Published Humanitas, Volume XV, No. 1, 2002

Half a century ago, Lincoln biographer David Herbert Donald surveyed the pious pleadings of an unlikely assortment of politicians who testified to Abraham Lincoln’s certain endorsement for their policies. Agreeing on little else, they were all “getting right with Lincoln.” The struggle to define Lincoln’s place in American history began immediately with his death. Squabbling Republicans fought for the title to Lincoln’s legacy as each side claimed to be the rightful heir to Lincoln’s true intentions. Lincoln’s memory was invoked to support or oppose any number of legislative or reform proposals no matter how remote from the America of the 1860s. By the 1930s, according to Donald, Lincoln was “everybody’s grandfather”—whether New Dealer, communist, socialist, vegetarian, or prohibitionist. The question “What would Lincoln Do?” had become as common in political circles as the soul-searching query “What Would Jesus Do?” among earnest social gospel reformers.

Given his impatience with sentimentalists, humanitarians, and “uplifters” of all kinds, it is surprising at first glance to find Irving Babbitt among those “getting right with Lincoln”—even to a modest degree—especially at the height of the Progressive Era’s dreamy infatuation with the Lincoln mystique. To be sure, Babbitt offered few direct comments about Lincoln and his legacy. Beyond one reference in Literature and the American College (1909) and a handful in Democracy and Leadership (1924), Lincoln hardly appears in his works. In contrast with his extensive treatment of Woodrow Wilson, for instance, Babbitt’s near silence regarding the Great Emancipator hardly seems…

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