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Lincoln Assassination Sesquicentennial
Abraham Lincoln, Dangerously Unqualified

One hundred and fifty years ago today, President Lincoln was assassinated. The acute shock and the grief that followed can still be seen a century and a half later, culturally embalmed in everything from some of the most moving American poetry to communities that mark where his funeral procession ran through town to discussions of whether Reconstruction could have worked had he survived. But looking back now, of course, we also commemorate the man.

Educated by a few itinerant schoolmasters and then largely by himself, Lincoln cannot even be said to be a high school dropout. He became perhaps our most far-sighted President. He read for the law (studying and taking the bar, rather than going to law school)—a practice that is no longer allowed—and then proved himself to be one of the most successful lawyers in the country. (If you satisfy your clients and peers today as a lawyer but did not go to law school, we will throw you in jail.)  He was a peerlessly elegant orator, a better strategist than his generals, a gifted politician—the savior of his country. And by our lights, he was completely unqualified.

The U.S. has gone from being a nation that lived by Lincoln’s credo, “Whatever you are, be a good one” to one that fetishizes credentials above all else, whether in choosing our Presidents (the last three of which attended Harvard, Yale, or both) or our degree-holding baristas. Is this working out any better for us?

So yes, read “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” today. Look a little bit more closely at your pennies. You can even read a fascinating Slate article on whether Our American Cousin, the play Lincoln was seeing at Ford’s theater, was funny. (We groaned.) But spare a thought, too, for where the next Abraham Lincoln is going to come from—and what we’re doing to bar or clear the path.

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  • Luke Phillips

    One thing’s for sure, he’s on his way. A storm is brewing in this country.

    Also he might be a she, too! (Though she definitely wouldn’t be Hillary!)

    • mdmusterstone

      Thank you Luke.

  • Corlyss

    A lot of things are different now that we’re either rudimentary or non-existent then. Just for starters, in those days not just any damn fool could vote. Now we got people with no skin in the game dictating to the people who pay their bills as well as their own, people whose only link to the system is the money they get out of it and whose only interest is ensuring no interruption in the flow of money.

    • Anthony

      Actually, most really poor people do not vote in large numbers. This is a well established fact.

  • FriendlyGoat

    We’re barring the path, not clearing it. This is already evident when most candidates on the right and left are concerned that they cannot raise the class of money needed to compete with either Jeb Bush or Hillary Clinton. Those such as Rubio, Cruz and Paul (announced so far) would not even be running at all without the boost of a few very deep pockets to fund their initial launches.

    As for Abe Lincoln, it’s hard to imagine him endorsing the campaigns of today where “freedom of speech” is twisted to mean secret donors forming secret incorporated PAC’s which hire actors to read scripts in ads repeated thousands of times on things called radio, TV and Internet. Abe, in his elegant oratory, would call it what it is: Amplified lying by secret liars.

  • Anthony

    What are we doing to bar or clear the path? In modern electoral politics what men (women) are both willing and able to campaign while being electorally accepted by a broad, culturally differentiated, intellectually and emotionally conditioned public informs the “spare a thought” request. To my mind, said criteria rules out many highly capable individuals because such an electoral undertaking requires abandonment of their respective specialized life work (if it isn’t politics per se) – scientist, physicians, surgeons, scholars, engineers, etc. (those at top of their game) cannot afford to avail the country a Lincoln. That is, personal economics or professional commitment precludes country’s most capable sans credentialed fetish. Consequently, another individual type predominates (one who is easily willing to make deals at public expense): purchasable men. Now, how have we arrived here and what continues to bar the path? Perhaps. one answer may be found in the politics of the propertied – he who pays the piper calls the tune. In other words, the Abraham Lincoln model is up against it!

    “The up-and-coming men in politics, then, must be lawyers, men of independent means or in some business they can run by remote control as an adjunct to politics. The lawyers chosen are usually not at the top of their profession either as pleaders, brief specialists or jurisprudence expertise but are men seeking to make their way, hopeful that their political participation will bring big retainers to their law firms…With nice corporate retainers in the office, however, these public officials develop a sound pro-corporate point of view. While rhetorically they may swing far to the left or right, when it comes to voting and deciding, they must see things as the corporations do. They must then follow the corporate ‘party line’….”

