Beware the Tyranny Trap

August 14, 2016 Topic: Politics Region: United States Tags: HistoryAbraham LincolnUS Politics

Beware the Tyranny Trap

Abraham Lincoln warned of the fine line between grand political ambition and tyranny.

SURVEYS HAVE shown that 31 percent of American teenagers expect to be famous one day. Their lofty expectations have been shaped by a phenomenon that historian Daniel J. Boorstin pointed to decades ago—the distinction between a heroic and a celebrity culture where people are famous for no other reason than that they are famous. Yet while the desire for fame and recognition may be inseparable from ambition, they are not the same thing. Ambitious people desire not only to be recognized but also to be deemed worthy of recognition. The concept of ambition is invariably tied to notions of honor and deference. Today, however, these terms have an obsolete sound.

“Honor,” as the sociologist Peter L. Berger has written, “occupies about the same place in contemporary usage as chastity,” that is, as “ideological leftovers in the consciousness of obsolete classes, such as military officers or ethnic grandmothers.” This is a slight—but only a slight—exaggeration. While “affairs of honor,” as they are quaintly called, seem to belong to a distant and benighted past, there are still organizations like the military, police and service academies that take the concept quite seriously. Many colleges and universities still abide by an “honor code,” but Berger is right to note that motives of honor no longer have standing in American courts of law where concepts like “loss of face” seem increasingly archaic.

There are, of course, good reasons for the decline or obsolescence of grand ambition. All of these terms—fame, glory, renown—have traditionally been associated with aristocratic societies where titles and privileges are handed down. Acts of bravery, heroism and self-abnegation were often linked to a person’s role in a social hierarchy. These hierarchies are in turn composed of highly competitive superachievers. There is certainly a zero-sum quality to terms like honor and ambition. They are diminished if they are shared. Thomas Hobbes, who understood the aristocratic ethos of honor better than most, saw it as inseparable from a society based on orders and ranks. “Glory is like honor,” he wrote in De Cive, “if all men have it, no man hath it.”

Moreover, the theme of great ambition is invariably related to the study of heroes or individuals of extraordinary accomplishment. There is, of course, a genre of popular history and biography that celebrates the accomplishments of certain outsized individuals. Yet the study of heroes seems to have something old-fashioned, if not elitist, about it. It is too often connected not just with heroes but with actual hero worship. Modern history and social science tend to be increasingly quantitative and data-driven, dealing more with the average than outsized individuals. Political scientists focus most of their attention on tracking that restive nobody called the “median voter.” We are more apt to explain events in terms of general causes—think of the triad of class, race and gender—rather than look to the exceptional qualities of certain rare individuals. When one turns to the study of heroes, it is often with a subversive intent. “No man is a hero to his valet because his valet is a valet,” Hegel said. Today, it should be added, we are all valets.


THE DECLINE in the status of honor and ambition is related to fundamental changes in our moral and political vocabulary beginning around the sixteenth century. These changes were inextricable from the transition from the medieval world based on hierarchy, status and honor to a new bourgeois or commercial world based on equality, contract and interest. Karl Marx called it the transition from feudalism to capitalism; Henry Maine, the transition from status to contract; Alexis de Tocqueville, the transition from the age of aristocracy to the age of democracy. But perhaps no one provided a more illuminating description than the economist and intellectual historian Albert O. Hirschman.

In The Passions and the Interests, Hirschman showed how the arguments for the commercial society were first made possible only after the destruction of the ancient heroic ideal that had made a return during the Renaissance with its rediscovery of the Greek and Roman celebration of glory. A whole series of writers beginning with Hobbes, but including Michel de Montaigne, Francis Bacon, Bernard Mandeville, Montesquieu, David Hume and Immanuel Kant turned their collective eye on discrediting the idea of the hero as nothing but a species of vanity and vainglorious ambition. In place of the heroic ideal with its pursuit of glory, these writers posited an alternative conception of human nature based on the benefits of commerce and self-interested behavior.

