Published Humanitas, Volume XV, No. 1, 2002

In “The Problem of Lincoln in Babbitt’s Thought,” his scholarly rejoinder to my “Irving Babbitt on Lincoln and Unionism,” Richard Gamble argues that Babbitt was wrong to uphold Lincoln “as an exemplary figure in the best American tradition.” In my view, on the contrary, Babbitt was justified in taking Lincoln as an upholder of “our great unionist tradition,” and followers of Babbitt today are right to claim Lincoln as an invaluable ally in their efforts to reconstitute American culture and society. Gamble, on the other hand, advises participants in “any Babbitt-inspired effort to rebuild American culture” to reject the heritage of Lincoln.

Despite these fundamental differences, there are several points on which Richard Gamble and I can agree. Both of us find that Babbitt’s conception of Lincoln is not always accurate. We both note that Lincoln’s admiration for Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence seems at odds with Babbitt’s own conception of the “unionist” tradition—which Babbitt defined in large part by contrast to the “Jeffersonian” impulse. Gamble suggests that the Progressive cult of Lincoln led to a “Lincoln myth” presenting the sixteenth president as the “ideal of the humanitarian crusader.” Like Gamble and Babbitt himself, I think that the Progressives distorted the historical Lincoln to serve their own political purposes. In my view, however, a careful study of the words and deeds of Lincoln reconfirms Lincoln’s moral and intellectual stature and validates Babbitt’s view of Lincoln as an exemplar of the unionist tradition of “sane moral realism.” Gamble, on the other hand, believes that the historical record reveals an unprincipled seeker of power…

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