While describing the Rawlsian-liberal idea of “the unencumbered self” and “the procedural republic” in Democracy’s Discontents (1994), political theorist Michael Sandel highlighted two individuals who represent the pro and con of those terms. They are Stephen A. Douglas, appearing for the unencumbered proceduralists, and Abraham Lincoln, cast in the role of a moralist who insisted on grounding his understanding of liberal politics in natural law.
This was not necessarily a new picture of either Douglas or Lincoln. (Harry Jaffa made the same argument in Straussian terms in The Crisis of the House Divided ). But in Lincoln’s case, it was a description that failed to exercise much influence on such biographers as Stephen Oates and David Donald, both of whom were more concerned with Lincoln the politician than with Lincoln the moralist. Moreover, by portraying Lincoln as a moral thinker, Sandel managed to issue a stinging indictment of the failures of American liberalism. Over the course of the twentieth century, Sandel argued, American judges, legislators, intellectuals, and activists yielded to the secular dynamic of liberal democracy and gradually moved to “bracket” moral, traditional, and religious concerns from public life, with the disturbing result that the moral shape of the modern republic had come to look less like the one envisioned by the Great Emancipator than that of the Little Giant. While Lincoln sat imprisoned in his Memorial, the spirit of Douglas animated the great debates at the other end of the Mall.
William Lee Miller’s Lincoln’s Virtues: An Ethical Biography pursues what made Lincoln a moralist—or rather, how Lincoln managed to blend his moralism with a confidence in liberal democratic politics. This is a departure fully as dramatic as Sandel’s, since no other adjective is applied to Abraham Lincoln more commonly, and more inaccurately, than pragmatic . With such a staggering abundance of secondary material on Lincoln—more than eight thousand books by Miller’s count—it is easy for incurious Lincoln biographers and historians of nineteenth-century America to look at Lincoln’s cautious gradualism on slavery, his skill at political maneuver, and his willingness to compromise and forgive, and to see it all as pragmatism , as if the term were some sort of synonym for practical , or even cynical . Leonard Swett, who knew Lincoln well and worked with him on the Eighth Judicial Circuit in Illinois in the 1850s, agreed that “in dealing with men he was a trimmer, and such a trimmer the world has never seen.” Yet, Swett immediately added, “Lincoln never trimmed in principles—it was only in his conduct with men.” In contrast to those inclined to see in Lincoln only a skillful politician, Miller wants us to read Lincoln as “quite an extraordinary thinker , on moral-political subjects.”
And not only a thinker, but a practitioner. Miller’s “young man Lincoln” is distinguished by his “great rejections” of cruelty, alcohol, gambling, and racial prejudice, as well as for his great appropriations of reading, ambition, humor, honor, and reason. What is extraordinary for Miller is how this same Lincoln embraced the political life without either jettisoning morals at inconvenient moments or making a cipher of his politics. “What he did instead as a lifelong politician was to realize that role’s fullest moral possibilities.” On the one hand, Lincoln the moralist will denounce mob rule in the Young Men’s Lyceum lecture of 1838, especially when that rule was connected with the murderous suppression of antislavery opinion. But on the other hand, Lincoln the politician will reprimand the overly righteous for browbeating alcoholics in the Washington Temperance speech in 1842. Yet he was as much a politician in the first instance as he remained a moralist in the second, for opposition to Jacksonian mobs was a political stance, and issuing rebukes to the temperance puritans for their confrontational tactics did not compromise his fundamental agreement on the moral ills of drunkenness. Even more to the point, Lincoln the moralist will denounce slavery in 1837 as an “injustice,” but at the same time Lincoln the politician will deplore the self-righteousness of the abolitionists as an embarrassment to the antislavery cause.
Miller finds the overlap between the moralist and the politician in what he calls “an ethic of responsibility, of prudence, or realism,” derived from Max Weber’s essay “Politics as a Vocation.” Such an ethic is ultimately determined by principles, but it acknowledges that principles are not always easy to glimpse in every situation, and that a consideration of consequences also has to enter into the calculus of action.
Against this ethic of prudence, Miller contrasts the ethic of “abstract purity,” which insists that only from the good comes good, and that any attention to consequences fatally compromises the truth. The advocates of “abstract purity”—and Miller leaves it to us to determine who might fill that role today—“hold that one must do what seems intrinsically and absolutely ‘Right,’ and ‘leave the results to God.’” This, Weber claimed, was the thinking of a “political infant.” It is a species of self-indulgence because it focuses all the attention on the agent’s personal purity. However, both Miller and Weber agree that there are moments when “the two ethics” harmonize and a person identifies a line that cannot be crossed. Miller contends that, although those moments are “rare” and “profound,” Lincoln reached that point.
