Say the word prudence to the ancients, and you would have named a virtue. Say it to the faculties of American colleges in the nineteenth century, and you would have described part of the philosophy curriculum. Say it today, and you’ve made a joke. Through much of American history, prudence was considered a desirable trait in public leaders—and the decay we have experienced in the word makes it difficult to understand the prime American example of prudence in political life: Abraham Lincoln.
Much as Lincoln was a grass-roots, up-from-the-ranks politician, he was perfectly at ease in speaking the role of virtue in political life. Lincoln insisted that he “regarded prudence in all respect as one of the cardinal virtues,” and he hoped, as president, that “it will appear that we have practiced prudence” in the management of public affairs. Even in the midst of the Civil War, he promised that the war would be carried forward “consistently with the prudence...which ought always to regulate the public service,” and without allowing it to degenerate “into a violent and remorseless revolutionary struggle.” Lincoln had little notion that, over the course of a hundred and fifty years, this commitment to prudence would become a source of condemnation rather than approval.
Prudence carries with it today the connotation of “prude”—a person of over-exaggerated caution, bland temperance, hesitation, a lack of imagination and will, a person who walks with mincing steps. This would have surprised the classical philosophers, who thought of prudence as one of the four cardinal virtues, and who linked it to shrewdness, exceptionally good judgment, and the gift of coup d’oeil—the “coup of the eye”—which could take in the whole of a situation at once and know almost automatically how to proceed. Aristotle called it “practical wisdom” in the Nicomachean Ethics, and contrasted it with “intuitive reason,” the natural endowment Aristotle thought some people had for understanding what was ultimately right and what was ultimately wrong. Intuitive reason marked out “the ultimates in both directions,” while prudence “makes us take the right means.”
It was Romanticism that led us from classical prudence to the shrinking violet that prudence seems to be today. “We do not need science and philosophy to know what we should do to be honest and good, yea, even wise and virtuous,” argued Kant in his Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals. What we need to do is yield to an instinctive ethical absolutism which we discover, not through reason, but through action. “There is an imperative which commands a certain conduct immediately, without having as its condition any other purpose to be attained by it,...let the consequences be what it may.” Prudence thus became, in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “the virtue of the senses; it is the science of appearances...which adores the Rule of Three, which never subscribes, which never gives, which seldom lends, and asks but one question of any project,—Will it bake bread?”
But what gave the assault on prudence its moving power was the intersection of Romanticism with America’s home-grown version of ethical absolutism, in the evangelical Great Awakening. “There can be nothing to render it, in any measure, a hard and difficult thing, to love God with all our hearts,” wrote Joseph Bellamy, the pupil of Jonathan Edwards, in 1750, “but our being destitute of a right temper of mind...therefore, we are perfectly inexcusable, and altogether and wholly to blame, that we do not.”
These two streams of absolutism met in the great opponents of slavery, the abolitionists, who combined Romantic ethics with evangelicalism in a fiery blend of Kantian idealism and John the Baptist—and it is exactly this abolitionist blending that alienated Abraham Lincoln from their ranks. Lincoln is not our great Romantic leader or our great evangelical. He is, instead, our great anti-absolutist, a man of prudence.
Born at the end of the so-called “long Enlightenment,” Lincoln had no reservations about being guided by “Reason” or preferring it to passion. In a speech from 1838, Lincoln warned that the pillars of the republic must fall “unless we, their descendants, supply their places with other pillars, hewn from the solid quarry of sober reason. Passion has helped us; but can do so no more. It will in future be our enemy. Reason, cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason, must furnish all the materials for our future support and defense.” Twenty-one years later, as he took the presidential oath, Lincoln was still warning that “Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.”
The most obvious example of Lincoln’s prudence at work is his handling of slavery and emancipation. It has become common—and was common in Lincoln’s own day among the abolitionists—to denounce Lincoln as “an equivocating, vacillating leader,” to borrow the words of W.E.B. DuBois. Lincoln’s chief aim was “the integrity of the Union and not the emancipation of the slaves; that if he could keep the Union from being disrupted, he would not only allow slavery to exist but would loyally protect it.” But consider what Lincoln’s options for emancipation really were. In an era before the Fourteenth Amendment, civil rights (including the definition of citizenship) were state prerogatives, protected from federal review.
Much as he “was himself opposed to slavery,” Lincoln could not “see how the abolitionists could reach it in the slave states.” Demands for immediate abolition might satisfy some Romantic yearning for justice over law, but as long as slavery was a state institution, any attempt to emancipate slaves by executive order would be at once challenged by the states in the federal courts—and the federal judiciary, all the way up to the Supreme Court, had shown itself repeatedly and profoundly hostile to the idea. Abolitionists, Lincoln complained, “seemed to think that the moment I was president, I had the power to abolish slavery, forgetting that before I could have any power whatsoever I had to take the oath to support the Constitution of the United States as I found them.”
On the other hand, immediate abolition was not the only avenue to emancipation. The federal government might have no direct power to interfere in state matters, but it did have considerable fiscal powers with which it could tempt slave states to abandon slavery by legislative action and embrace a federally funded buy-out. And within six months of his inauguration, Lincoln had initiated a campaign for legislative emancipation, beginning with Delaware, the weakest of the four slave states that remained loyal to the Union. This legislative option was based “upon these conditions: First, that the abolition should be gradual. Second, that it should be on a vote of the majority of the qualified voters of the District; and third that compensation should be made to unwilling owners.” Handled this way, emancipation would set up what he expected would be a domino-effect among the slave states for emancipation.
