cover image Our Ancient Faith: Lincoln, Democracy, and the American Experiment

Our Ancient Faith: Lincoln, Democracy, and the American Experiment

Allen C. Guelzo. Knopf, $30 (272p) ISBN 978-0-593-53444-1

Historian Guelzo (Robert E. Lee) plumbs the depths of Abraham Lincoln’s passion for American democracy in this combative study that seeks to silence the institution’s “cultured despisers” by illuminating the president’s eloquent defense of it (he called democracy his “ancient faith”). Bolstering Lincoln’s philosophy of democracy, according to Guelzo, was his belief in the American system (where there were “no slaves and no masters except the self-driven and the self-mastered”) and its entwined “mores” of property ownership, religious morality, toleration, and electioneering. Taking to task “Lincoln-haters,” Guelzo justifies Lincoln’s cancelling of habeas corpus during the Civil War, cheekily asserting that the arrests “did not exactly represent a Night of the Long Knives.” Elsewhere, he sharply attacks contemporary critics who would deny Lincoln his status as “the Great Emancipator” as another example “of the rise of an Afro-pessimism which questions whether the entire premise of democratic government has failed on the doorstep of race.” Throughout, Guelzo shines prodigious light on Lincoln’s unshakable belief in democracy, while skirting the more problematic aspects of the president’s political interactions with race as a mere persistent “zig zag” in his thoughts and actions. It’s an erudite if contentious consideration of Lincoln’s feelings about the American experiment. (Feb.)