It is curious that Miller develops this portrait of Lincoln across 456 pages and seventeen chapters, only to stop with the beginning of the Civil War—thus leaving mostly untouched the greatest ethical and political tests Lincoln actually faced. The Emancipation Proclamation, which Lincoln regarded as “the central act of my administration, and the greatest event of the nineteenth century,” gets exactly three references by Miller. But even if we grant Miller the license to concentrate only on Lincoln’s moral development up to the presidency in 1861, there are still puzzling omissions. Lincoln’s career in law, which even then was not regarded as the place to find moralists at work, is almost entirely ignored. This is especially peculiar, since Lincoln’s law practice was primarily what won him his reputation for exacting honesty. “Resolve to be honest at all events,” Lincoln advised aspiring law students, “and if in your own judgment you cannot be an honest lawyer, resolve to be honest without being a lawyer. Choose some other occupation, rather than one in the choosing of which you do, in advance, consent to be a knave.” But at the same time, the record of Lincoln’s practice—overwhelmingly in civil rather than criminal law—shows him quite willing to embrace any and all comers. In 1847, Lincoln defended a Kentucky slaveholder trying to retrieve slave runaways in Illinois; in the 1850s, he represented the Illinois Central Railroad in evicting squatters who claimed rights of preemption. The famous “almanac case” in 1858 involved the successful defense of a murderer whom Lincoln knew to be guilty. Not a bit of this surfaces in Miller’s account.
At least Miller recognizes that there have been, over the years, two major ethical charges leveled against Lincoln—the first, that he was entirely too much of a purist, allowing concern for the Union’s integrity and emancipation to dominate his thinking so much that it blinded him to the terrible costs of the Civil War; and second, that he was a closet racist entirely lacking in principles who resorted to emancipation only out of self-serving political motives. The problem is that Miller spends so little time (less than thirty pages) responding to these questions, which have been the two most serious battering rams used against Lincoln’s reputation in the last 140 years. And even then, Miller’s defense of Lincoln on racial issues amounts to little more than the assertion that, although Lincoln repeatedly promised in 1858 that he had no interest in replacing black slavery with black equality, this position was still better than most of his contemporaries. While this is certainly true, it is relevant only if we are arguing that Lincoln was no more perceptive and no more morally sensitive than most of his contemporaries—and that is far less than what Miller wants to claim.
But by far the greatest weakness of Miller’s book is its failure to identify the sources of Lincoln’s moral ideas. Although Miller reviews Lincoln’s early adult reading, he offers no real discoveries (apart from a highly illuminating connection between one of Lincoln’s notes from 1854 and a passage from Francis Wayland’s Elements of Moral Science). Nor does he sketch for us the shape of ethical theory in the antebellum republic and ask whether or not Lincoln’s thought dovetails with it. Lincoln was certainly not a Transcendentalist. He was surprisingly Bible-literate, but more as a function of his near-photographic memory than serious study. Rather than moralist, Lincoln’s professed political philosophy corresponds rather neatly with Benthamite utilitarianism and resembles nothing so much as J. S. Mill’s individual-centered liberalism. His increasing turn to religious interpretation to explain the mysteries of the Civil War owes much to Old School Presbyterian preaching and theology. But Miller makes none of these connections, and supplies none of this larger intellectual background. We are left with a Lincoln who is described as moral, but in terms that never involve a secure definition of what it meant to be moral in Lincoln’s day. Lincoln floats through Miller’s sprawling and vivid narrative, untethered and (so to speak) historically unencumbered.
Nevertheless, Miller has succeeded in highlighting a critical aspect of Lincoln’s political moralism: the virtue of prudence. Prudence was the natural counterpart to Lincoln’s dread of passion and glorification of reason. Miller mourns the way in which prudence has come to be thought of as a synonym for “calculating, cautious self-regard,” although again he fails to point out that an Enlightenment understanding of prudence was, in Lincoln’s day, already under assault by Kantian moral absolutism. Today, Kantianism, in the form of Rawls’ veil-of-ignorance liberalism, has come to dominate our thinking so thoroughly that we scarcely recognize prudence for what it is, much less as a virtue. No wonder that we have trouble recognizing Lincoln as a moralist. If Miller’s book alerts us to nothing more than that, it will have been well worth the effort.
Allen C. Guelzo is Dean of the Templeton Honors College at Eastern University in St. David’s, Pennsylvania, and author of Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President (1999), co-winner of the Lincoln Prize for 2000.