Hirschman noted that the transition to capitalism was only made possible due to the prior emergence of certain ideas and arguments. Markets are not simply natural forms of human association, as today’s libertarians often believe, but are embedded in a dense web of moral argumentation in which the pursuit of interest—so long considered a deadly sin within the Christian moral universe—came to be seen as a virtue for containing and combatting the destructive passions for fame and honor. The market society was an idea before it became a reality.

He also observed that the concept of self-interest is not a universal key for understanding all human behavior, as is so often claimed by economists and social scientists today. Rather, the idea of self-interest emerged as a strategy to counteract the dominance of certain passions, especially the kinds of desires associated with fame, honor and heroic immortality. The pursuit of interest was deemed to exercise a tranquilizing affect on society and on human behavior generally. The passions were seen as wild and irrational, while interests were thought to be calm, gentle, even placid. A society devoted to money making, as opposed to aristocratic practices like war, was described by such metaphors as “polishing,” “refining” and “softening” morals. A society dominated by the pursuit of interest could be counted upon as being less grand, noble and heroic, but more peaceful, prosperous and secure.


The idea of a modern commercial order came to fruition in America. It is no coincidence that the signing of the Declaration of Independence occurred the same year as the publication of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, the first great treatise of market economics. The advocates of the commercial society, from Benjamin Franklin to Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, all regarded an ethic of self-interest rightly understood as a sane and sensible alternative to visions of moral perfection beyond the reach of all but a few, disdain for the common, useful and mundane employments, and most of all a world preoccupied—to a degree that we can scarcely imagine—with intangible goals like honor and glory.

And yet the effort to transform the competition for honor and glory into the bourgeois striving for commercial success was never complete. The ancient and medieval codes of honor never completely disappeared, even in the New World. In his classic study Fame and the Founding Fathers, Douglass Adair noted that Plutarch’s Lives remained a widely read and imitated book during the founding generation. This neoclassical love of fame survived throughout the early Republic. The signers of the Declaration of Independence pledged not only their lives and liberty but their “sacred honor” to the cause to which they affixed their names. The authors of the Federalist Papers took the pen name of Publius after one of the founders of the Roman republic. And George Washington was regularly referred to as a modern-day Cincinnatus for the Roman farmer who left his plow to serve the republic and then returned to his fields, relinquishing power.


No one among the founders’ generation embodied the characteristics of classical virtue more fully than Washington. He combined effortlessly the qualities of rank, authority and the capacity to command that immediately compel respect. The quality of Washington’s hauteur is captured brilliantly in an anecdote related in James Madison’s notes on the Constitutional Convention. During the convention, it was Washington’s custom to open his home for a reception for some of those attending. Alexander Hamilton, who knew Washington well, mentioned to Gouverneur Morris that Washington was “reserved and aristocratic even to his intimate friends.” Morris suggested that this was a mere façade, so Hamilton bet him a dinner with wine for a dozen people if on their next meeting he would appear to treat Washington as his equal. The dare was accepted.

On the evening appointed, a large number attended; and at an early hour Gouverneur Morris entered, bowed, shook hands, laid his left hand on Washington’s shoulder and said, “My dear General, I am very happy to see you look so well!” Washington withdrew his hand, stepped suddenly back and fixed his eye on Morris for several minutes with an angry frown, until the latter retreated abashed, and sought refuge in the crowd. The company looked on in silence. At the supper, which was provided by Hamilton, Morris said, “I have won the bet, but paid dearly for it, and nothing could induce me to repeat it.”

Washington may have exemplified the aristocratic ethos, but no one thought about it more profoundly than John Adams. To be sure, the image of founding a nation conjured in the minds of the revolutionary generation the images of classical antiquity’s greatest lawgivers. The names of Lycurgus, Solon and Theseus were never far from their minds. The revolution made it possible to relive the deeds of these mythical heroes. In his Discourses on Davila, Adams discussed the love of fame and divided it into three parts. Credit is on the lowest rung supported by merchants and tradesmen; reputation was cherished by gentlemen; but glory was the highest species of fame and was reserved for the great actions of lawgivers and the first officers of the state. Adams was following a long tradition in ranking the lawgiver or legislator as standing atop the ladder of fame.

