In modern times, some critics have belittled Abraham Lincoln’s antislavery resolve as shallow. Some have portrayed him as a passive president, waiting upon the bold initiatives of others. “Citizen Lincoln” regards him differently. First, it portrays Lincoln’s animus against slavery as rooted in the highest ideals of the American Revolution, which he saw as being corrupted in his own time. Second, it analyzes Lincoln’s supposed “passivity” as more aptly defined as wise caution.
Lincoln learned as a legislator, first in Illinois and later in the United States Congress, that bold initiatives often backfire and fail to fulfill original intentions. In the state legislature, Lincoln supported a dramatic internal-improvements project that collapsed in the midst of a national depression. Lincoln also boldly opposed the Mexican War in Congress, only to see his cause evaporate as soon as a peace treaty was drafted with Mexico. In both instances, his timing was faulty. He had rushed into taking rigid policy positions when greater caution would have reaped better results. But in both instances, he learned lessons that would hold him in good stead later.
Lincoln as president was wisely cautious, knowing that bold action could only disrupt the delicate coalition that kept the Union cause moving forward to victory. Harriet Beecher Stowe described Lincoln’s unique strength as “swaying to every influence, yielding on this side and on that to popular needs, yet tenaciously and inflexibly bound to carry its great end.” She wisely added that no other kind of strength could have seen the nation through the worst trial in its history. In filling this role, Abraham Lincoln fulfilled that which he had long regarded as his personal mission within the larger context of his nation’s providential destiny.