Abraham Lincoln, Democracy, Despotism, and the Two Trees

Today I would like to make a commentary on part of Abraham Lincoln’s Peoria Speech as well as the prescient comments on that speech by Harry Jaffa, found on pages 305 and 306 of his magisterial work, Crisis of the House Divided:  An Interpretation of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates (note:  italics in the quote are original within Jaffa’s text):

In Lincoln’s Peoria speech of 1854 he had declared that he hated the principle of Douglas’ Nebraska bill, a principle which acknowledged a right to have slavery wherever men find it in their interest to have it.  He hated it because of the injustice of slavery, because it enabled “the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites..and especially because it forced so many really good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil-liberty–criticizing the Declaration of Independence and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest.”  It is not, of course, for a free government to legislate true opinion with regard to the fundamental principles of civil liberty.  But it is certainly the task of statesmanship to create conviction in the minds and hearts of the citizens with respect to these principles.  And that man is no friend of free government who flatters the people into believing that whatever they wish to have is right and that he will abide by their demands, whatever they are.

At the end of this same Peoria speech Lincoln rebuts a series of arguments that Douglas had advanced against him after he had given the same speech somewhat earlier at Springfield.  Among his remarks are the following:  “In the course of my main argument, Judge Douglas interrupted me to say, that the principle of the Nebraska bill was very old; that it originated when God made man and placed good and evil before him, allowing him to choose for himself, being responsible for the choice he should make.  At the time I thought this was merely playful; and I answered it accordingly.  But in his reply to me he renewed it, as a serious argument.  In seriousness, then, the facts of this proposition are not true as stated.  God did not place good and evil before man, telling him to make his choice.  On the contrary, he told him there was one tree, of the fruit of which, he should not eat, upon pain of certain death.  I should scarcely wish so strong a prohibition against slavery in Nebraska.”

The condition of man under a free government, according to Lincoln, resembled that of man in the Garden of Eden.  His freedom was conditional–conditional upon denying to himself a forbidden fruit.  That fruit was the alluring pleasure of despotism.  “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master.  This expresses my idea of democracy.  Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is not democracy,” Lincoln wrote on the eve of the joint debates.  A democratic people must abide by certain restraints in order to be a democratic people.  The moment they cast these off they cease to be democratic, whether a change takes place in the outward forms of their political life or not.  Lincoln said he would not be either a slave or a master.  But what was true of Lincoln’s will was a reflection of the conviction in Lincoln’s mind that “all men are created equal.”  People could not be expected long to abstain from the forbidden fruit who did not believe that this abstention was in accordance with a higher principle than their own pleasure.  If the pleasures of freedom come into competition with the pleasures of despotism, they cannot survive on the basis of their pleasantness alone.  That, we have seen, was Jefferson’s and Lincoln’s explicit judgment–and it would be a rash man who would deny that they were correct.  Lincoln’s analysis of the problem of popular government in the Lyceum speech had long convinced him that if the choice of free government rested only on the appeal of such government to the passions–i.e. to the pleasure of the people–it would not long endure.  The Lyceum speech demonstrated how the highest ambition of the loftiest souls, hitherto believed capable of gratification only in a monarchial order, might be achieved in the perpetuation of a democratic one.  It recorded the discovery of the soul of “towering genius” that the highest ambition can be conceived as consummated only in the highest service, that egoism and altruism ultimately coincide in that consciousness of a superiority which is the superiority in the ability to benefit others.  But what is true of the superior individual is also true of the superior nation; and Lincoln argues in the course of his debates with Douglas that the freedom of a free people resides above all in that consciousness of freedom which is also a consciousness of self-imposed restraints.  The heart of Lincoln’s case for popular government is the vindication of the people’s cause on the highest grounds which had hitherto been claimed for aristocratic forms.  In the consciousness of a strength which is not abused is a consciousness of a greater strength, and therefore a greater pride and a greater pleasure, than can be known by those who do not know how to deny themselves[1].

As I have quoted a lot of text above, it worthwhile to examine some parts of this to bring out the point of this writing, and of my commenting upon it here today.  I would like to comment on a few elements briefly.  First, I would like to examine the relationship between despotism and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and between what Lincoln and Jaffa call “democracy” and the Tree of Life.  Second, I would like to examine the aspect of how “democracy” and the service of a “towering genius” of great ambition on its behalf can be vindicated on aristocratic and monarchial grounds.  Third, I would like to examine how self-restraint shows a strength greater than can be understood by those who cannot deny themselves–who abuse power and authority, and who may justly be called despots.