Another example of this neoclassical model of fame can be found with Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton was a protégé of Washington and even something of an adopted son. His heroes were all drawn from Plutarch, as were the various pseudonyms that he adopted in his writings. A particular incident told by Adair is revealing. In a letter written to Benjamin Rush on January 16, 1811, Jefferson recalled a memorable incident twenty years before.

In April 1791, a meeting was convened with Secretary of State Jefferson, Vice President Adams and Treasury Secretary Hamilton. The room was hung with a collection of portraits and Hamilton inquired who they where. Jefferson named them as Francis Bacon, John Locke and Isaac Newton, adding “the three greatest men the world had produced.” Hamilton took exception, saying: “The greatest man that ever lived was Julius Caesar.” Jefferson drew from this conversation the lesson that Hamilton favored the overthrow of the new republic by an aspiring monarch just as Caesar had overthrown the Roman republic. But I think another lesson can be drawn. Jefferson’s models of greatness were drawn from the realms of philosophy and science. Hamilton expresses something closer to the classical model of the statesman or political founder as the ideal. This seems entirely appropriate to their characters.


IF AMBITION formed a persistent theme in the thought of the Founding Fathers, it also played a conspicuous part in Abraham Lincoln’s. Lincoln’s greatest expression of the theme of ambition was given in his address to the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield titled “On the Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions” of January 27, 1838, less than a month before his twenty-ninth birthday. The theme of great ambition—a term with romantic Byronic overtones—may seem strange for a small-town lawyer who had once run a general store, but was in fact an important motif of Lincoln’s thought. William Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner and biographer, famously called Lincoln’s ambition “a little engine that knew no rest.”

The Lyceum Address begins with the fairly conventional themes of the dangers of lawlessness and mob rule, but Lincoln turns quickly to what I believe is his major concern, the problem of the “towering genius” in politics. He introduces this theme by distinguishing between the ambitions of the founding generation and those of the postheroic world in which he finds himself. The founders invested all of their moral energies in attempting to establish a republican form of government. This was bound up with the quest for fame and glory:

“Their all was staked upon it; their destiny was inseparably linked with it. Their ambition aspired to display before an admiring world a practical demonstration of the truth of a proposition which had hitherto been considered, at best, no better than problematical—namely the capability of a people to govern themselves.

The experiment in republicanism was by no means a foregone conclusion. “If they succeeded,” he orates,

“they were to be immortalized; their names were to be transferred to counties and cities, and rivers and mountains; and to be revered and sung, and toasted through all time. If they failed, they were to be called knaves and fools, and fanatics for a fleeting hour; then to sink and be forgotten.”

Lincoln’s concern with the danger of an aspiring Caesar-like dictator who would use the occasion of lawlessness and insecurity to impose a form of one-man rule was a staple of classical republicanism. Reflecting on the experience of ancient Athens, Plato showed how tyranny emerges out of the conditions of a decayed democracy. In the eighth book of the Republic, he compared democracy to a many-colored coat in which all human desires and appetites—what we would now call lifestyles—are given free reign. For many people, this kind of regime is the fairest of all, freest and most tolerant, but it is also the one where the older ethic of honor and shame has been replaced by the equality of all values. In a famous passage, Plato characterizes this democracy as exciting all kinds of sham curiosities and stimulating all kinds of interests. It is under these conditions that the demand for a strongman comes to be heard, one who will restore order and put an end to democratic lawlessness.

Yet the tyrant, as Plato describes him, is the disease which he takes himself to be the cure. He is a projection of the same lack of restraint that the democracy represents. The tyrant is a person of unrestrained desires who projects his excessive longings—his Eros—onto policies of war, conquest and empire. The tyrant ends up reducing the city to an extension of himself. Or, to take another image from Plato’s Gorgias, the tyrant is compared to a sieve whose desires and appetites perpetually evade his capacity for self-control. Tyranny is ultimately a psychological derangement of the soul for which Plato sought a remedy in philosophy.

