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Lincoln —
"the Tycoon"

Allen C. Guelzo
Historical Research and Narrative

Half-way through the summer of 1863, and half-way through the American Civil War, young John Milton Hay made a curious discovery about his boss, Abraham Lincoln, the President of the United States. "Had a talk on philology," Hay wrote in his diary, a subject "for which the T [Hay's nickname for Lincoln was 'the Tycoon'] has a little indulged inclination." What might have surprised Hay more was to discover that Lincoln, back in the pre-war days, had actually gone on the lyceum circuit with two lectures on "Discoveries and Inventions" which touched on the origins of language. These were not, on the whole, particularly inspiring lectures, but he delivered them before at least one college audience in February 1859. Finally he had to turn down invitations to deliver them and "stick to the courts awhile" to earn his living.

Hay was not the only one to trip over the roots of Lincoln's intellectual hobbies. In the 1840s, Lincoln "made geology and other sciences a special study." The impact made by Sir Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology (1830-33) and Robert Chambers' Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844) turned Lincoln, already a religious skeptic, into "a firm believer in the theory of development." He had what his first law partner, John Todd Stuart, called a "mind of a metaphysical and philosophical order... of very general and varied knowledge." Lincoln, said Stuart, "has an inventive faculty—is always studying into the nature of things." Above all, said his third law partner, William Henry Herndon, he "liked political economy, the study of it." Shelby Cullom, who served in the Illinois legislature and then in Congress, thought that, "Theoretically ... on political economy he was great."


These images of Abraham Lincoln as a man of ideas are so far from our conventional notion of the sixteenth president—Honest Abe, the Rail Splitter, the Man of the People, the homely jokester, the homespun lawyer—that it surprises us, as much as it did Hay, to find Abraham Lincoln located anywhere on the map of nineteenth-century intellectual culture. Part of that surprise lies with Lincoln himself. Born into rural poverty, Lincoln liked to deprecate his meager backwoods schooling as a way of paying himself a subtle compliment for what he had managed to learn on his own. (Actually, Lincoln's basic schooling was not all that inferior to much of what went on in any schooling in the United States in the 1820s outside the larger cities; in more serious moments, it was "the want of a college education," not poor elementary education, which "is what I have always regretted"). It was also a necessity of the political culture of nineteenth-century America for Lincoln to allow his political promoters to portray him as a candidate "fresh from the people," more concerned with bathing himself in public opinion than moral philosophy.

But that did not prevent Lincoln from indulging a wide-ranging intellectual curiosity, much of which fed his political life at the ideological level. As a young man, he was "not energetic Except in one thing," remembered his stepsister, Matilda Johnston, but "he was active & persistent in learning—read Everything he Could." As a store clerk in New Salem in the 1830s, he picked up lessons in grammar from a local schoolmaster and "also studied 'Natural Philosophy'—possibly Thomas Brown's Lectures on the Philosophy of the Human Mind (1820) or the more well-known utilitarian William Paley's Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy (1785)—as well as 'Astronomy, Chemistry'" from whatever other books he could find "from which he could derive information or knowledge." One New Salem neighbor remembered that "History and poetry & the newspapers constituted the most

   "Traditional" birthplace cabin

of his reading," while "[Robert] Burns seemed to be his favorite.... Used to sit up late of nights reading, & would recommence in the morning when he got up." And whatever he read, "he generally mastered a book quickly—as one who was simply reading—so comprehensive was his mind."

Once Lincoln moved to Springfield to read law under the tutelage of John Todd Stuart, he continued to "read hard works—was philosophical—logical-mathematical-never read generally" and managed to make himself "an Educated Man in 1860-more than is generally known." His closest friend, Joshua Speed, remembered that "He read law, History, Thomas Browns Philosophy or [William] Paley—Burns, Byron, Milton or Shakespeare." Herndon remembered that the Lincoln-Herndon law office filled up, not only with the standard court report volumes, but also with volumes of essays by Thomas Carlyle and Ralph Waldo Emerson, sermons by Theodore Parker and Henry Ward Beecher, the philosophy of the French "common-sense" realist Victor Cousin and his English counterpart, Sir William Hamilton, the biblical criticism of D.F. Strauss and Ernst Renan, the left-Hegelianism of Ludwig Feuerbach, the materialist histories of the Englishman Thomas Henry Buckle, and the evolutionary psychology of Sir Herbert Spencer. Lincoln was not, Herndon observed, "a general reader," but he was "a persistent thinker, and a profound analyzer of the subject which engaged his attention." And Lincoln not only "frequently read parts of the volumes," but readily slipped "into a philosophic discussion, and sometimes on religious questions and sometimes on this question and on that." Even in the last few weeks of his life, the president who was better known for reading aloud from humor books reminded Noah Brooks that he "particularly liked [Bishop Joseph] Butler's Analogy of Religion, Stuart Mill on Liberty, and ... always hoped to get at Jonathan Edwards on the Will."

