This bold, groundbreaking study of American political development assesses the presidency of Abraham Lincoln through the lenses of governmental power, economic policy, expansion of executive power, and natural rights to show how Lincoln not only believed in the limitations of presidential power but also dedicated his presidency to restraining the scope and range of it.
Though Lincoln’s presidency is inextricably linked to the Civil War, and he is best known for his defense of the Union and executive wartime leadership, Lincoln believed that Congress should be at the helm of public policy making. Likewise, Lincoln may have embraced limited government in vague terms, but he strongly supported effective rule of law and distribution of income and wealth. Placing the Lincoln presidency within a deeper and more meaningful historical context, Abraham Lincoln’s Statesmanship and the Limits of Liberal Democracy highlights Lincoln’s significance in the development of American power institutions and social movement politics.
Using Lincoln’s prepresidential and presidential words and actions, this book argues that decent government demands a balance of competing goods and the strong statesmanship that Lincoln exemplified. Instead of relying too heavily on the will of the people and institutional solutions to help prevent tyranny, Jon D. Schaff proposes that American democracy would be better served by a moderate and prudential statesmanship such as Lincoln’s, which would help limit democratic excesses.
Schaff explains how Lincoln’s views on prudence, moderation, natural rights, and economics contain the notion of limits, then views Lincoln’s political and presidential leadership through the same lens. He compares Lincoln’s views on governmental powers with the defense of unlimited government by twentieth-century progressives and shows how Lincoln’s theory of labor anticipated twentieth-century distributist economic thought. Schaff’s unique exploration falls squarely between historians who consider Lincoln a protoprogressive and those who say his presidency was a harbinger of industrialized, corporatized America.
In analyzing Lincoln’s approach, Abraham Lincoln’s Statesmanship and the Limits of Liberal Democracy rejects the idea he was a revolutionary statesman and instead lifts up Lincoln’s own affinity for limited presidential power, making the case for a modest approach to presidential power today based on this understanding of Lincoln’s statesmanship. As a counterpoint to the contemporary landscape of bitter, uncivil politics, Schaff points to Lincoln’s statesmanship as a model for better ways of engaging in politics in a democracy.