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Abraham Lincoln’s Statesmanship and the Limits of Liberal Democracy

Abraham Lincoln’s Statesmanship and the Limits of Liberal Democracy

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Jon D. Schaff


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About the Book

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.


Jon D. Schaff is a professor of political science at Northern State University in Aberdeen, South Dakota. His essays have been published in several books and journals including Perspectives on Political Science and South Dakota History.


“In order to see Lincoln in a new light, Schaff applies Aristotle’s ideas of moderation and prudence as his lens [and] challenges historians who have framed Lincoln as a Progressive forebearer.”—David DemareeFront Porch Republic

"As we come to the end of the decade following the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, there is no discernable slowdown in the publication of books on the sixteenth president. And while there is little that is new in the many publications that continue to roll off the presses, there are several recent studies that present Lincoln in a new light or offer a new perspective on his life and career. Jon D. Schaff’s Abraham Lincoln’s Statesmanship and the Limits of Liberal Democracy is one of these."—Thomas A. Horrocks, Civil War Monitor

"Impressively researched, exceptionally well written, deftly organized and presented, "Abraham Lincoln's Statesmanship and the Limits of Liberal Democracy" is an extraordinary work of original and seminal scholarship"—Midwest Book Review

“While Lincoln may ‘belong to the ages,’ Jon Schaff's excellent book reveals that seeking to understand Lincoln's words and deeds is particularly important in our own era of hyperpartisanship and political polarization. Through his insightful analysis of Lincoln, Schaff usefully reminds us that a democratic leader who is moderate and prudent can at the same time be highly principled and inspiring. The overall portrait that emerges in this fine book is one of a Lincoln who is both timeless and timely.”—Brian Danoff, author of Educating Democracy: Alexis de Tocqueville and Leadership in America

“In this perceptive and instructive book, Schaff demonstrates that Lincoln’s example helps teach us that a healthy democratic politics depends on our willingness to embrace the theoretical and political limits that natural-rights principles and constitutionalism impose on majority rule.”—Jason R. Jividen, author of Claiming Lincoln: Progressivism, Equality, and the Battle for Lincoln’s Legacy in Presidential Rhetoric

Lincoln and the Limits of Liberal Democracy shows that in Lincoln’s statesmanship, Americans found a rare combination of character and mind devoted to the nation’s highest principles while tempered by a due sensibility to human frailty.”—Lucas E. Morel, editor of Lincoln and Liberty: Wisdom for the Ages

“We know that Abraham Lincoln was a skilled politician. But was he a skilled political thinker whose ideas still deserve attention 150 years after the events he shaped? Jon Schaff argues with an emphatic yes, guiding us through what the structure of statesmanship looks like and how thoroughly Lincoln inhabits it. This is an eminently balanced—even usable—Lincoln, since Schaff not only lays out Lincoln’s natural-rights political thinking but also shows how the modern presidency, besotted as it is with near monarchical notions of its importance, and a healthy democracy could profit from some Lincolnian restraint.”—Allen C. Guelzo, author of Abraham Lincoln as a Man of Ideas