Book Review: “Abraham Lincoln: Philosopher President”

Joseph R. Fornieri, (Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press, 2014).


In the preface to Abraham Lincoln: Philosopher President, Joseph Fornieri recounts President Lincoln’s response to a group of serenaders after his 1864 reelection.  Recalling the events of the bitter, divisive campaign, the president reflected that human nature did not change. “In any future great national trial,” he said, “we shall have as weak, and as strong; as silly and as wise; as bad and good,” citizens as in 1864. “Let us, therefore study the incidents of this [election], as philosophy to learn wisdom from, and none of them as wrongs to be avenged.” (Emphasis added.)

Today, it is difficult to imagine any national leader of either party expressly renouncing revenge in a similar manner. More than anything else, this underlines America’s need to study and understand Lincoln’s political thought and the greatness of his statesmanship. In this quest, Joseph Fornieri’s work is a reliable guide.

A professor of political science at Rochester Institute of Technology, the author’s goal is to demonstrate that Abraham Lincoln was a philosopher statesman, as that term was understood in the Western tradition of political philosophy. The focus is on Lincoln’s presidential years. As a young politician, Lincoln could use political and personal invective so brutally that one of his opponents was reduced to tears during debate, and another challenged him to duel. It was not until the 1850s that he had matured to become Professor Fornieri’s subject.

While drawing on the work of contemporary authors, including Allen Guelzo, Mark Neely, and Gabor Boritt, the book goes beyond them, also drawing on the thought of the American Founders and the great thinkers of the ancient and medieval worlds.

Fornieri finds that a philosopher statesman must possess both theoretical wisdom, to “know rightly,” and practical wisdom, to “act rightly.” The author then analyzes the President’s character and performance through the lens of six qualities – wisdom, prudence, duty, magnanimity, rhetoric, and patriotism – devoting a chapter to each. The heart of the book is its discussion of wisdom, prudence, and duty. While Lincoln never wrote a general work on political philosophy, Fornieri attributes theoretical wisdom to him due to his “ability to articulate and defend a vision of self-government, free labor, and free society on philosophical and theological grounds.”

Practical wisdom is equated to the classical political virtue of prudence, which dictated that the philosopher statesman harmonize “principle and practice … narrowing the gap between … the ideal and the real.” “For an act to be truly prudent,” Fornieri concludes, “it must be good in its intent, its action and its consequences.” In Lincoln’s case “prudence sought to harmonize … moral obligation to the principles on the Declaration [of Independence] with his legal obligation to the rule of law under the Constitution.”

Emancipation is the author’s primary example of Lincoln’s practice of prudence. Respect for the Constitution would not allow the emancipation orders of generals Fremont and Hunter to stand in the fall of 1861 and the spring of 1862. By the summer of 1862, however, the defeat of the Peninsular Campaign to capture the Confederate capital had so radically changed the strategic situation that President Lincoln could, in good faith, argue that emancipation had become a military necessity for Union victory.

In the chapter on “duty,” the author applies William Lee Miller’s insight that Lincoln found the duties of the presidency both empowering and constraining. To illustrate Lincoln’s exercise of duty as president, Fornieri examines his response to secession as president-elect, contrasting it with President Buchanan’s dithering. The author next cites Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address, where Lincoln acknowledged his duty to respect slavery where it already existed but also rejected secession, called for reform of the Fugitive Slave Act to protect free African Americans, and declared his resolve to hold and protect federal property in the South. Finally, the author assesses Lincoln’s performance of duty as war president. Rejecting frequent charges that Lincoln had become a dictator, Fornieri draws on the work of Herman Belz and Mark Neely to show that the President based his actions on closely-reasoned arguments from the Constitution, and, unlike a true dictator, insisted on remaining accountable to the people through the election of 1864.

This work is important today for several reasons. In an iconoclastic age, we must remember Lincoln’s true “greatness of soul” and why generations of Americans have seen him as our greatest president. We also need to be reminded that our country, whatever its defects, was and is capable of producing such a leader. Finally, we need to understand what makes a philosopher statesman, as a standard, albeit a high one, for judging the politicians and office holders of our own time.

While it deals with weighty subjects, the book is clearly written and no background in political philosophy is needed to appreciate the arguments. It would be accessible to any general reader.


Reviewed by Burrus M. Carnahan