Of course, the treatment of ambition closest to Lincoln’s heart was in Shakespeare. Everyone will remember Mark Antony’s famous funeral speech in Julius Caesar where he reminds the audience that Caesar “thrice” rejected the kingly crown and then asks rhetorically “was this ambition?” Caesar’s refusal is supposed to demonstrate his humility, but the fact is he rejected the lesser for a greater title. Only a universal empire could fulfill Caesarean ambitions. It was half a century later that Caesar’s grandnephew, Gaius Octavius, took the name Caesar Augustus and declared himself emperor of Rome. The name Caesar and its later variants like “Kaiser” and “Czar” would become the title for a new kind of political leader for which classical political philosophy had no precise equivalent. Caesarism is a form of postconstitutional rule combining elements of traditional kingship with populist demagoguery and charismatic leadership.

Lincoln’s analysis of the tyrant not only draws on the classical tradition, but on the analysis of ambition in the Federalist Papers. It was to guard against the dangers of Caesarism that the founders erected constitutional barriers to prevent the excesses of outsized individuals. They recognized how the ancient democracies were sites of continual turbulence and upheaval in part because they had not yet discovered the distinctively modern innovations of representation and the separation of powers. “It is impossible,” Hamilton wrote in Federalist No. 9,

“to read the history of the petty republics of Greece and Italy without feeling sensations of horror and disgust at the distractions with which they were continually agitated, and at the rapid succession of revolutions by which they were kept in a state of perpetual vibration between the extremes of tyranny and anarchy.”

Lincoln thought the Framers to be overly sanguine in their belief that the problem of ambition could be solved simply by arranging institutions that would constrain ambitious tyrants. The Framers seemed blind to the problem that future generations may well produce people like themselves, not content to live under an inherited system of government, but who would wish to create new modes and orders as a testimony to their own greatness. With the American Revolution successfully completed, the question that concerned Lincoln was what could be done to build on the success of the founding generation.

In the key passage of the Lyceum Address, Lincoln gives an in-depth psychological portrait of great ambition citing the three standard examples of Napoleon, Caesar and Alexander:

“But the game is caught; and I believe it is true, that with the catching, end the pleasures of the chase. This field of glory is harvested, and the crop is already appropriated. But new reapers will arise, and they too will seek a field. It is to deny what the history of the world tells us is true to suppose that men of ambition and talents will not continue to spring up amongst us. And when they do, they will as naturally seek the gratification of their ruling passion as others have so done before them. The question, then, is can that gratification be found in supporting and maintaining an edifice that has been erected by others? Most certainly it cannot. Many great and good men sufficiently qualified for any task they should undertake, may ever be found, whose ambition would aspire to nothing beyond a seat in Congress, a gubernatorial or a presidential chair; but such belong not to the family of the lion or the tribe of the eagle. What! Think you these places would satisfy an Alexander, a Caesar, or a Napoleon? Never! Towering genius disdains a beaten path. It seeks regions hitherto unexplored. It sees no distinction in adding story to story upon the monuments of fame erected to the memory of others. It denies that it is glory enough to serve under any chief. It scorns to tread in the footsteps of any predecessor, however illustrious. It thirsts and burns for distinction; and if possible, it will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves or enslaving freemen. Is it unreasonable then to expect that some man possessed of the loftiest genius, coupled with ambition sufficient to push it to its utmost stretch, will at some time spring up among us?”

The above passage could have come directly out of the romantic cult of the genius. This idea was given philosophical expression by Kant, for whom the idea of genius was irrevocably tied to the work of art. Kant helped to valorize the artist as the model of the creative life. The work of art was no longer regarded simply as an imitation of nature but as the expression of the creative individual who brings into being something that has never existed before.