John Todd Stuart
John Todd Stuart

am a
but I

Lincoln's thinking was shaped by three general intellectual contexts. The first was the experience of growing up among the hyper-Calvinist Baptist sects of Kentucky and Indiana. From them, Lincoln imbibed a strong dose of predestination and the conviction that human free will was an illusion. "Mr. Lincoln told me once that he could not avoid believing in predestination," Joseph Gillespie recalled, and Lincoln often told Herndon that "Men had no free choice; things were to be, and they came, irresistibly came, doomed to come.... Men were but simple tools of fate, of conditions, and of laws." "I am a fatalist," Lincoln often admitted. This fatalism would regularly induce him to stand back from events and decisions until he saw a clear sense of where they seemed destined to lead. But once a decision was made, it would make him inflexible in pursuing it. "I am a slow walker," he remarked, "but I never walk back." He told Senator Charles Sumner that he "is hard to be moved from any position which he has taken."

But Calvinism gave shape more than content to his thinking. This was because Lincoln, from an early age, rejected much of his father's religious dogmatism; rejected, in fact, his father's Jeffersonian politics and anti-Federalist agrarianism, too. Born at the end of the "long Enlightenment," Lincoln was captured by the "infidelity" of "Volney & Tom Pain," and in his twenties, Lincoln "went further against Christian beliefs—& doctrines & principles than any man." "When I first knew Mr. L. he was skeptical as to the great truths of the Christian Religion," recalled Speed. But Lincoln was also a Victorian, and the loss of faith was for him more a tragedy rather than a triumph. "I wish I were a more devout man than I am," he said on several occasions during his presidency. But the fatalistic remainders of his ancestral Calvinism warned him that faith was not something he could will for himself. "Probably it is my lot to go on in a twilight, feeling and reasoning my way through life," he remarked, "as questioning, doubting Thomas did."

Lincoln never felt any similar qualifications about rejecting his father's Jeffersonian politics. He left his father's farm as soon as he turned twenty-one, and never looked back, spending the rest of his life in towns and cities, moving first (and unsuccessfully) into commerce, and then into law. Lawyers were, in the words of Charles Sellers, the "shock troops of capitalism" in the early republic, and Lincoln emerged by the 1850s as a highly successful railroad lawyer. He attached himself politically to the Whigs and emerged as a partisan enemy of Andrew Jackson and everything Jacksonian. "He was as stiff as a man could be in his Whig doctrines," said Stephen Logan, Lincoln's second law partner, and Lincoln's "beau ideal" of statesman was Jackson's nemesis, Henry Clay. Even after he joined the new Republican party in 1856, Lincoln spent most of his political life espousing Clay's programs for high protective tariffs, government-sponsored transportation projects, and the movement of the United States into a wage-labor industrial economy. This placed Lincoln, like so many other intellectual children of the Enlightenment, squarely on the ideological side of classical laissez-faire liberalism. Lincoln not only shared liberalism's cultural commitments to rationality, individualism, personal rights, and progress, but the backbone of his reading in the 1840s and 1850s was in the basic texts of liberal political economy: "John Stuart Mill's political economy, [Henry] Carey's political economy ... John Ramsey McCullough's political economy, [Francis] Wayland, and some others." (Herndon


remembered that "Lincoln ate up, digested, and assimilated" Wayland's 1837 textbook The Elements of Political Economy). From Jeremy Bentham, he not only borrowed the standard utilitarian maxim of "the greatest good for the greatest number," but also Bentham's concept of legal punishment as rehabilitation rather than retribution, and the Benthamite axiom that all human choices are a function of selfishness and self-interest. This liberalism was what lay at the root of Lincoln's emergence as an anti-slavery activist in the 1850s, since he defined African American slavery primarily as an economic relationship—as the suppression of economic mobility and self-improvement—and was largely indifferent to its racial dimension.