It Always Goes Back to the Two Trees

It is striking just how much goes back to Eden and the Two Trees.  By astutely showing how political mindsets go back to the Garden of Eden, Abraham Lincoln draws a principled line between despotism and democracy.  It is worthwhile to examine why he does so, because both him and I would draw that precise same line–considering despotic rule to be satanic, and of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and republican rule to be godly and of the Tree of Life.

Let us reflect upon precisely what was said by Satan to tempt Eve into taking from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in Genesis 3:4-5:  “Then the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die.  For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”  So, first there was the lie, that eating of the tree would not lead to death, and then there was the claim that eating the tree would make one like God, a moral arbiter dividing the line between good and evil.

One who decides good and evil for one’s self is a despot.  There are two choices with this “god-like” power to decide good and evil.  If all are granted this power to decide right and wrong for themselves, there is anarchy, because no authority is recognized over anyone to deter them from fulfilling their lusts and defending their self-interest, which amount to the same thing.  If some are granted this right and others are not, then there is despotism, because some men are considered to be the ultimate authority over other men.  Whether these men are pastors, kings, barons, presidents, CEO’s, slave owners, popes, or any other title, their rebellion against any higher authority and tyrannical rule over those they consider lesser marks them as despots.

On the other hand, to eat from the Tree of Life means to accept God as the authority and not one’s self or any other being apart from God.  This means that we accept God’s standard as an external rule over our lives, that our actions are limited by.  To accept this standard and to apply it means acquiring the self-rule to live one’s own life (as perfectly as one can) according to that eternal and unchanging standard.  Doing so is a monarchial and despotic rule of the will and of the mind over the fleshly lusts.  (This point will be important later).  But such despotic rule is proper because it is the rule over the self to bring every thought, word, and deed into captivity with God’s law.  This is not an easy task (I must admit that I fall severely short of it, and so does everyone else), but it is our task, the better we manage it, the more like God we become.  We have no right to rule anyone else despotically because the will to follow God must be made consensually by all people and their character (and the resulting reward they receive) is determined by their own work in disciplining themselves.

Democracy, in the form of self-government and republican government according to a set standard of behavior rather than the desires of the one, the few, or the many, is the political manifestation of the Kingdom of God, the recognition that the ruler is the servant of the people and not the lord, and that no man has the right to usurp the role of God as the authority for human beings to follow.  Of course, a constitutional monarchy would also follow this model, as would a timonocracy (though I know of no such practical examples of that model in existence throughout the course of human history).  Either way, one’s political worldview springs directly from the two trees–whether a human is the (relative) standard or whether God’s law is the absolute standard, applicable equally to all.

Greatness is Serving:  Defending “Democracy” on Monarchial and Aristocratic Grounds

I would like to answer at this point how democracy may be defended on the highest grounds, as done by Lincoln (and Jaffa, and myself) that had previously in human history been reserved to monarchies and aristocracies.  Unsurprisingly, this defense rests ultimately on “biblical” grounds, making Lincoln an astute (if unconventional) political theorist and student of the Bible.  Additionally, Lincoln (and Jaffa’s) defense of the greatness of serving, that the “towering genius” found his ultimate ambition in the greatest service to the people, is also a biblical concept, worth a brief exploration.

How can democracy be justified by aristocratic and monarchial grounds?  Let us remember that the traditional justification of monarchs is that of the “divine right” monarchy, by which the king is said to be accountable to no one but God.  Additionally, aristocracies, whether priestly or noble, sought to justify themselves as being of a separate nature than the common folk and therefore naturally “born to rule” over them.  Whether rule by one or the few–the same despotic principle applies.  As was said by the wise English patriot Algernon Sidney, “I will believe in the right of one man to govern a nation despotically when I find a man born into the world with boots and spurs, and a nation born with saddles on their backs” [2].  Until I see that, I will deny the right of absolute one man rule to exist as a godly model of government.