The most obvious reading of the Lyceum Address is as a warning about the emergence of the romantic hero in politics. Lincoln’s reference to those who would achieve greatness through emancipating slaves is an unmistakable reference to the kind of radical conscience politics that was an offshoot of New England transcendentalism. In its secularized form, this carried over the older Puritan idea of seeing individuals as under the law of grace, emancipated from the lower-order obligations to law and society, combined with the romantic theme of the creative genius. Lincoln clearly regarded the abolitionist temperament as the most vivid expression of this kind of antinomianism—putting the individual above the law—whose goal was to purify the world from sin, by violence if necessary, and to create a new community of saints.

It was this “abolitionist imagination,” as Andrew Delbanco recently described it, and the fanaticism it implied, that is equally at home in the politics of John Brown as in the language of the holy war that has been appropriated by both contemporary jihadists and the religious right. In the debate—still ongoing—between an ethic of conviction and an ethic of responsibility, Lincoln seems to come out unequivocally on the side of the latter. Like Max Weber in the next century, Lincoln regarded political ideals born of passion and conviction as a threat to political institutions.

Yet a minority view has held that Lincoln carried more of this higher-law politics than he cared to admit, an attitude characteristic of the second generation seeking to free themselves from the grip of the “fathers.” The sentence about emancipating slaves caught the attention of Edmund Wilson, who argued that “Lincoln had projected himself into the role against which he is warning” his audience. His description of the person of towering genius just seems to cut a little too close to Lincoln’s own ambition for us not to think of it as a piece of self-analysis. On Wilson’s account, Lincoln eventually embraced this “heroic role” as wartime leader and as “the prophet of the cause of righteousness.” For Wilson and his protégés—consider Gore Vidal’s Lincoln—Lincoln was the creator of the American national state akin to Bismarck’s Germany and Lenin’s Russia.

Psychoanalytic readers have suggested that Lincoln was thinking of himself as precisely such a revolutionary usurper. According to this account, Lincoln was engaged in a complex Oedipal struggle with the founders and feared that their accomplishments would put all subsequent generations in the shade, a classic example in the political world of what the literary critic Harold Bloom called “the anxiety of influence.” Lincoln’s reference to emancipating slaves or enslaving freemen suggests the morally neutral form of this kind of great ambition. It can be used to achieve freedom as well as new forms of domination. The description is frighteningly prescient of Friedrich Nietzsche’s Ubermensch.

These readers are right to focus on Lincoln’s analysis of tyrannical ambition, but they draw the wrong conclusion. Lincoln understood better than most that the great political founders were inspired not by wealth, comfort or pleasure—the goals of more prosaic leaders—but by honor, fame and recognition. It is these higher-order goals that testify to a certain breadth of soul and loftiness of outlook. Yet it was precisely because of his imaginative sympathy for this kind of grand ambition that made it possible for Lincoln to resist it. Like John Milton, who warned against a “fugitive and cloistered virtue” unwilling to engage its enemy, Lincoln believed that no one who had ever been tempted by grand ambition would have the capacity to resist it.

Lincoln’s person of towering genius is far from the prosaic usurper feared by the conventional politics of his day. To find a precedent for Lincoln’s thinking, it is necessary to draw upon another Miltonic image, namely the figure of Lucifer in Paradise Lost. Lucifer’s motto is Non Serviam—“I will not serve.” Such a person prefers to rule in Hell than to serve in Heaven. His is a revolt not against an unjust order but against any order of which he is not the author. What is Miltonic about Lincoln’s tyrant is his resentment of a world that does not owe its creation to him. Such a person cannot stand the idea of playing a small part in a large drama that is a tribute to another person’s greatness. In this respect he is the precursor not only of Kant and Nietzsche but of all those later antinomian figures who cannot accept authority except as an emanation of their own will.


LINCOLN’S REFLECTIONS on the fate of political ambition can be usefully compared with another. At virtually the same time that Lincoln was giving his Lyceum Address, some four thousand miles away Tocqueville was finishing the second volume of Democracy in America. In a chapter near the end of the book titled “Why One finds so Many Ambitious Men in the United States and so Few of Great Ambitions,” Tocqueville reflected on the fate of grand ambition in a democratic age:

“There are no Americans who do not show that they are devoured by the desire to rise, but one sees almost none of them who appear to nourish vast hopes or to aim very high. All want constantly to acquire goods, reputation, power; few envision all these things on a grand scale.”

