Friendship: The Heart of Lincoln’s Political Philosophy

  • April 13, 2018
    5:30 pm - 8:00 pm

Hertog lecture on Abraham Lincoln and friendshipFriendship stands as the basis for much of Lincoln’s political thought. He believed with great fervor that democratic politics demanded a kind of civic friendship or mutual understanding and forbearance without which the American polity could not have come into existence in the eighteenth century and must collapse in the middle of the nineteenth.

Professor Peter Field hosts a discussion of Lincoln’s views. The event is free and open to all. Seating is limited. RSVP below.


In his Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle explores the relationship of friendship and justice in a set of intriguing paragraphs that follow on from his examination of what constitutes human good. Friendship proves as vital to the health of the polity as to the happiness of the individual citizen. In the public sphere, friendship inhibits faction, encourages unanimity and “seems to hold states together.” Aristotle highlights the political value of philia by means of comparison with justice, another filament of the healthy polity: “and when men are friends they have no need of justice, while when they are just they need friendship as well, and the truest form of justice is thought to be a friendly quality.” 

Calls for justice must be tempered by bonds of friendship. Most importantly, in the case of Lincoln and in marked contrast to the abolitionists, Lincoln valued friendship above justice in his political relationships. He opposed slavery as unjust but defended the sober treatment of American slaveholders in light of a mutual civic bond. “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?” Lincoln famously claimed. With this claim in mind, this discussion explores how and why Lincoln sought to address the evil of slavery through political friendship.

PETER S. FIELD is Dean of Research and Associate Professor of American History in the College of Arts at the University of Canterbury. After graduating from Columbia University, he held research posts at Yale, Princeton and the Gilder Lehrman Institute for American History. The author of several books, including Ralph Waldo Emerson: The Making of a Democratic Intellectual and The Crisis of the Standing Order, he taught in the Hertog Fellows Program at CUNY in 2015-16. He also served, most recently, as Garwood Visiting Professor of Statesmanship at Princeton University.

This lecture is made possible by a generous grant from the Jack Miller Center.

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