Nonetheless, the Bible ultimately supports republican rule on both monarchial and aristocratic (priestly) grounds.  In Exodus 19:5-6, we read:  “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to me above all people, for all the earth is Mine.  And you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”  If Israel was to obey the covenant of God–to apply God’s standard to their own thoughts and words and actions, they would be kings and priests of God, setting a good example for the world at large to follow.  However, they refused to rule over themselves and develop God’s character within them.  They eventually rejected God’s rule, seeking “a king to judge us like all the nations,” as it says in 1 Samuel 8:5.  They remained slaves in their hearts, refusing to take responsibility for their own self-government, and slaves desire to be ruled by despots.

However, the same promise made to ancient Israel was made to the Church of God in 1 Peter 2:9:  “But you are a chosen generation [or lineage], a  royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.”  Let us profit from the example of the Israelites and avoid their lack of faith and their demand for one-man rule because of our own failure to accept personal responsibility for developing the character of God within us.  Freedom carries the price of personal responsibility.

Likewise, the Bible is also the foundation for Abraham Lincoln’s (and Harry Jaffa’s) insight that the greatest ambition is found in the greatest service.  Indeed, these are the words of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ to his power-hungry disciples in Matthew 20:26-27:  “But whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant.  And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave.”  In short, the biblical model of leadership shows greatness comes in serving, not in being served.  Indeed, the biblical model of husbands as leaders in the family comes precisely from this type of self-sacrificial leadership modeled by Jesus Christ (Ephesians 5:25), and by extension leaders are to sacrifice themselves for the good of their people, even as Abraham Lincoln did for the United States during the Civil War.  He exhibited that self-sacrificial leadership, serving the good of his people even at the cost of his physical life.  Let us profit from the example and see greatness not in titles or power, but in the good we are able to do for others.

The Greatness of Self-Restraint

Finally, let us examine how self-restraint shows a greater power than those known by those who cannot deny themselves.  As it is said in Proverbs 16:32:  “He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city.”  The Bible gives greater glory to those who have self-control and have developed self-rule than those who are mighty and powerful in externally glorious ways.  For man looks on the outward appearance of glory and might, but God looks at the inward parts.

Likewise, we need to remember that “the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience to Christ, and being ready to punish all disobedience when your obedience is fulfilled,” as it is said in 2 Corinthians 10:4-6.  Like Abraham Lincoln, we are to cast down the arguments of those who consider themselves above God’s law, exalting against the equality of mankind under God.  We are to remember that our warfare is spiritual, not primarily physical, casting down arguments, not attacking people.

It is of the utmost importance to realize that self-rule is the foundation for all kinds of godly rule.  Taking on the sinful nature within mankind is the necessary training in order to rule over others–for one cannot rule in a godly fashion over others unless one has brought one’s own self into obedience to God’s high and noble standard.  Doing so provides one with the development of godly character, for denying to one’s self the pleasures of sin means the acquisition of eternally blessed qualities of strength and nobility that will not fade away and that provide a much more lasting and permanent pleasure than the passing pleasures of sin enjoyed by the weak, no matter how intelligent their minds or how strong their bodies.  True strength is strength of the spirit, ruling over the heart, mind, and body.  Such power comes through the development of God’s character, and the resulting gift of God’s own spirit of power and of a sound mind to the believer who has practiced such self discipline.


In conclusion, I hope that both the citation from Mr. Jaffa’s most excellent work on the Lincoln-Douglas debates and a discussion of the biblical foundation of the truth of the words of Abraham Lincoln and Harry Jaffa have proven to be profitable to you.  Nonetheless, the true profit is not merely in knowing but in practicing the truth.  In order to fulfill the destiny of human beings to be kings and priests with God, we must acquire in this life the ability of self-rule, so that we may be fit and responsible “democratic” citizens of constitutional governments of family and church and state.  By acquiring self-rule and the development of godly character, we may be better equipped to lead (and serve) others.  Let us follow the wise example of Abraham Lincoln and develop those noble qualities of self-rule within us.  Let us not judge merely on pleasure, but on higher and more noble grounds, understanding that the choice of which tree to eat from lies before every man, woman, and child, and that we need to choose life, so that we and our descendants may live.

[1] Harry V. Jaffa, Crisis of the House Divided:  An Interpretation of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates (Seattle, WA:  University of Washington Press, 1959), 305-306.

[2] http://www.giga-usa.com/quotes/authors/algernon_sidney_a001.htm

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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