On this President's Day, we offer selections from three articles we've published on Abraham Lincoln, all dealing in some way with his attempts to balance principle with practice, or rather to achieve his principles by understanding the situation, including the limits and restraints, in which he had to act, and acting accordingly. The value of his example is obvious.
The three articles are not only selections but abridged selections, and readers who want the writers' fully and precisely developed arguments will want to read the originals. The links are given in the author biographies.
Lincoln's Delicate Tensions
Scholars rightly note that Abraham Lincoln avoided a precise identification of the Union cause with the will of God. He wrote privately that “in the present civil war it is quite possible that God's purpose is something different from the purpose of either party,” a point made public in the humble recognition of the Second Inaugural that “the Almighty has His own purposes.”
But Lincoln never doubted for a moment the moral rightness—and the divine approbation that stood behind it—of the struggle against slavery. If he never unambiguously invoked God in the Union cause, it is certain he would have found unfathomable the idea that God might favor the Confederacy. God's purposes were hidden, but they were not perverse.
North and South might share historical guilt for the evils of slavery—and thus might each fall, in undecipherable ways, under divine judgment—but that judgment could not be evenhanded as to slavery itself. After the battle of Antietam in September 1862, Lincoln announced to his bemused cabinet that the Union victory had sealed a promise he had made to himself and to “my Maker” to consider a favorable outcome there a sign that, on the question of emancipation, “God had decided this question in favor of the slaves.”
All this should not be exaggerated. Lincoln's theological affirmations remained equivocal, and one senses that he finally felt more at ease in the language of Enlightenment rationalism than in conventional Christian discourse. Nonetheless he participated, even if at a distance, in the melding of the Republican and Union cause with Protestant millennial yearnings.
From Republican beginnings in the 1850s, notes Richard Carwardine in his Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power, Protestant evangelicals—Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Congregationalists (the Protestant establishment of the time)—went further than their predecessors in “identifying the arrival of God's kingdom with the success of a particular political party.” Pious Republicans saw their party as the vehicle of “conscience, Calvinistic duty, and social responsibility.
The war greatly intensified Protestant millennial impulses. The Union cause got identified with America's providential role in the realization of God's kingdom on earth, a cause and role in which political and religious freedom were inextricably intertwined in a transcendent patriotism. Lincoln kept his distance from millennial extravagance—with characteristic nuance he spoke of Americans as God's “almost-chosen people”—but in sympathetic speeches to religious audiences and in proclaiming days for fasting and thanksgiving, he spoke a language, as Carwardine says, “which persuaded the public that the administration was under the guidance of a man who recognized his dependence on divine favor.”
Doris Kearns Goodwin notes with approval the contemporary observation of the poet James Russell Lowell concerning Lincoln's “profound common sense.” That phrase gets Lincoln just right, and it does not take an iconographer to recognize it. Lincoln was indeed (religion complicatedly aside) representative of the substantive views of the middle America of his time. But if he embodied he also transcended. He was America made noble. He combined the mundane American Dream with idealism that never degenerated into utopian fantasy.
Lincoln held in delicate tension political reality and moral aspiration. And it was his extraordinary practical wisdom, his “profound common sense,” that held it all together. Not to recognize Lincoln's greatness is to miss the obvious.
James Nuechterlein is the interim editor of First Things. "Lincoln's Delicate Tensions" is adapted from the author's Lincoln Both Great and Good.
Lincoln and the Justices
Robert P. George
To Abraham Lincoln, the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision was an abomination, but for reasons of principle going even beyond those set forth by the dissenting Justices in the case. Like Jefferson, Lincoln believed that courts, including the Supreme Court of the United States, could violate the Constitution and even undermine constitutional government. That judges, whenever they invalidate executive or legislative acts, purport to speak in the name of the Constitution, and claim merely to be giving effect to its commands, was in Lincoln’s view no guarantee against judicial despotism. Judges exercising effectively unconstrained power were, in his view, no less a threat to the Constitution than other governmental officers exercising such power.
