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Lincoln, Douglas, and
Moral Conflict
By John Burt
814 pp. The Belknap
Press/Harvard University
Press. $39.95.
February 14, 2013
A Lincoln for Our Time
There have been many ways to think about Abraham
Lincoln, our most enigmatic 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 center. Among them, Garry Wills’s “Lincoln
at Gettysburg,” Ronald C. White Jr.’s “Lincoln’s Greatest Speech” and Allen Guelzo’s
“Abraham Lincoln as a Man of Ideas”all deserve honorable mention. 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 the 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’s doctrine of popular sovereignty. This was, as Jaffa
declared, identical to the conflict between Socrates and Thrasymachus in Plato’s
“Republic.” 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.
The originality of Jaffa’s book was his ability to make what seemed a purely
historical debate address the deepest themes of the Western philosophic tradition.
At issue were two contending conceptions of justice. Lincoln’s appeal to the “self- -
evident truth” of equality in the Declaration of Independence provided the moral
touchstone of the American republic. Douglas’s affirmation of popular sovereignty
was a statement of sheer power politics in which questions of justice are ultimately
decided by the will of the majority. For Jaffa, any falling away from the transcendent
doctrine of pure natural law was tantamount to a slide into relativism, historicism
and ultimately nihilism.
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. Unlike Jaffa, who projected Lincoln through the long history
of natural law from Plato and Cicero through Aquinas, Locke and the American
framers, Burt refracts Lincoln through the philosophy of Kant, Rawls and
contemporary liberal political theory. His is very much a Lincoln for our time.
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? James
Madison, in The Federalist No. 10, thought it was the second. He saw a vast republic
of competing factions that would cooperate because none could muster the
resources to exercise a permanent dominance over the others. But what happens, as
in the case of slavery during the 1850s, when these factions cease to pursue interests
that can be negotiated and become wedded to principles central to identity?
Compromise over interests is possible; compromise over principles is far more
The problem of moral compromise is at the center of the Lincoln-Douglas debates.
At the time of the founding, as Lincoln told the story, slavery had been treated as a
regrettable evil and one that would slowly be put on the path to “ultimate
extinction.” There was even a certain shame over slavery, which accounts for why
the word is not mentioned in the Constitution. But in the succeeding generations
this view radically changed, and what was once seen as merely a peculiar institution
came to be regarded by John C. Calhoun and others as a “positive good,” crucial to
the Southern way of life. Lincoln’s barb that if slavery is a good, it is a good that no
one has ever chosen for himself made no difference.
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’s defense 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, Lincoln was prepared to negotiate; on slavery as a principle, he would
not. This is not to say that Lincoln ever crossed into the territory of William Lloyd
Garrison and the New England abolitionists, who regarded the Constitution’s
compromises on slavery as a treaty with the Devil. This kind of higher-law idealism
— think of Thaddeus Stevens as played by Tommy Lee Jones — may be rhetorically
attractive but contains its own hidden dangers. The most obvious danger of a
politics of conscience is the ever-present threat of violence and war. For those who
cannot or will not see things our way, there may be no other recourse but to force of
Lincoln never succumbed to the narcissism of the Emersonian beautiful soul,
putting the purity of his own convictions above the law. He retained a statesmanlike
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.
Our moral commitments unfold over time and cannot be rendered intelligible on the
basis of first principles alone.
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 our first African-American president? Probably not. Burt’s Lincoln
sounds like a Hegelian philosopher for whom our moral conceptions become known
to us only in the fullness of time and under the force of circumstances that no one —
not even a Lincoln — can imagine.
It is at this point that Burt’s reading offers a powerful challenge to Jaffa. For Jaffa,
Lincoln was a philosophical rationalist whose commitment to natural law proceeded
from almost geometric logic; its consequences can be known to all on the basis of
unaided reason. Think of the scene in Spielberg’s “Lincoln”in which he deduces the
necessity for equality from the same axiomatic premises he recalls from reading
Euclid’s “Elements” as a young man.
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 deal-making
was ultimately an act of faith, something beyond the limits of reason alone. Like the
biblical Abraham, told to sacrifice his only son, he could not possibly have known
where the consequences of his acts might lead. 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.
Burt suggests, but never directly asks, the W.W.L.D. question — what would Lincoln
do? What are the conditions for compromise in our own intensely polarized age? He
admits that after giving the question long consideration, he has been unable to come
up with anyone who managed this as well as Lincoln. Let me only suggest the names
of Nelson Mandela and Vaclav Havel.
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.
Steven B. Smith, the Alfred Cowles professor of political science at Yale, is the author, most recently, of
“Political Philosophy.”