Yale law professor and novelist Stephen L. Carter offers his perspective on Abraham Lincoln as a touchstone for what Americans define as a good politician in an essay at the Bloomberg.com Web site. Carter admits his indulgence in the guilty pleasure of viewing “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” prompted him to write the piece. I thought the movie sucked (yes, I am indulging in middle-school humor) because it drowns viewers in scenes shot purely to emphasize 3-D special effects and the Lincoln portrayed in the film is no more exciting than Joe Dokes: Vampire Hunter or anyone else given the task of re-slaying the undead. (I have to admit that the best moment in the movie was a scene that wryly portrayed Jefferson Davis making an unholy alliance with the vampire nation to provide bloodsuckers who would fight on the side of a slave-holding republic.)
Carter writes about the current generation’s admiration of Lincoln and how he believes it reflects a desire for a mythical simpler age populated with political greats who accomplished mighty deeds. He understandably points out that Lincoln sometimes used questionable means to save the Union and end slavery such as suspending habeas corpus by presidential authority. But the quote that grabbed my attention is Carter’s comment that “we should try to remember what Lincoln knew, for he rarely cited other politicians as authority. Rather than invoking the greats of the past, Lincoln preferred to give reasons for his actions, and to leave judgment to the American people.” Lincoln frequently based his case for American liberty (free soil, free labor, free markets, and free men and women) on the ideas outlined in the Declaration. He needed no better reasons for his actions. As the great Harry Jaffa wrote in Crisis of the House Divided, “Lincoln did not appeal to the Declaration of Independence merely because it was our first and foremost founding document. It was, he said, the immortal emblem of man’s humanity and the father of all moral principle because it incorporated a rational, nonarbitrary moral and political standard. The equality of man and man was a necessary inference from the inequality of man and beast — and of man and God. No one possessed of a civilized conscience can fail to feel this sympathy. The empirical evidence bears Lincoln out.” Fortunately, not even a great civil war could drive a stake through the heart of the ideas that were at the heart of Abraham Lincoln: America’s Greatest President, and our greatest exponent of the value of the Declaration.