The drums and bugles of the Civil War have distracted our attention from how important these intellectual contexts were to Lincoln as president. His domestic agenda during the Civil War pulled down six decades of Jefferson-Jackson dominance in American politics and installed a Republican ascendancy committed to the liberal nation-state and friendly to national market development, which lasted until 1932. His decision to end American slavery was, as he admitted, conditioned on signs he believed he had received from "Providence," which was neither quite the personal God of Calvinism nor yet quite the remote deity of Enlightenment skepticism. And his call for "malice toward none, charity for all" at the end of the Civil War was actually a product of his fatalistic conviction (part Calvin, part Bentham) that real decisions were out of human hands, and therefore neither Northerners nor Southerners had the privilege of judging each other. This, Herndon believed, was the real spring of Lincoln's "patience," and "his charity for men and his want of malice for them everywhere...." "His whole philosophy made him free from hate," Herndon remarked, "No man was to be eulogized for what he did or censured for what he did not do or did do."

If we are to see Lincoln aright, then we have to see him as he saw himself, as a man who "lived in the mind and he thought in his life and lived in his thought." He was, according to Herndon, "a close, persistent, continuous, and terrible thinker." It has often been said that Lincoln was a pragmatist because he had a politician's eye for concession and compromise when they were needed. But if by pragmatist we mean someone who had regard only for results, and not for principles, we could not be more wrong. Lincoln, wrote his friend Leonard Swett, "loved principles and such like large political & national ones, Especially when it leads to his own Ends—paths—Ambitions—Success—honor &c. &c." Even at his most pragmatic, Lincoln was looking for a society that prized individual rights—"self-government"—but which balanced the pursuit of personal rights with the need for a national consensus about moral, philosophical, and intellectual issues. Some Americans today might say that this is impossible, that our love of personal rights and private choice will always trump any appeal to morality or philosophy. But Lincoln's mind is proof that a dedication to liberty and rights does not require a surrender of moral principle.

Perhaps this is why we are reluctant to believe that Lincoln thought, but perhaps this is why we need to know that Lincoln thought.

"a close, persistent, continuous, and terrible thinker"



Barry L. Witten


Main Ideas




The perception most people have of Abraham Lincoln is of Honest Abe—born in a log cabin, an Indian fighter, and largely self-educated. We remember him both for his accomplishments and his shortcomings. What we often do not explore about Lincoln are his philosophies and how he acquired them. An examination of Lincoln's literary interests helps us to discover some of those philosophies. An understanding of what Lincoln read in the areas of science, religion, philosophy, and literature helps us to see that there was much more to Lincoln than met the eye.

It should also be emphasized that Lincoln's lack of a formal education was certainly not unusual for the time. Certainly the variety of life experiences led Lincoln to become interested in subjects that fascinated him personally. Lincoln was not a general reader, but one whose interests varied in scope.

It is interesting to examine how Lincoln's personal philosophies such as his beliefs in predestination and laissez faire liberalism influenced his writings and his actions as president. As students of history we often wonder what Lincoln read to cope with the tragedies of war and why he tended to stick with his decisions. Several movie and television productions emphasize the folksy humor of Lincoln and portray his rather dry wit through the portrayal of his stories and jokes. In this examination of Lincoln, however, we will delve into his more personal side, one that gets beyond the image of Honest Abe and allows us to explore the philosophical Lincoln.

Connection with the Curriculum

An examination of Lincoln's philosophies, many of which he developed while in Illinois, helps us to expand our knowledge of Lincoln to include his "whole" education, composed of his readings, interests, and philosophies. The following activities may be used in units about Lincoln in Illinois history and in units covering the Civil War in American history. It is also possible to use these lessons when examining the American presidency in American government. The activities may be appropriate for meeting the Illinois Learning Standards 16.A.4a, 16.A.4b, 16.B.4, 16.D.4a, and 16.D.4b.

Teaching Level

These activities were designed for high school students, with modifications possible for middle-level learners as well.

Materials for Each Student

Each student will need a copy of the narrative portion of the article and copies of the activities chosen for instruction. Lesson 1 includes basic comprehension questions from the article and also asks the students to delve a little deeper and think about what Lincoln's philosophies meant to how he thought and to his presidential leadership style. Lesson 2 uses a technique to assist in reading the content. Lesson 3 encourages the learner to use his or her knowledge to communicate Lincoln's anti-slavery attitudes to a young boy. In addition, students will need their textbooks (or other source) to examine laissez faire liberalism.

