Jim Cullen: Review of John Burt's "Lincoln's Tragic Pragmatism: Lincoln, Douglas, and Moral Conflict" (Harvard, 2013)

tags: John Burt, Lincoln's Tragic Pragmatism, Stephen Douglas, Lincoln-Douglas Debates



Jim Cullen, who teaches at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York, is a book review editor at HNN. His new book, Sensing the Past: Hollywood Stars and Historical Visions, was recently published by Oxford University Press. Cullen blogs at American History Now.

I think of myself as an amateur Lincolnologist who tries to keep up on the latest literature in the field. But I really didn't want to read this book.  For months, it sat in a pile in my living room, its appealingly simple bright orange cover beckoning me. (It's a beautifully produced book generally, as one would expect of Harvard University Press.) But its sheer bulk -- 800 pages, a hundred in the form of a densely annotated editorial apparatus -- led me to steer around it. Only when that pile got small did I lift it for a single-session trial run: if the Preface and Introduction hooked me, I would see it through. It did, and I did. You should, too.

As a number of reviewers have noted, among them Steven Smith in the New York Times, Lincoln's Tragic Pragmatism can be usefully viewed as a reply to Harry Jaffa's classic 1959 book Crisis of the House Divided in its exhaustive treatment of the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858. Like Jaffa, Burt (by training a literature scholar; he teaches in the English department at Brandeis) views the debates through a philosophic lens. Indeed, for all the exhaustive contextual detail that laces his analysis, Burt, like Jaffa, rejects a strictly historicist reading of the debates, insisting on their ongoing relevance as a case study in ethics. But he departs from Jaffa in two important respects. The first are his touchstones; where Jaffa was likely to invoke Plato or Aristotle, Burt invokes (and to some degree defends) John Rawls. The second, related -- or, as Burt is wont to say, "imbricated" -- departure from Jaffa is a partial rehabilitation of Stephen Douglas, whom Jaffa (among many others, in 1858 and ever since) viewed as a crude political opportunist. Burt views Douglas as a worthy opponent, even if he feels that the balance of history, and morality, is on Lincoln's side.

The core question the book poses can be stated relatively simply: How can a liberal (which is to say politically pluralistic) society justly engage a non-negotiable moral position (in this case, that slavery is evil)? In one sense, Burt's answer is that a liberal society can't, not because of any defect in liberalism exactly, but rather because no society comprised of human beings ever can be entirely just. The temptation for individuals to think and act otherwise is almost irresistible, whether because of a collective addiction to intoxicating self-righteousness or out of fear that a sense of doubt would enervate the will to act. Lincoln's greatness, of course, stemmed from a very unusual capacity to prosecute an extremely bloody civil war while at the same managing to maintain a sense of his own moral and epistemological fallibility, captured most durably in his Second Inaugural. This is the essence of the tragic pragmatism invoked in the title of the book.

What Burt maintains, however, is that Lincoln's eventual synthesis of conviction and modesty would have been impossible without the forceful prodding he received at the hands of Douglas seven years earlier. He believes that the Abraham Lincoln who launched his U.S. Senate campaign against Douglas in 1858 with his famous "House Divided" speech in 1858 was more philosophically rigid, and thus politically vulnerable, than commonly allowed. Conversely, Douglas, while no moral philosopher, was on firmer footing than one might think. Burt is among the many observers who have viewed Lincoln's attacks that Douglas was in cahoots with Slave Power apologists like Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan as ridiculous. He is more unusual in finding merit in Douglas's "Freeport Doctrine" that states required by law to protect slavery need not be vigorous in enforcing it, drawing a distinction between allowing and facilitating certain kinds of economic activity that has clear parallels in contemporary life (consider gun ownership, for example, which we have no obligation to make easy).

Douglas famously asserted -- and his enemies on either side of the slavery issue endlessly repeated -- a claim that he didn't care whether slavery was voted up or down. What Douglas did say he cared about is that the citizens of a state or territory be allowed to choose for themselves, a notion that lay at the heart of the popular sovereignty premise codified in the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which triggered Bloody Kansas, the Civil, War -- and, ironically, the destruction of Douglas's own presidential aspirations. 

But the Kansas-Nebraska Act was more than just a failed political gambit. It posed a genuine philosophical dilemma. As Burt explains, "the issue between Lincoln and Douglas was not the difference between moral and amoral politics, but the difference between one set of prudential compromises about moral issues and another set." Neither man liked, but both men were willing to tolerate, slavery -- Lincoln was less tolerant than Douglas, because he was unwilling to allow it to enter the territories and Douglas was (though Southern suspicions of Douglas's professed indifference about slavery were justified). The real question was how far the two men were willing to go to end it. Douglas was not as willing to go as far as Lincoln because he feared that fanaticism -- not so much Lincoln's, but that of abolitionists with which was not quite implausibly associated, would wreck what Douglas considered the last best hope of The People (which of course did not mean black people, but then in no polity does "the people" include everybody).

