Abraham Lincoln and the Self-Made Myth

by Richard Hofstadter

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Lincoln’s Virtuous Legacy

Throughout his essay “Abraham Lincoln and the Self-Made Myth,” Richard Hofstadter refers to those qualities of Abraham Lincoln’s personality that defined him as a man of remarkable integrity. In addition to his political wit and steadfast antipathy towards slavery, Lincoln’s virtuous character was perhaps one of the most defining aspects of his time as a politician and a president. Hofstadter mentions this virtue in a number of different contexts, but in all of them the reader gets the sense that it was this inner goodness that solidified the “self-made myth” that would sustain Lincoln’s legacy for decades to come.

Lincoln was born of humble origins, and this has often been evoked to express how remarkable his political achievements truly were. As Hofstadter says, “It was precisely in his attainments as a common man that Lincoln felt himself to be remarkable, and in this light that he interpreted to the world the significance of his career.” Lincoln’s image of himself “placed him with the poor, the aged, and the forgotten.” He consistently demonstrated humility, modesty, and forgiveness in his dealings with other people, and he was beloved because of it. Furthermore, he was stricken with a severe, noble, and some might say self-defeating sense of guilt over the devastation, both human and material, the war had caused for Southern families. Lincoln never intended for his political decisions to lead to so much violence, and, despite the magnanimous outcome of his devotion to abolitionism for a free American society, Hofstadter maintains that he in fact felt quite defeated after the whole affair was over. Again:

This would go far to explain the desperation with which he issued pardons and the charity that he wanted to extend to the conquered South at the war’s close… Lincoln’s utter lack of personal malice during these years, his humane detachment, his tragic sense of life, have no parallel in political history.

In the context of the Lincoln myth, it was precisely this self-flagellating, remorseful attitude that secured the president as one of the most revered leaders in history.

Lincoln’s Political Sagacity

Hofstadter remarks that Lincoln was able to rise from a position of almost complete political obscurity at the age of twenty-four to become the leader of the Whig party in the Illinois House of Representative entirely because of his political precocity. Lincoln admired the political acumen of Whig politicians like Henry Clay, and especially revered Thomas Jefferson, whose love of American democracy inspired Lincoln’s own ideas. The country, according to Lincoln, needed three things: a strong national bank, federally-funded improvements to infrastructure, and a conservative economy, and he would be the figure to bring about these changes.

A large part of Lincoln’s strong political presence was his skill as an orator, and Hofstadter argues that Lincoln was born for the platform. For example, in his debates with Democratic party member Stephen A. Douglas, Lincoln claimed that Douglas, who had earlier worked with the Supreme Court to hand down the Dred Scott decision, was engaged in a “conspiracy… for the sole purpose of nationalizing slavery.” Such invective devastated Douglas’s credibility as a reliable politician or even an honest man.

Lincoln was especially adroit at penetrating the logic of pro-slavery arguments. As Hofstadter remarks,

The essence of his position was that the principle of exclusion has no inner check; that arbitrarily barring one minority from the exercise of its rights can be both a precedent and a moral sanction for barring another, and it creates a frame of mind from which no one can expect justice or security.

There was no political speaker of...

(This entire section contains 1055 words.)

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his day who could out-debate Lincoln on the issue of slavery. The Illinois representative had read and was intimately familiar with the democratic authors like Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Paine. He was easily able to show how the institution of slavery was antithetical to the principles of equality of all men that the Constitution had been framed upon. This sharpness of mind guaranteed Lincoln’s support within the Whig party during the 1860 presidential election, which led to his victory.

Lincoln’s Solidifying Stance on Slavery

Given that Lincoln’s most monumental political act was to abolish slavery in the United States, Hofstadter’s essay traces this theme and explores how the president’s repudiation of it shaped all of his subsequent political actions. Lincoln’s second trip to New Orleans when he was twenty-one was impactful. According to Hofstadter, when Lincoln saw a mulatto girl for sale at a local auction, he was disgusted, and “the iron entered his soul.” This was a significant moment in Lincoln’s life because, as Hofstadter explains, it set the tone for all of Lincoln’s subsequent thinking on the matter. Slavery had always remained a morally reprehensible practice in Lincoln’s eyes.

However, Lincoln took a more moderate stance for years, because outright abolition was unpopular among Northerners due to its potentially deleterious impacts on the economy. Lincoln, aligning himself with this stance, long argued for the curtailment of slavery’s expansion, rather than speaking out on behalf of abolition. Moreover, Lincoln believed that the South’s “peculiar institution” would eventually die out on its own, and worried that taking action too quickly would destabilize the integrity of the Union.

It was in his debates with Stephen A. Douglas that Lincoln became much more outspoken against slavery. In response to recent developments, such as the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Lincoln stood on firm ground in his denunciation of the institution. As Hofstadter remarks,

Lincoln was not emphasizing the necessity for abolition of slavery in the near future; he was emphasizing the immediate “danger” that slavery would become a nation-wide American institution if its geographical spread were not severely restricted at once.

This growing opprobrium, combined with a legitimate fear that the spread of slavery was getting out of hand, ultimately precipitated in the American Civil War. Thus, the problem of slavery was of obvious importance to Lincoln’s political career. Not only did it culminate in his fateful decision to submit his Emancipation Proclamation; it also engendered in him a kind of moral purity and a hatred for bigotry. These honorable aspects of his character contribute to the creation of what Hofstadter calls Lincoln’s “self-made myth.”