  • Anthony

    Professor Mead is right to bring this up. The sale of massively overpriced credentials has become a national scandal. However, you have to take the good with the bad. Prior to the rise of the meritocratic system, admission to elite universities was primarily determined by family wealth and social connections. As Charles Murray says, the old Harvard was full of a lot of rich people and a few really smart ones, whereas today, it is full of many smart people and a few really rich ones. Also, fifty years ago, many very smart students from the interior of the country usually did not even apply to any of the top schools even if they had a good chance of getting accepted.

    We can also see both positive and negative changes at Harvard Law School. Prior to world war II, HLS accepted a large portion of the applicants. But acceptance was a very small step on a long journey. The professors were much harsher than they are today, and one third of the class would fail out by the end of the first year.

    In Lincoln’s time, people were so rooted in their local area that names like Harvard and Yale might not have been a big deal. This was due to geographic separation and the difficulty of communicating over long distances. This fundamental fact of life would persist well into the twentieth century. William Rehnquist said that when he was at Stanford Law School in the early fifties, graduates of that school were unlikely to even be interviewed for a supreme court clerkship. This was due to the difficulty in getting from California to Washington D.C. prior to the widespread adoption of pressurized commercial aircraft.

    • Anthony

      It’s not overpriced credentials nor traditions of elite universities that distinguish idea of WRM’s post i.e., Lincoln. Lincoln’s socialization model (at least in U.S.) can no longer be captured as our educational system now looms as one of the more influential purveyors of dominant values – colleges and graduate and professional schools offer a more sophisticated extension of orthodox socialization. That is, thinking for oneself as well as the autodidact are more constrained today by our “cultural apparatus”. One last thought, although we are often admonished to think for ourselves does the cultural apparatus really allow us to do so – to get along in one’s career, one learns to go along with things as they are and avoid the espousal of views that conflict with the dominant interests of one’s profession. institution, and society. Lincoln’s orientation, looking back, offers the entertaining of contrary notions that may not be acquired…

      • Anthony

        Hmmmm… I do agree that higher education does socialize young people into dominant modes of thought. Contrary to what Professor Mead SOMETIMES says, though, regnant elite opinion is not to the far left. Rather, the credo goes something like this: Get ahead, financially, politically and socially to the greatest extent possible. Furthermore, do not take any political position that is too far to the left or too far to the right, as this could alienate people and get in the way of the first goal. The result of this process are people who are very socially liberal and economically moderate conservative.

        I think Ross Douthat – an alumnus of Harvard College – was right when he said that Harvard is a factory for future investment bankers, corporate lawyers and management consultants rather than left wing activists/agitators.

        Furthermore, the next generation of university professors is going to be closer to the center than the aging boomer profs. See the article below.

        • Anthony

          Anthony, nothing you cite above is in question (or irrelevant); but, WRM’s Lincoln piece is suggesting reflection on changing nature of Presidential qualification (as I understand piece). Douthat and others you infer represent (wittingly or unwittingly) socialization cited (now, my purpose in initial reply was to note – not provide summary judgment). Regarding elite opinion, the worst forms of tyranny are those so subtle, so deeply ingrained, so thoroughly controlling as not even to be consciously experienced – perhaps compelling “credo” you cite. Next to that, speculation on next generation profs., Harvard graduates, and result of process must be contextually (culturally) assessed – in a capitalist society, one is bombarded with inducements to maintain a life-style that promotes the plutocratic culture. Keep on stretching.

      • fastrackn1

        “thinking for oneself as well as the autodidact are more constrained today by our “cultural apparatus”.”


        Although a lot of that is because we have went from being a nation of self-employed to a nation of mostly working for ever larger corporations. I would like to see a shift back to the way it used to be regarding that…and the end would justify the means….

        • Anthony

          Economics (making a living, using goods and services, utilizing capital productively, economic/societal arrangements,etc.) is rarely thought about systematically. I share your concern about our apparent shift from some national esprit de corps; yet it revolves around politics (politics and economics for me two sides of same coin) and our ability to redefine ends and pose alternatives while recognizing we are a country of approx. 315 million.