His fear was not that judges would sometimes err in their constitutional rulings. Given human fallibility, that is inevitable and unremarkable. His fear, rather, was that judges are capable of behaving unconstitutionally, just as other officials are capable of behaving unconstitutionally, by exceeding the authority granted to them under the Constitution and thereby usurping the authority allocated to other officials in a delicate system of checks and balances. Indeed, Lincoln believed that judicial violations of the Constitution were in certain respects graver matters than the violations of elected officials.
Lincoln, of course, was a lawyer. He knew from experience that judges come in all shapes and sizes—competent and incompetent, conscientious and slapdash, honorable and corrupt. He wasn’t a skeptic after the fashion of the legal realists who would rise to prominence in the law schools fifty years or so after his death. But his view of courts was realistic. He knew that it was essential to the success of a lawyer to know the law; but he also knew that it didn’t hurt to know the judge. He believed in courts but he didn’t venerate them. Nor did he automatically identify what the courts did or said with “the law.”
Upon his election as President, Lincoln faced the matter squarely in his Inaugural Address on March 4, 1861. With the specter of civil war looming, the new President, who had denounced the Dred Scott decision repeatedly in his senatorial campaign against Douglas in 1858 as well as in the presidential campaign, turned attention to it in his remarks to the nation.
I do not forget the position assumed by some that constitutional questions are to be decided by the Supreme Court, nor do I deny that such decisions must be binding in any case upon the parties to a suit as to the object of that suit, while they are also entitled to very high respect and consideration in all parallel cases by other departments of the government. And while it is obviously possible that such decision may be erroneous in any given case, still the evil effect following it, being limited to that particular case, with the chance that it may be overruled and never become a precedent for other cases, can better be borne than could the evils of a different practice.
At the same time, the candid citizen must confess that if the policy of the government upon vital questions affecting the whole people is to be irrevocably fixed by decisions of the Supreme Court, the instant they are made in ordinary litigation between parties in personal actions, the people will have ceased to be their own rulers, having to that extent practically resigned their government into the hands of that eminent tribunal.
For Lincoln, then, the evil of the Dred Scott decision was not merely the expansion of slavery. It was that the decision threatened to undermine the basic principles of republican government precisely by establishing judicial supremacy in matters of constitutional interpretation. It was not merely that the Court decided the suit in favor of the wrong party. It was that the Court claimed authority to decide for the other branches once and for all what the Constitution required, thus placing them in a position of inferiority and subservience.
For the people to “resign their government into the hands of that eminent tribunal” would be, according to Lincoln, the abandonment of democratic self–government and the acquiescence in oligarchic despotism. There is a not–very–faint echo of Jefferson in Lincoln’s First Inaugural.
In office, Lincoln gave effect to his position against judicial supremacy by consistently refusing to treat the Dred Scott decision as creating a rule of law binding on the executive branch. His administration issued passports and other documents to free blacks, thus treating them as citizens of the United States despite the Court’s denial of their status as citizens. He signed legislation that plainly placed restrictions on slavery in the western territories in defiance of Taney’s ruling.
For his critics, these actions, combined particularly with his suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, revealed him to be a lawless and tyrannical ruler, one who had no regard for the constitutional limits of his own power. But none can say that he had not made his opposition to judicial supremacy clear before assuming office.
Robert P. George, a member of the First Things editorial and advisory board, is the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University. His most recent article is God and Gettysburg examining the American Constitution Society's editing out of Lincoln's reference to the nation being "under God." "Lincoln and the Justices" is taken from his Lincoln and Judicial Despotism.
The Prudential Lincoln
Born at the end of the so-called “long Enlightenment,” Abraham 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.”
No characteristic of Lincoln's prudence on emancipation, 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.”
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.”
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.
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.
Allen Guelzo is the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College and author of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America among many other books. "The Prudential Lincoln" is adapted from his The Prudence of Abraham Lincoln.