Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), c1865.

On February 12, 2009, The Heritage Foundation celebrates the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. Our sixteenth President was one of our history’s greatest statesmen, and continues to serve as an example of the power of conservative principles to change America for the better.

Abraham Lincoln’s firm and unyielding opposition to slavery grew out of his dedication to the principles of our Founding Fathers, principles which have been under assault by the Left for decades. The Left seeks to reinterpret Lincoln as the father of the centralized administrative state that was actually created by early Progressives such as Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Croly, and John Dewey (among others).

Those who actually study Lincoln’s thoughts and speeches know that, in his words, he “never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence.” He loved and admired “the sentiments of those old-time men,” our Founding Fathers. He was dedicated to their principles – equal rights under the law, economic liberty, and a fidelity to the Constitution, our fundamental law.

Lincoln was, in short, a statesman who was guided by the principles of our Founding, and therefore he is a model of conservative leadership today. He believed in natural rights, not the expansive definition of positive rights, without any grounding in nature, advanced by today’s Left. He believed in equality before the law, but he also noted that the Declaration of Independence “does not declare that all men are equal in their attainments or social position.” He respected and followed the text of the Constitution, rather than interpreting it as a “living” and evolving document or simply scrapping it altogether.

He believed in economic freedom, particularly the opportunity to work for a wage. He did not think that the market economy took advantage of those who worked for wages, but rather believed that economic freedom was a ticket to upward mobility for the individual and prosperity for society. He was fond of saying that, in a country with economic freedom, those who begin “poor, as most do in the race of life, free society is such that he knows he can better his condition.” In a free society, a citizen can “look forward and hope to be a hired laborer this year and the next, work for himself afterward, and finally to hire men to work for him! That is the true system.

Are these the words of a Progressive? Do Progressives defend the principles of natural rights, equality before the law, constitutionalism, and economic freedom? A quick examination of the news cycle suffices to demonstrate otherwise. Lincoln would be at the forefront of the fight against the encroaching power of the national government, were he with us today. We honor his memory by fighting for the same conservative principles that he worked so diligently to pass along to us.

To mark this occasion, noted scholar Shelby Steele will give remarks at Heritage. In addition, we have compiled a list of papers, lectures, and external links – a wealth of information for anyone wanting to learn more about this great statesman:

Heritage Papers:

Heritage Lectures:

Other Resources for Further Research: