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Principled Pragmatism: Abraham Lincoln's Method of Political Analysis


  • AUTHOR's NOTE: I gratefully acknowledge the helpful comments of Russell L. Riley, David Schultz, and three anonymous reviewers.

David J. Siemers is associate professor at the University of Wisconsin—Oshkosh. His two recent books are Ratifying the Republic and The Antifederalists.


Abraham Lincoln's method of political analysis is reminiscent of Niccolo Machiavelli’s. Both Lincoln and Machiavelli continually assessed political context with a goal in mind: to logically order their principles to best achieve them in practice. Lincoln's own words suggest that he faced five distinct political contexts during his lifetime. Each of these contexts led him to reconsider which of his commitments—to universal rights, the law, Union, and popular government—to privilege and which to temporarily subordinate. The result was a highly successful combination of pragmatism and idealism that I label “principled pragmatism” and fold in to Richard Neustadt's and Fred Greenstein's ideas about presidential success.