Lincoln and the Politics of the “Towering Genius”

STEVEN B. SMITH

AMERICAN POLITICAL THOUGHT, Volume 7, Number 3

Abstract: This article examines Lincoln’s “Lyceum Speech” with its concern for the “towering genius” in politics against the backdrop of the recent rise of populism and demagoguery. Lincoln’s concern was with a new kind of problem, namely, the appearance of the romantic hero in politics, a figure presaged in the writings of Emerson and Thoreau and that took the form of radical conscience politics. The model of the transcendental hero was John Brown, whose abolitionist impulse put individual conscience above the law. I contrast the transcendental hero to Lincoln’s conception of constitutional statecraft as based on an ethic of moderation and self-restraint. The article concludes with a contrast between Lincoln and Tocqueville’s worry that the American democratic republic would be characterized by the absence of individuals of grand ambition. Lincoln, I argue, is a better guide to the politics of the contemporary moment.