There have been many ways to think about Abraham Lincoln, the most enigmatic US president, but the image of him as a moral philosopher is not the most obvious. We have “Honest Abe”, the great rail-splitter of American legend, Lincoln the political operative and architect of the Republican Party, and Lincoln the savvy wielder of executive power as portrayed in Steven Spielberg’s recent film.
Yet, several works have put the issue of Lincoln’s language, rhetoric and political thought front and centre. But the first and still best effort to advance a philosophical reading of Lincoln was Harry V Jaffa’s Crisis of the House Divided, published in 1959.
A student of philosopher Leo Strauss, Jaffa argued that the issue between Lincoln and Douglas during the 1850s was the clash between Lincoln’s doctrine of natural right and Douglas’ doctrine of popular sovereignty. Douglas argued that whatever the people of a state or territory wanted made it right for them. For Lincoln, however, only a prior commitment to the moral law could make a free people.
For the first time in over half a century, Jaffa’s book has a serious rival. John Burt, a professor of English at Brandeis University, has written a work that every serious student of Lincoln will have to read, although its sheer bulk alone – more than 800 pages – as well as the density of its prose may deter all but the most intrepid Lincolnophiles. It is a work of history presented as an argument about moral conflict, and a work of philosophy presented as a rhetorical analysis of Lincoln’s most famous speeches.
Burt begins from the problem of how to resolve conflict in an open society. Does liberalism presuppose agreement around a common moral core – all men are created equal – or is it merely a modus vivendi for people with different values and interests who consent to work together for purely opportunistic reasons?
A welcome aspect of Burt’s study is that it presents the debate between Lincoln and Douglas as a real debate between two principled political actors struggling to make sense of their time. Douglas’ defence of popular sovereignty was not the first step down the slippery slope to nihilism; it was an effort to defuse the slavery issue by returning it to the state and territorial legislatures. Douglas remained loyal to the Madisonian vision of politics that seeks to find some reasonable middle ground in which differences can be accommodated. His claim that he was indifferent as to whether slavery was voted up or down was not simply a piece of callous value neutrality, but an effort to prove to southern slave owners as well as to northern anti-abolitionists that he was a man with whom all of them could do business.
Lincoln came to regard slavery as a unique moral evil, something beyond the limits of a consensual society. There are some things – like taxes – that are subject to deal-making, and others – human dignity, for one – that are not. On slavery as an institution, he was prepared to negotiate; on slavery as a principle, he would not.
Lincoln never succumbed to the narcissism of the Emersonian beautiful soul, putting the purity of his own convictions above the law. He retained a statesman-like ability to treat his opponents not as enemies to be conquered but as rational agents who might be persuaded through reasoned argument. As he told his audience in Peoria, Ill., in 1854: “I think I have no prejudice against the southern people. They are just what we would be in their situation.” Democracy meant for him more than a Madisonian modus vivendi; it represented a commitment to a structure of fairness that respected the moral autonomy of free men and women.
If Burt’s Lincoln is a Rawlsian liberal seeking something like the basic requirements of justice, he is also someone with a tragic sense of “negative capability”. By this Burt means that our moral concepts remain so deeply embedded in our lives and histories that we can never fully understand what they entail except retrospectively.
For example, when, in Peoria, Lincoln called slavery a “monstrous injustice”, could he have imagined that this would later commit him to securing the passage of the 13th Amendment? Or, was it conceivable that his position would eventually lead to the election of the US’ first African-American president? Probably not.
But Burt sees Lincoln as a historicist for whom our moral conceptions emerge only over time and in ways that we can never fully comprehend. We are always viewing our lives as through a glass darkly. “The story of democracy, in Lincoln’s view,” Burt writes, “is the story of something with a destiny, but it is a destiny never fully understood either by the founders or by Lincoln himself.” But where will this destiny take us? American democracy remains a work in progress. The unanswered question is whether destiny – the obscure and mysterious workings of fate – will issue in a new birth of freedom or a new dark age.
Burt argues that Lincoln’s decision to pursue a politics of principle over dealmaking was ultimately an act of faith, something beyond the limits of reason alone. This does not mean Lincoln bade farewell to reason, but his decisions to fight a war, emancipate slaves and push for racial equality were choices that only history could make clear.
Lincoln’s example was rare, though not unique. The problem with making Lincoln so absolutely singular is that it puts him outside of history. Those who invoke Lincoln’s legacy today tend to see him either as a Machiavellian wielder of political power or as a secular saint of modern democracy. Each of these views is false. Lincoln reminds us that statecraft requires an attention to both principle and compromise. Principle without compromise is empty; compromise without principle is blind. This is a valuable lesson for our politicians even today.
LINCOLN’S TRAGIC PRAGMATISM
Lincoln, Douglas, and Moral Conflict
The Belknap Press/Harvard University Press
814 pages; $39.95