February 10, 2009 – Brian Flanagan, associate director of the Hauenstein Center and a member of the Michigan Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Committee, gave a talk at the Hauenstein Center’s Lincoln Bicentennial Lecture Series.  The Center’s series was part of the annual conference of the Michigan Council for the Social Studies.Abraham Lincoln’s biography is a story forged through poverty, tragedy, and depression.  Yet, Lincoln emerged as a man determined to pursue personal, public, and political happiness.  Flanagan explored Lincoln’s personal struggles, his Whig philosophy, and his re-dedication of the nation to its founding principles in the Declaration of Independence.


Gleaves Whitney, director of the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies, introduced his associate director to an audience of high school social studies teachers.


“Lincoln is most often associated with two of Jefferson’s self-evident truths,” said Flanagan.  “First, that all men are created equal, and second, that they are endowed with an unalienable right to liberty.  After all, these are the clauses that Lincoln himself most referenced…..”But there is yet another self-evident truth that permeates Lincoln’s life and career but receives considerably less attention: the pursuit of happiness.  Lincoln struggled in his personal life to find happiness, and he struggled in his political life to create the conditions for public happiness.  His most enduring legacy, of course, is that in the fiery trial of the Civil War, he brought forth what some historians have called a Second American revolution, overthrowing the slave power and giving a whole race of people their fair claim to Jefferson’s declaration, and the liberty – if not yet the equality and wherewithal – to pursue their happiness.  These three pursuits – personal happiness, public happiness, and future happiness for the slave – are what I would like to talk to you about today.”


“Born into Jefferson’s America and shaped by Hamilton’s,” said Flanagan, “Lincoln’s prescription for public happiness included elements of both.  On Hamilton’s side of the ledger, Lincoln supported internal improvements to promote economic development, banks (including a national bank with government deposits), and tariff protection for manufacturing firms, among other economic measures.  On Jefferson’s side, Lincoln supported the creation of educational institutions to foster independence and to teach the practical and liberal arts to farmers and laborers.  ‘For my part,’ Lincoln wrote in 1832, ‘I desire to see the time when education, and by its means, morality, sobriety, enterprise and industry, shall become much more general than at present….’  Lincoln also supported western land grants for aspiring farmers.  ‘I have to say that in so far as the Government lands can be disposed of,’ Lincoln said in February 1861, ‘I am in favor of cutting up the wild lands into parcels, so that every poor man may have a home.'”

“It was during Lincoln’s first term as president – with Congress firmly under the control of his fellow Republicans – that these measures finally came to fruition.”


“So, to review, Lincoln struggled in his personal life through death, love affairs, and profound depression, to pursue happiness in learning, humor, and ambition.  He struggled in his political life to create economic conditions that would produce public happiness by making possible, for a larger number of Americans, a staggering rise like his: up a path of his own choosing, from the log cabin to the White House.”


 “Abraham Lincoln was out of politics by the age of forty.  In 1849, damaged by his exuberant opposition to President Polk’s popular Mexican War, the four-term Illinois state legislator and one-term U.S. representative retired to his law practice in Springfield.  But within five years, Lincoln had heard his call to action….”Kansas-Nebraska – which could theoretically bolster American slavery by breathing new life into the domestic slave trade, and by adding new states to the slave power – seemed to Lincoln a dangerous step on a path toward the legalization of slavery in any and all the states.  Douglas’s challenge had to be met.”This would be the great cause of Lincoln’s generation that he would impress himself upon.  If he succeeded in the fight, this would be the achievement that would ‘redound to the interest of his fellow man’ – that would realize his highest ambition.  It was a challenge Lincoln was compelled to meet, because, as he would later say, ‘If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.’  He began by reentering politics….  Stepping into the battle against the spread of slavery, Lincoln wielded the Declaration itself against his opponents.”


“On January 1, 1863, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, said Flanagan, “the first unquestionably constitutional step toward the Thirteenth Amendment, which would permanently abolish slavery in the United States in 1865.””Using his power as commander-in-chief of the Army and Navy, Lincoln took the one decisive action that Chief Justice Roger Tawny’s Supreme Court could not challenge; as a war measure he declared slaves in the rebellious states ‘thenceforward, and forever free.’  Months after issuing the Proclamation, Lincoln delivered his address at Gettysburg.  ‘Four score and seven years ago,’ Lincoln said, once again evoking Jefferson’s Declaration, ‘our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.’  In the wake of immense and violent national divisions – especially over the questions of liberty and equality – Lincoln’s address was revolutionary.  ‘By accepting the Gettysburg Address, its concept of a single people dedicated to a proposition,’ historian Gary Wills writes, ‘we have been changed.  Because of it, we live in a different America.’  We live in Lincoln’s America, and following his example we forge our path.”


Updated 11/01/2013