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Can American democracy survive the pressure it's under? A historian has an answer


The historian Allen Guelzo begins a new book by saying he has lived in a time of shadows. My long life, he writes, has been a hurdle race of public agonies. What once seemed like the end of history, the triumph of democracy, now feels like something else.

ALLEN GUELZO: It's because democracy itself has become a source of anxiety, that there is so much fear that it's almost palpable in the atmosphere, that somehow democracy is not performing up to specs and that maybe we need to resort to something else.

INSKEEP: Guelzo says his own profession, academia, is besieged and invaded by political soap opera. The Princeton University historian says he tries to avoid politics himself. He never wants his students to know his opinions. And in our interview, he never even hinted at his preferences in, say, the Israel-Hamas war or the 2024 presidential election. He did argue that democracy is still vital today, that it can still work, and his book, "Our Ancient Faith," reflects on the system we have, as seen by Abraham Lincoln, the president during the Civil War.

GUELZO: The great thing about democracies is they have such resilience. Totalitarian systems look so strong. They look so powerful. They've got these people in uniforms and medals and their strutting armies on parade and missiles on display. They look powerful. But totalitarians are really fragile. If they can't succeed at the very first moment of what they attempt to do, they break up and collapse, whereas democracies - democracies reel from mistakes they have made, from challenges they haven't anticipated. They reel from them, and they pick themselves back up, and then they go forward, and they solve these problems. And we sometimes don't give ourselves enough of a chance. We don't practice enough resilience. We don't practice enough patience. And if there's anybody who can talk to us about the importance and the significance of patience and resilience in democratic life, I think it's Abraham Lincoln.

INSKEEP: You raise a fascinating point about the way that Lincoln viewed himself and democracy and the presidency, in that while we see him as our greatest president and the guy in the Lincoln Memorial and just an overwhelming figure, he described himself, even while president, as only one citizen, a person who was elected for a brief period of time, and argued he was not that important compared to the system as a whole.

GUELZO: He once spoke of himself as a piece of driftwood that had drifted into the middle of this great, sensational moment.

INSKEEP: Soon after his election in 1860, Lincoln assured an audience that even if his presidency were foolish or wicked, democracy meant he would only serve for a while, and there was only so much damage he could do, so long as other citizens insisted on the Constitution.

GUELZO: The United States of America is such an enormous country. I mean, 340, 350 million people. There is so much strength in the fiber and sinew of the American democracy that no matter how foolish, no matter how sometimes even wicked the designs of leaders can be, there is an instinct deep in the marrow of American bones that, in fact, embraces this idea of democracy, that embraces malice toward none and charity for all. Sometimes it's a matter simply of talking to each other. I had an incident just in the last several days where one other academic made some nasty comments about something I'd written - probably justifiable too - and I immediately dashed out a note of my own to send to the editor of the publication. And then I looked at it and said it would be a good idea if I took my own advice. So I sent what I'd written to this particular person, and he wrote a wonderful response. We started to understand each other, and I thought, now we're doing something that begins to look like malice toward none. We're doing something that looks like democracy, 'cause democracy, so much of it is about learning how we can communicate and trust each other.

INSKEEP: I have to confess, I was drawn in to this book immediately by the title, "Our Ancient Faith"...


INSKEEP: ...Because it reminded me of a speech by Lincoln in 1854 that is often on my mind.

GUELZO: October 16.

INSKEEP: Go. Go tell the story.

GUELZO: Well, the speech he gives at Peoria, Ill., in October of 1854 is one of the biggest steps he takes back onto the political stage. And there, he lays out a complete political philosophy of hostility to slavery and its contradiction of democracy, which is what he is describing when he uses that phrase, our ancient faith. Our ancient faith is wedded to the Declaration of Independence. Our ancient faith is wedded to the idea of the consent of the governed, which he called in that same speech the sheet anchor of American republicanism. That means it's utterly incompatible with slavery.

INSKEEP: Is he saying that his religion almost is the republic, is self-government?

GUELZO: Yes. And I don't think it's a mistake because Lincoln grew up in a very religious household. Personally speaking, he undergoes a kind of adolescent rebellion against that. He never joins a church. And people said that as a 20-something, he was something of an infidel, an unbeliever. But he knew what religion was. He knew what it meant to say that something was your faith, and particularly our ancient faith. He wants Americans to understand that the Declaration of Independence and its principles should be as dear to Americans as the tenets of Christianity are to Christians, of Judaism to Jews, and so on down the line. The tenacity with which you hold a faith is the tenacity with which Americans should hold on to the ideas of the Declaration, the ideas of a republic, the ideas of consent. That is an ancient faith, and it's ours.

INSKEEP: Allen C. Guelzo is the author of "Our Ancient Faith: Lincoln, Democracy, And The American Experiment." Thanks so much.

GUELZO: Steve, this has been so much fun. Put a nickel in my meter. I'll talk all day about Lincoln.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) Just a nickel - great.

GUELZO: Just a nickel. That's all it'll take.

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