Given the reality of what this meant in 1858, it's easy to view Douglas's position as slickly cynical at best. But in an important respect, it lands right in the middle of a straight line that runs from James Madison's Federalist #10 to Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal. It's the same vision of interest-group politics in which a liberal tells an antiabortion activist that if he doesn't like abortion, he shouldn't have one, a vision in which the only legitimate values are those you don't dare try to impose on somebody else. Burt, alluding to Max Weber (and, perhaps, Ron Takaki), describes it as "a world bound in the iron cage of purely instrumental rationality, in which means are calculated but ends are 'value judgments' about which reason has nothing to say. It is, in short, the modern world."

From this perspective, Lincoln becomes smug, even scary: he knows he's right, he says you know he's right, and even if he's willing to play by the (Constitutional) rules, he will stop at nothing short of that to take away what you hold most dear. Really, how far can you trust someone like that? A majority of voters in 1858 -- and a majority of voters in the presidential election of 1860 -- said: not far enough.  Douglas was right: Lincoln really was a sectional candidate. At best.

And yet Burt insists that Lincoln was right to insist on antislavery -- not abolition, but antislavery. That's because not all values are negotiable, even if no values should be absolutist. They should not be absolutist, because, as Burt pithily puts it, "in politics we are always Hawthorne's children, not Emerson's." Burt's literary background serves him well in other ways as well, notably his deployment of the Keatsian notion of negative capability, which Burt describes as an understanding that "we know our values by knowing that we can never exhaust them with our understanding, and that we never stand in a privileged position as regards them, that they remain in a position to put us, in some unanticipated way, in the wrong."

The miracle of Lincoln is that his final skepticism was "skepticism about despair." One might think that it was Douglas who embodied a Rawlsian vision of fairness being defined in terms of willing to accept as fair the consequences of an unknown outcome, but Burt invokes Rawls's later work in which priorities are not understood solely in terms of economic or political self-interest. No political order can survive without a sense of sacred values, and part of what it means for values to be sacred -- to be living -- is a willingness follow where they lead, accepting the unforeseen consequences of a commitment rather than simply seeing them as expedient (Lincoln is in this sense Rawlsian, though he seems at least as much Kantian). Lincoln's God is not particularly attentive, kind, or forgiving. And yet he's still a repository of hope.

The burden of belief is not what it allows you to do to other people, but what you're willing to do to yourself in the name of your values. This leads Burt to assert that Lincoln really did not foresee emancipation and racial equality in 1858; one reason why he was able to deal so effectively with the border states in the Civil War is that "his mind was another Maryland," which is to say he was a man of racial prejudices just as his fellow citizens were. But he was ultimately able to contemplate the "implictness" of his antislavery commitments, and to act on them when their force of their moral logic became clear -- not Union versus freedom, or even Union through freedom, but Union as freedom -- and time was right. And, thanks to Douglas, to explain them unforgettably at Gettysburg and in the Second Inaugural.

Again, this is a big, sprawling book. And it's not entirely persuasive. (For one dissent, see Allen Guelzo's recent review in the Wall Street Journal.) I elected to skip over some of the minutiae, like that surrounding variant bills and amendments of the Kansas-Nebraska Act; for a non-historian, Burt goes pretty deep into the weeds. I'd have to read it again to figure out how to trim it, but a to me a book this size is almost always guilty unless proven innocent.

Ironically, there are also some surprising omissions. I found myself wondering, for example, how non-violence figures into all of this. Martin Luther King, Jr. shows up twice in passing. This is no anachronistic query for clarification, not only because of the range of modern voices that pepper Burt's discourse, but also because the roots of King's philosophy can of course be found in antebellum abolitionists like Henry David Thoreau and William Lloyd Garrison -- but without the self-righteousness that has always limited their appeal. I raise the question less as a complaint than a desire to understand if and how a moral giant like King, who also managed to combine unshakeable moral conviction with a sense of sin, compares with Lincoln.

Even more surprising in a book with the word "pragmatism" in it is the absence of William James. That's especially true because Burt's use of "implicitness" has a distinctly Jamesian ring: truth inhering in action. Surely there should have been room somewhere for Lincoln of American philosophy.

All this said, I'm making space on my overstuffed shelves for Lincoln's Tragic Pragmatism. This is a book I expect to be picking up and thumbing through for years to come. That's not only because I may someday really want to know what was actually in the Toombs bill of 1857 or the various provisions of the Crittenden Compromise. It's also because I may need some help figuring out What Would Lincoln Do. His judgment may not have been divine. But I'm only human.


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