Tocqueville attributed the decline of great ambition to the leveling down of the aristocratic families that once held great power and wealth and the rise of the bourgeois habits of work, thrift and industry, but also to the Christian virtue of humility that had made ambition appear morally disreputable. His work addresses the failings of the middle-class democracies with their constant restlessness, materialism and belief in progress. For Tocqueville, it was principally the equality of conditions brought about by modern democracy that has contributed to the erosion of large-scale ambition. The few individuals of great wealth are no exception to the general rule: “A man who raises himself by degrees to wealth and power contracts habits of prudence and restraint in this long work from which he cannot afterwards depart. One does not gradually enlarge one’s soul like one’s house.”

Tocqueville did not entirely rule out the possibility that such things as high ambition and honor would continue to live even in the new democratic regimes, but their objects would take different forms. Honor in what Tocqueville called the ancien régime—the old world of hierarchy and status—was attached mainly to activities like war and preserving one’s place in society. In modern democratic societies, honor is more spread out. It is ascribed largely to commercial practices. “All the peaceful virtues that tend to favor trade must be specially honored among this people,” he wrote, “and one cannot neglect them without falling into public contempt.” Honor is almost exclusively a matter of commercial enterprise. To engage in commerce, to risk loss, to weather competition, takes a special kind of courage. It is not the warrior but the entrepreneur who is prepared to risk all on new undertakings. Commerce may not be a risk to life and limb, it may not confer status and rank as in the old aristocracies, but it still requires a kind of boldness, daring and initiative that seems appropriate for democratic societies.

Lincoln and Tocqueville gave two quite different accounts of the problem of great ambition. For the Frenchman, the transition from the aristocratic to the democratic age represented a fundamental change in human nature. It is almost as if these represented “two distinct humanities.” Ambition would, of course, not entirely disappear, but it would become small. Tocqueville feared, perhaps unreasonably, that hatred of privilege would shrink the imagination leaving no room for the expression of individual greatness. For Tocqueville, what has changed is not so much the desire but the object of ambition. America’s ambitious men and women today seek to find their fame and fortune less in politics, the military or war than through business and entrepreneurship.

Tocqueville had something of the aristocrat’s disdain for trade. Although I am loath to criticize, he may have also underestimated the qualities of competition, risk and even the sheer desire for novelty that are involved in commercial enterprises. America’s ambitious men are still occasionally generals and statesmen, but are more likely to be entrepreneurs, the “job creators” much like the aptly named Steve Jobs or Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg. No one would deny the enormous contributions these men have made to society in terms of ease, comfort and sociability—certainly not I—but are these activities that confer glory and immortal fame?

For Lincoln, the danger of ambitious men—those descended from “the family of the lion and the tribe of the eagle”—remains a permanent challenge to a constitutional order. They cannot be retrofitted for life in a republic. He remains closer to the classical understanding that regarded politics as theater—not merely of power and interest (although these can certainly never be discounted)—but where the desire for fame, glory, honor and renown are given free expression. The qualities found in men like Washington, Adams and Jefferson now represent a challenge to the preservation of the very regime that they established. Lincoln was facing the same problem as all of those facing a postheroic age for whom “the field of glory” has already been harvested. He was thinking of the dangers of potential usurpers, would-be Napoleons who would transform a republic into their own personal empire. His apprehensions, then as now, were fully merited.

Steven B. Smith is the Alfred Cowles Professor of Political Science at Yale University. His new book Modernity and its Discontents: Making and Unmaking the Bourgeois from Machiavelli to Bellow was just published by Yale University Press. This article was adapted from remarks delivered at the Columbia University Political Theory Workshop.

Image: The White House. Photo by Angela N., CC BY 2.0.