Unhappily for Lincoln, the loyal slave states threw his offer back in his face. So, in the summer of 1862, he turned instead to a military order that freed the Confederacy’s slaves—what we now know as the Emancipation Proclamation. But because the proclamation was only a military order, prudence dictated that he limit its application to those slave states in actual rebellion against the Union. And since little (if any) legal precedent existed for the use of presidential “war powers” in this way, he continued to back a legislative strategy, parallel to his war-powers proclamation, and in the end, it was that legislative strategy that produced black freedom in the Thirteenth Amendment. Between these two strategies, legislative and military, Lincoln saw no conflict. He told federal judge Thomas Duval that “he saw nothing inconsistent with the gradual emancipation of slavery and his proclamation.” Lincoln’s procedure was at every step a model of prudence.
No characteristic of Lincoln’s prudence on emancipation, however, was more remarkable than his invocation of providence. As he explained to the cabinet on September 22, 1862, his decision to issue an emancipation proclamation was the direct consequence of “a vow, a covenant” he had made, “that if God gave us the victory” in the battle that resulted at Antietam on September 17, “he would consider it an indication of divine will and that it was his duty to move forward in the cause of emancipation. It might be thought strange that he had in this way submitted the disposal of matters when the way was not clear to his mind what he should do. God had decided this question in favor of the slaves. He was satisfied it was right, was confirmed and strengthened in his action by the vow and the results.”
This, coming from a man with as minimal a religious profile as Lincoln’s, was so surprising that Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase asked Lincoln to repeat himself, and Lincoln, “in a manner half-apologetic,” conceded that “this might seem strange.”
But providence had always played a major role in the constitution of Lincoln’s prudence, even if evangelical absolutism had not. He told the journalist Noah Brooks that he thought it “wise to wait for the developments of Providence; and the Scriptural phrase that ‘the stars in their courses fought against Sisera’ to him had a depth of meaning.” John Todd Stuart, who had been Lincoln’s mentor in Illinois law and who served in Congress, pressed Lincoln with the assertion: “I believe that Providence is carrying on this thing.” Lincoln replied “with great emphasis”: “Stuart, that is just my opinion.” And “considering our manner of approaching the subject” and “the emphasis and evident sincerity of his answer,” Stuart was “sure he had no possible motive for saying what he did unless it came from a deep and settled conviction.”
That conviction, instead of endowing Lincoln with evangelical hubris, forced him into an admission that he knew entirely too little about the ways of providence. “I believe we are all agents and instruments of Divine providence,” he told Senate chaplain Byron Sunderland, not merely in the egotistic sense that God had invested a special interest in the Union cause, but in the sense that North and South alike “we are working out the will of God.” Moreover, the government of providence was universal, in both time and space. The Civil War was a “struggle...for a vast future” that required “a reliance on Providence, all the more firm and earnest” so that Americans may “proceed in the great task which events have devolved upon us.”
Providence was, for Lincoln, a means for balancing respect for a divine purpose in human affairs with the candid recognition that it was surpassingly difficult to know what purposes God might have. It was also a means he inherited from his long years as a Whig for recognizing the secular structure of the American federal government without surrendering entirely to the notion that it was totally secular—“that shallow doctrine of the Monticello School,” as a Whig journal put it in 1846—or that the power of religious belief in society had to go untapped by civil government in its avoidance of seeming to establish a civic religion. By attaching the Emancipation Proclamation to his vow to God, Lincoln demonstrated what James C. Welling, the editor of Washington’s flagship newspaper during the Civil War, called “that prudent and reverent waiting on Providence,” which allowed Lincoln to fend off “the danger of identifying the proclamation in the popular mind with a panic cry of despair.”
Lincoln understood emancipation, not as the satisfaction of a “spirit” overriding the law, nor as the moment of fusion between the Constitution and absolute moral theory, but as a goal to be achieved through prudential means, so that worthwhile consequences might result. He could not be persuaded that emancipation required the headlong abandonment of everything save the single absolute of abolition, or that purity of intention was all that mattered, or that the exercise of the will rather than the reason was the best ethical foot forward.
For Lincoln, the integrity of intention (in the form of the Constitution and the rule of law) and the integrity of consequences (the abolition of slavery) were complimentary rather than conflicting actors—the one possessed moral claims fully as much as the other. “To those who claim omnipotence for the Legislature, and who in the plenitude of their assumed powers, are disposed to disregard the Constitution, law, good faith, moral right, and every thing else,” Lincoln declared in an early speech to the Illinois legislature, “I have nothing to say.”
In this, Lincoln struggled to be true to the two souls of American culture. The one soul is the spirit of the Puritans: self-denying, evangelical, radical, and providential to the point of confidently identifying precisely who and what represent the operations of providence. The other is the spirit of the Enlightenment: secular, commercial, self-interested, enlightened.
These two have often been locked in combat, only to withdraw after a brief battering reminds them that in America they have no choice but to co-exist. Providence and prudence together are thus joined at the head, if not the heart, of American politics. In Lincoln, we have a glimpse of prudence in a liberal democracy; but it is also our best glimpse of it, and perhaps our best hope for understanding and recovering it.
Allen C. Guelzo is Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College.