them on the index prohibitorum, the purview of joke intellectuals like Saul Bellow’s Moses Herzog, who lost his mind in Romanticism’s wandering mazes.

That Lincoln himself had a Romantic side will change no one’s mind this side of Herzog. The Romantic poets’ belief that the connection between poetry and dreams has practical significance is as outrageous a proposition, in any serious setting today, as the insights of those who, following in the Romantics’ footsteps, speculated that our primitive ancestors (emerging from instinctive nature into a civilization that imposed new burdens on the mind) made up for the simplicity they had lost by counterfeiting dreamlife in the waking form we know as poetry. Thus Nietzsche, in The Birth of Tragedy, depicts early hominids seeking through melody a second way of dreaming, and finding it in the “parallel dream phenomenon” of poetry.

We may dimly see how the figurative magic that “fuses several meanings in a dream” might once have been thought intensely practical, how the acanthus leaves on the classical pillar, the gargoyle on the Gothic parapet—though to our minds ornamental and useless—were to premodern minds poetical and useful. But we have advanced beyond the primitive phase; Adolf Loos himself has taught us to regard ornament as excrement.

Johan Huizinga wrote a book, Homo Ludens, to show how our ancestors set aside spaces in the heart of their communities to externalize their dreams in playful forms of plastic and performed poetry. A Bororo village in Brazil’s Matto Grosso no less than Venice at the height of its dream culture has at its center what Huizinga calls a “magic circle,” in which the inhabitants preserve their sanity by conjuring a realm of illusion and poetry, an art that aspires constantly to the quality of dream.

It is an appealing vision, but even were we to take it seriously, it is hard to see how we could adapt it to the way we live now. Life may indeed run more smoothly when people sunk in the nervous tedium of daily routine are dosed with arts that massage the mind, in De Quincey’s words, “by deep impulse, by hieroglyphic suggestion.” Aristotle was doubtless onto something when he said that tragic poetry cathartically eases the life of both the individual and the community. But who now will make his way to the theater of Dionysus, when the readier entertainment of the smartphone is always at hand?

Lincoln’s challenge, usefully elucidated by Guelzo in Our Ancient Faith, was to preserve the rights and liberties of the American republic against slavery. Our challenge is to save those rights and liberties in the face of an inadequate culture rendered still less adequate by new forms of cyber solipsism and cyber barbarism. It’s a tall order.

Photo by Library Of Congress/Getty Images


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