The Lincoln Challenge

Steven B. Smith, Alfred Cowles Professor of Political Science, Yale University

Every other year I teach a class at Yale called The Mind of Lincoln.  The course is an in-depth study of the speeches and letters of Lincoln combined with writings from some of his most distinguished contemporaries and predecessors among whom are Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoun, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Frederick Douglass.  But the core of the class is an intense focus on Lincoln himself.   How did a man who grew up in rural poverty with no formal education become our greatest national leader and the author of the two greatest speeches – the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural – in the English language?

The course is not only an immersion in Lincoln’s texts but the way Lincoln has been appropriated – and misappropriated – over the years from his admirers to his detractors.  These range from “progressives” like Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Barack Obama to “conservatives” like Edmund Wilson, Willmore Kendall, and Harry Jaffa.  The course also contains three great films, John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln, Edward Zwick’s Glory, and Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.

At the end of the semester, I offer students the opportunity to participate in something I call the Lincoln Challenge.  This is chance to memorize Lincoln’s Second Inaugural and then recite it in front of the class.  This is entirely voluntary and I tell the class in advance that there is no extra credit for those who wish to participate.

This past year, nine students out of roughly thirty took up the challenge. At 701 words, this is no mean feat, especially for students for whom memorization has not been a part of their education.  Those students who chose not to participate were not off the hook.  Each was required to read a passage from Lincoln before the class and provide a short commentary on its significance both for Lincoln’s time and for us.

The students who accepted the challenge truly rose to the occasion.  Each recited the speech in their own individual way.  Each chose different words or phrases to emphasize with both voice and gesture.  Each brought his or her unique interpretation to Lincoln’s text:  “And the war came,” “Each read the same Bible and pray to the same God,” “The Almighty has his own purposes,” “Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray,” “With malice toward none, with charity for all.”  These are the words that stick.

It was especially satisfying listening to those students who chose instead to read a passage and how each was able to find meaning in Lincoln’s words.  One requirement was that they could not select an altogether obvious passage (“four score and seven years ago”) but must rather do some digging to find something that had not been discussed extensively in class.

One Asian-American student read from Lincoln’s speech to a group of recent German immigrants welcoming them to the American family.  Her voice took on a particular pathos when she read, “if there are any abroad who desire to make this the land of their adoption, it is not in my heart to throw aught in their way, to prevent them from coming to the United States.”

Another student, the child of Cuban refugees, read from Lincoln’s speech to the 166th Ohio Regiment emphasizing equality of opportunity and upward mobility.  “It is in order that each of you may have through this free government an open field and a fair chance in the race of life with all its desirable human aspirations.”

Still one more student, read from Lincoln’s private memorandum on what he thought would be the failure of his re-election.  For those who claim, then as well as now, that Lincoln acted as dictator due to his many wartime decrees, this student emphasized Lincoln’s belief in free and fair elections as the only true metric of a free people.  I cannot think of a more important message.

What struck me most vividly about all of these presentations was the seriousness and appreciation with which these students approached Lincoln.  To be sure, there is “selection bias” in every class.  I do not say that these students are necessarily representative of all Yale students much less of students in general.  Yet my experience in teaching Lincoln has shown to me that there is a hunger, for at least a nucleus of students, to engage with what is best in the American tradition.

The class was no mere white wash of Lincoln.  We considered difficult questions concerning Lincoln’s complex and evolving views on race, equality, emancipation, religion, colonization, and his use of executive power.  Perhaps most importantly, was an ongoing discussion of the role of moral principles in politics.  Do principles perform the function of grounding politics in a higher truth or is the appeal to principle simply the cause of continual conflict?

I have taught at Yale for almost forty years and teaching Lincoln has been one of the most rewarding aspects of my career.  At a time when angry voices on both the right and left seek to cancel their opponents, Lincoln speaks to “the better angels of our nature.”  I do not claim that reading Lincoln is some kind of panacea that can solve the problems of today but we would all be far better off if we took a deep breath and committed to memorizing the Second Inaugural.  

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