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.

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?”