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Carolyn Brager

Ralph Lerner begins his chapter Lincolns Revolution by addressing the energy of
self-flattery, self-satisfaction, and congratulatory pride pervasive in the American people at the
time Abraham Lincoln stepped up onto the political podium. Out of the self-celebration from the
legacy of revolution and independence, Lincolns is a voice apart-- he believed the American
peoples pride would only be justified once they learned to think critically of themselves.
In the next 5 sections, Lerner explores the following broad notions: (1) Lincoln flattered
the people and treated them as equals, to gain their trust and effectively persuade them, (2)
Lincoln persuaded on the basis of reason, (3) The debate over slavery emerged as the spotlight of
Lincolns agenda, (4) Lincoln used the Declaration of Independence as his central point of
reference, and (5) The words and actions of America's forefathers need to be interpreted, not
implicitly followed.
First: Lincolns understanding of persuasion and leadership. Lincoln, though confident in
his critical beliefs, recognized that to be an effective leader, he first needed to build a foundation
of flattery, trust, and good opinion of him. By making the people his equals and his partners,
Lincoln effectively created a philosophically grounded public opinion, because he believed a
thoughtful public was the key to erecting policies. Furthermore, he recognized that both policies
and politicians should act in accordance with public sentiment and should be judged based on
how they affect public sentiment.
Second, Lincoln dedicated himself to persuasion. He recognized that a thinking public
lies at the core of politics. Thus, he put considerable effort into gaining understanding of his
publics sense of reason. He appealed to thoughtfulness and realism, embodied an ethos that
resembled a friend, and tried to understand ordinary people and behavior. After bringing people
together by appealing to their commonality of the revolution, he could then persuade them when
it came to policies.
Third, Lincoln recognized that the revolution left behind a harsh human price, and the
overarching goal of it was undoubtedly incomplete when he came into office. The debate over
slavery epitomized this incompleteness. He believed looking to the Declaration of Independence
was the only way to attain completeness and maintain Americas continuing progress.
Fourth, Lincoln made the Declaration of Independence his central point of reference. By
doing this, Lincoln was able to occupy a higher ground that made it possible for him to lead a
reluctant public to a disturbing confrontation with itself in regards to the debate over slavery.
Lincoln used the Declaration of Independence to back up his beliefs that no man is good enough
to govern another without that others consent, that liberty belongs to all men. Finally, he
believed the Declaration set up a vision for a society that can never be attained but should always
be sought after.
Lastly, Lerner explains that Lincoln explicitly addressed the men who made the
revolution, the founders of America. His admiration for them was unyielding but considerably

nuanced in the sense that he viewed them as great models of men, but also emphasized the idea
that the American people werent obligated to follow exactly what they did. Lincoln read into the
deeper meaning of the founders words and believed they, like him, they also believed slavery
should and would ultimately become extinct.
The first part of this chapter I found interesting was Lerners idea: In order to gain a
hearing for his critical, non flattering speech, a speaker must first dissemble his critical opinions
and flatter his audience, thus exacerbating the very sickness he wishes to cure. I found this
particularly interesting because Lincoln seemed to find a way to go about this paradoxical reality
in a unique and clever way. Instead of the traditional flattery I first thought of, like insincere
praise and disingenuous compliments, he flattered his audience simply by being their friend,
presenting himself as their equal, and making them his partners. Only then could he be critical,
honest, and candid in terms of matters he disapproved of.
This reminded me of the way that in the variety of relationship I have with people in my
life, the closer I am with someone, the more straightforward and opinionated I can be with
someone. Until Ive developed a relationship with someone where we treat each other as equals,
where theres no power discrepancy and no fakeness, its difficult to grow and learn from each
Another part of this chapter that stood out to me was the fifth and final section where
Lerner speaks to the way Lincoln believed in interpreting the words and actions of the founding
fathers. This reminded me of the way constitutionality is used today in a political context. For
example, the constitution is a core element in the debate on gun control. Times have certainly
changed since 1791 when it was deemed that a well regulated militia, being necessary to the
security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.
What does a well regulated militia actually mean, what does it apply to? Should this right be read
as an individual right or a collective right? Does the type of arms matter? Ultimately, much of
this debate hinges on how much this constitutional right should be interpreted or taken literally.
At a simpler level, we have all agreed to interpret the constitutions use of the word man and
he in the constitution to universally apply to women as well.
Similarly, Lincoln believed the ambiguous, roundabout, and mystical language of the
constitution regarding slavery had a purpose. The founders meant for it to be interpreted as time
progressed because they too predicted the time would come where slavery should become
extinct. By arguing successfully on the basis of this logic, Lincoln left a eternal legacy of
effective persuasion.