          • fastrackn1

            Unless we have a massive paradigm shift of the directional track of our zeitgeist since the turn of the century, there will be a new world order of some type and corporations will control much more than they should.

            That paradigm shift will never happen….

          • Anthony

            Two thoughts: 1) globally a change is (has occurred) occurring – paradigm shift that many in US find dis-ease; 2) said amorphous shift yet bringing about order you forecast. Whether multinational corporations accrue more dominance may depend on metric used – ownership of capital is quite dominant currently.

            Finally, citizenry must get tired of being sick and tired (demoralized) and become the change they seek – your contravention of never happening.

          • fastrackn1

            I agree with your thoughts.
            Citizenry must get sick and tired, however I just don’t think they will in the ‘fat’ countries like the US…not as long as those at the top keep them content enough riding their ATV’s and watching mindless TV programs on their sofas as they have been.
            Ownership of capital has been funneling to the top from the masses more and more every generation, and capital = power, power becomes absolute power, and we all know what absolute power does…so therein lies the future of mankind as we slowly go ‘global’….

          • Anthony

            I’m not as gloomy (though quote attributed to Lord Acton is always handy). Thanks.

          • fastrackn1

            Don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to be gloomy, but I always look at things through an ‘actual human nature’ perspective. Power is a form of self-preservation, which is basic human (animal) nature, so I doubt humans will reverse their (genetic) nature as the world slowly globalizes more and more over the next many generations.
            I also don’t think that there will ever be any type of major revolutionary change here. It’s fun to talk about, but won’t actually happen because life is too easy here. Look at what happened to the OWS movement, or the Tea Party movement (most recent examples)….

  • fastrackn1

    Abraham Lincoln is more proof that higher education is grossly over-rated and often a waste of time.
    I never have, and never will, hire someone with a college degree. I like people who think outside the box and create their own destiny, not those who can memorize a lot of useless information and pass a series of tests….

  • Jeff Traube

    If the South was slow to recognize the trend away from Slavery, the North was foolhardy to Emancipate the Slaves without Repatriating them – as was advocated by many of 19th Century politicians. Lincoln’s idealism of Universalism would go on to destroy the country via Immigration as Multi-Culturalism is Neo-Abolitionism.

  • Palinurus

    And yet, in his Lyceum Speech, Lincoln himself, albeit a young Lincoln, characterized frustrating “the next Abraham Lincoln” as the fundamental task of maintaining our democratic republic:

    “Many great and good men sufficiently qualified for any task they should undertake, may ever be found, whose ambition would inspire to nothing beyond a seat in Congress, a gubernatorial or a presidential chair; but such belong not to the family of the lion, or the tribe of the eagle. What! think you these places would satisfy an Alexander, a Caesar, or a Napoleon?–Never! Towering genius distains a beaten path…. It thirsts and burns for distinction; and, if possible, it will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves [now, who did that?], or enslaving freemen. Is it unreasonable then to expect, that some man possessed of the loftiest genius, coupled with ambition sufficient to push it to its utmost stretch, will at some time, spring up among us? And when such a one does, it will require the people to be united with each other, attached to the government and laws, and generally intelligent, to successfully frustrate his designs.”

    To the extent that promoting the “the next Abraham Lincoln” is not hyperbole, Lincoln himself cautions that we should be careful what we wish for — that there’s a reason why the government, laws, and people — not just fetishes for certain degrees — should be united to frustrate such a one.

    Lincoln’s vivid description of those born of the “family of the lion, or the tribe of the eagle” likewise shows that the notion that “the next Abraham Lincoln” needs our help is a fatuous conceit — that a Lincoln or an Alexander or a Caesar or a Napoleon would be thwarted by an admission officer or college professor or midlevel manager or political hack. I’ve heard the one about dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants; that giants stand on the shoulders of dwarves is a new one.

    That Lincoln turned out to be such a “towering genius,” one who would “emancipat[e] slaves,” but apparently not “an Alexander, a Caesar, or a Napoleon,” is the riddle presented by the man and one of the mysteries of democracy.

  • Will Freismuth


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