Objectives for Each Student

• Describe the subjects that Lincoln read throughout his lifetime.
• Identify and distinguish between Lincoln's three general intellectual contexts.
• Examine Lincoln's personal beliefs on religion and evaluate his reaction when his political opponents misinterpreted his religious beliefs.
• Evaluate Lincoln's philosophies and analyze those philosophies in a written response.


Opening the Lesson

A good opening for this lesson might be to ask the students to describe their perceptions of Abraham Lincoln. What have they been taught about Lincoln from the time they were young children? To go further, ask the students to think about how the kinds of things we read can affect our thinking. Then ask the students how Lincoln's readings on subjects such as evolution, religion, and laissez faire liberalism might have influenced his thinking. Also ask the students to think about how educated Americans might have expected their political leaders to be in the mid-1800s. The students should then read the narrative portion of the article.

Developing the Lesson

The introductory discussion and the narrative portion of the article will prepare the students for the activities that follow. The activities were written so that each can be used separately. Certainly all three activities can be done in order; depending upon time constraints, you may choose to do only one activity.

Lesson 1 examines the students' comprehension of the article's main points but also asks the students to delve a little deeper and think about how Lincoln thought and what his philosophies


meant to his presidential leadership style. The questions included could be used as an individual assignment or to facilitate group discussion in a cooperative learning activity. Three roles will be needed within each group: facilitator, reporter, and recorder.

Lesson 2 uses a content reading technique (R.J. Hash, "The Effects of a Strategy of Structural Overviews, Levels, Guides, and Vocabulary Exercises on Student Achievement, Reading Comprehension, Critical Thinking and Attitutdes of Junior High Classes in Social Studies." Doctoral dissertation, State University of New York at Buffalo, 1974) to assist students in understanding what they have read. In addition, this activity also puts students into groups with the goal of reaching a consensus on each of the items. A debriefing will be necessary to compare judgments made by each group and to talk about the process of reaching a consensus.

Lesson 3 encourages the learner to use his or her knowledge in a creative writing activity to communicate Lincoln's anti-slavery attitudes to a young boy. This activity allows students to put themselves in Lincoln's shoes and think about how he would explain his anti-slavery attitudes to a young boy in a border state who undoubtedly saw both slavery and anti-slavery beliefs every day. This activity encourages students to use the analysis, synthesis, and evaluation domains of Bloom's taxonomy (B. S. Bloom, ed., Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: The Classification of Educational Goals. Handbook I: Cognitive Domain, 1956). A major goal of this exercise is to get beyond Bloom's knowledge and comprehension domains to develop higher level thinking ability.

Concluding the Lesson

A possible wrap-up for this lesson is to ask the students if they have changed their perceptions of Lincoln in any way. Ask the students if they expect a president in today's society to read as widely and in different subject areas as Lincoln did. Also ask the students if religious attitudes would be as open for public debate today as they were in Lincoln's day. To finish the lesson, ask students how they think reading and academic pursuits influence a person's character.

Extending the Lesson

Students wishing to extend their study of Lincoln should be encouraged to investigate the following web sites:

• Lincoln/Net at
• Abraham Lincoln Association at
• Mr. Lincoln's Virtual Library at
• African American Odyssey at
• Illinois State Archives at

Although students typically examine Lincoln's best-known works such as the Inaugural Addresses, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Gettysburg Address, students can look at other speeches and collected works to further develop their knowledge of Lincoln's attitudes and philosophies.

Assessing the Lesson

Imagine yourself as President Abraham Lincoln having accepted a speaking engagement in which you have been asked to tell the audience about how you were educated both formally and informally. They are especially interested in what you read in your spare time and how you choose the things you read. How would you respond?

What do you like?


Activity 1 — Examining Lincoln's Philosophies

It has often been said that "You are what you read." In the article that you have just read, the author indicated that Lincoln was not a general reader, but seemed to read what he was most interested in at the time. Certainly Lincoln's background, his life experiences, and his intellectual pursuits gave shape to the kind of leader he would later become as president. Answer the following questions to help reveal the foundation of Lincoln's political philosophies.


1. Although Lincoln received little formal education and was commonly known as "Honest Abe, the Rail Splitter, and as a man of the people," what activities did he engage in that demonstrated his intellectual side?

