Lincoln and the Dignity of the Presidency

By Russell Kirk

The Roman Republic was at the back of the minds of the framers of the American Constitution; it was their hope that the chief magistrate of these United States would conduct himself with “the high old Roman virtue,” becoming an exemplar of pietas, gravitas, constantia, firmitas, comitas, disciplina, industria, clementia, frugalitas, and severitas.

George Washington, a grand gentleman of the old model, suffused with the unbought grace of life, set high the standard for these virtues. Eight decades later, there appeared a public man of an origin very different from Washington’s, who nevertheless has come to stand as Washington’s equal in republican virtue.

From a disaster greater still, we were saved by the presidential dignity of Lincoln, from whom few had expected any dignity at all. Both the New England of Hawthorne and the backwoods Illinois of Lincoln were faced by the whirlwind of fanaticism that had first stirred in their youth, had wailed onward to Fort Sumter, and then had raved triumphant from Manassas to Appomattox. That whirlwind might have left total devastation, had not Abraham Lincoln’s dignity withstood it in some degree.

The war made Lincoln great—not by chance, but by summoning forth the noble fortitude and gravity that had no more than peeked out from him in his Illinois years.

How far Lincoln himself was conscious that a Providential purpose worked through him, we cannot be certain; yet some such apprehension reigns from the phrases of his speeches and letters between 1861 and 1865.

For all that, ever since his boyhood his friends had perceived in this curious being some element of greatness. Lincoln possessed the incongruous dignity that was Samuel Johnson’s, too. Here stood a man of sorrows. It always has been true that melancholy men are the wittiest; and Lincoln’s off-color yarns, told behind a log barn or in some dingy Springfield office, were part and parcel of his consciousness that ours is a world of vanities. When he entered upon high office, this right humor became an element of the high old Roman virtue: comitas, the belief that seasons gravitas, or the sense of grand responsibility.

He was no woman’s man, and his marriage was made tolerable only by his own vast charity and tenderness, but he never was the man to weep over his own blemishes or blunders.

Lincoln’s awareness of this ineluctable reality, combining with his knowledge of the weaknesses of poor sinning mortality, made demand strong in his sadness, and gave him the power to endure with humility and generosity the awful burdens of his office.

Pietas was his, too, in the old Roman sense: willing subordination to the claims of the divine, of “the contract of eternal society,” of neighbors, of country.

There have lived few Americans more abundantly graced with the theological virtues, charity most of all. The New Testament shines out from his acts of mercy, and the Old from his direction of the war. We all know the deep piety of his Gettysburg Address; and in some of his letters there looms a stern justice, at once Christian and classical.

Prudent amidst passion, Lincoln never was a doctrinaire; he rose from very low estate to very high estate, and he knew the savagery that lies close beneath the skin of man, and he saw that most men are good only out of obedience to routine and custom and convention. The reckless fire-eater and the uncompromising Abolitionist were abhorrent to him; yet he took the middle path between them not out of any misapplication of the doctrine of the Golden mean, but because he held that the unity and security of the United States transcended any fanatic’s scheme of uniformity. . . .

Here he was like Edmund Burke; yet it is improbable that he read much Burke, or any other political philosopher except Blackstone; his wisdom came from close observation of human nature, and from the Bible and Shakespeare. The Radical Republicans detested him as cordially as did the Southern zealots. In his conservative object, the preservation of the Union, he succeeded through the ancient virtue of prudentia.

Lincoln was a conservative statesman on the intellectual model of Cicero. In his dignity there was no hubris, no presumption; much, he knew, must be left to Providence.

Lincoln knew that what moved him was a power from without himself and, having served God’s will according to the light that was given him, he received the reward of the last full measure of devotion. He did not assert dignity; rather, he was invested with it.