2. Why do you suppose that Lincoln allowed his political promoters to portray him as a candidate "fresh from the people" rather than emphasize his intellectual pursuits?

3. Describe how Lincoln's upbringing and belief in predestination contributed to his inclination to stick with decisions and positions concerning political matters.

4. Describe what you think is meant by laissez faire liberalism. Examine your textbook or ask your teacher for clarification. Explain how you think Lincoln's laissez faire beliefs shaped his attitudes as an anti-slavery activist.

5. What about Lincoln's mind indicates that his "dedication to liberty and rights does not require a surrender of moral principle"?


Activity 2 — Examining Lincoln's Handbill to His "Fellow Citizens"

Those who run for office at the local, state, or national level know that political issues are not the only points of discussion during a campaign. Often personal beliefs and actions related to those beliefs must be defended. The following is a handbill that was distributed in Lincoln's congressional district as a response to accusations that he was an atheist (Meltzer, 1993, pp. 44-45). Read Lincoln's response to those accusations and complete the activity that follows.

Fellow Citizens:
A charge having got into circulation in some of the neighborhoods of this district, in substance that I am an open scoffer at Christianity, I have by the advice of some friends concluded to notice the subject in this form. That I am not a member of any Christian church is true; but I have never denied the truth of the Scriptures; and I have never spoken with intentional disrespect of religion in general or of any denomination of Christians in particular. It is true that in early life I was inclined to believe in what I understand is called the "Doctrine of Necessity" — that is, that the human mind is impelled to action or held in rest by some power over which the mind itself has no control; and I have sometimes (with one, two, or three, but never publicly) tried to maintain this opinion in argument. The habit of arguing thus, however, I have entirely left off for more than five years. And I add here, I have always understood this same opinion to be held by several of the Christian denominations. The foregoing is the whole truth, briefly stated in relation to myself, upon this subject.

I do not think I could myself be brought to support a man for office whom I knew to be an open enemy of, and scoffer at, religion. Leaving the higher matter of eternal consequences between him and his Maker, I still do not think any man has the right thus to insult the feelings and injure the morals of the community in which he may live. If, then, I was guilty of such conduct, I should blame no man who should condemn me for it; but I do blame those, whoever they may be, who falsely put such a charge in circulation against me.

Source: Meltzer, M., ed. (1993). Lincoln: In His Own Words. London: Harcourt Brace & Company.


Activity 2 — continued


I. Complete the reading as an individual, placing check marks in the You column.
II. In small group settings (3-5 students) place group decisions about statements (check marks) in the column marked Group. Make sure that Group selections are unanimous. Make sure that the choices that your colleagues make are backed by evidence.

A Handbill to Lincoln's Congressional District

Literal Level - What did the author say? Based on the reading provided, place a check mark on the line provided for each of the statements with which you agree.




That I am not a member of any Christian church is true ...



Lincoln admits that he is an atheist.



Lincoln admits that he has not read the scriptures for more than five years.



I have never spoken with disrespect of religion in general...


Interpretive Level - What did the author mean? Based on the reading provided, place check marks before the statement(s) that indicate what the author meant by what he said.


Only a man who is a Christian should hold public office.



No American should openly scoff at Christianity.



It is the responsibility of Christians to judge the morals of those who live in their community.


Applied Level - What principle is involved? Place a check mark before each statement(s) that represents the central thrust of the handbill. Be prepared to tell why.


There is a definite connection between what Lincoln calls the "Doctrine of Necessity" and what is called "predestination" in the narrative portion of the article.



No man should condemn others for what they believe in except in matters of religion.



Lincoln sees religion as an important American value.


Source for content reading technique: R.J. Hash, "The Effects of a Strategy of Structural Overviews, Levels, Guides, and Vocabulary Exercises on Student Achievement, Reading Comprehension, Critical Thinking and Attitudes of Junior High Classes in Social Studies." Doctoral dissertation, State University of New York at Buffalo, 1974.


Activity 3 — Responding to a Citizen

Dear Child
of Missouri,
Imagine that in the fall of 1861 you are President Abraham Lincoln and you receive a letter from a ten-year-old boy in southern Missouri, a border state, asking you to explain your anti-slavery attitudes and how you developed them. In your response, remember to write in a clear and concise fashion so he can understand your response.


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