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What Would Lincoln Do?

Abraham Lincoln and the evolution of American morality. What would Lincoln do, say, today?

The Lincoln Memorial (williamhartz/Flickr)

The Lincoln Memorial (williamhartz/Flickr)

Abraham Lincoln is remarkably vivid, in the air, these days. In the weave of our rolling 150th anniversaries of the Civil War. In the references of a president who loves to nod to Lincoln. In the Oscar nominations of Steven Spielberg’s moving film, and Daniel Day-Lewis’s moving depiction of Lincoln in his White House and marriage and epic political and moral struggles.

A big new book by John Burt goes to the heart of Lincoln’s thinking about democracy and morality. And the sometimes tragic pragmatism required to marry those.

This hour, On Point: deep Lincoln.

-Tom Ashbrook

Guests

John Burt, professor of English at Brandeis University and author of “Lincoln’s Tragic Pragmatism: Lincoln, Douglas, and Moral Conflict.”

From Tom’s Reading List

New York Times “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.”

Chicago Tribune “The evolution of President Abraham Lincoln’s thinking about emancipation is clearly marked out in his speeches and public documents. The evolution of his views about suffrage for black people is harder to trace. The two issues are intimately linked, and to modern eyes they seem one and the same. In Lincoln’s time, though, the issues of emancipation and suffrage pulled in different directions, and their history is tangled.”

Book Excerpt

Electronically reproduced by permission of the publisher from LINCOLN’S TRAGIC PRAGMATISM by John Burt, Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Copyright © 2013 The President and Fellows of Harvard College.

Lincoln limited the scope of the Emancipation Proclamation (excepting the loyal slave states and regions of the seceded states already under federal control) in the ways required by the claim of military necessity. Had he chosen to use the claim of military necessity to abolish slavery in the loyal border states, the Supreme Court may have chosen to overturn the proclamation as a whole, arguing that since the claim of military necessity did not plausibly apply to the cases of the border states, that the rationale for the proclamation as a whole was a pretext, not a reason. The proclamation had to be a halfway measure, but it staked out a position there could be no abandoning, and, precisely because it was a halfway measure, it motivated a sturdier and more sweeping solution. Having built the case for emancipation, and having drawn former slaves into the army, and, further, having discovered what could not have been obvious in 1861, that the proclamation did not devastate the cause of the Union in the border states, Lincoln was enabled to press for a permanent and clear constitutional settlement through the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment.

If the shaky loyalty of the border states had something to do with Lincoln’s delay in issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, his impatience with the border states also had something to do with his commitment to issuing it. After a frustrating meeting with border state representatives at the White House on July 12, 1862, in which he encouraged them to adopt a scheme of gradual, compensated emancipation before “the institution in your states will be extinguished by mere friction and abrasion,” Lincoln crossed the Rubicon in his own mind.

The next day, as he rode in a carriage with Secretaries Seward and Welles on their way to the funeral of Secretary Stanton’s infant son, he announced (according to Welles’ diary) that after several weeks of thought he had resolved to emancipate the slaves in the seceded states, a policy he said had been “forced upon him by the rebels” He explained to Welles that emancipation “was a military necessity absolutely essential to the salvation of the Union, that we must free the slaves or be ourselves subdued.” Such an act would, at the least, weaken the power of the Confederacy, since it used its slaves to do such things as dig intrenchments or move supplies, jobs which otherwise would have to be performed by white soldiers. He further noted that the border states would do nothing, left to themselves, and could only be persuaded to free their slaves if the slaves were freed in the Confederacy first.

Lincoln had determined to make the proclamation months before he formally issued it, but he was persuaded by Seward to postpone doing so until after a military victory (which, on balance, the battle of Antietam was), so that it would not seem to be a desperation strategy, or a hopeless gesture (“like the Pope’s bull against the comet,” as Lincoln remarked in his reply to an emancipation memorial presented to him by Chicago clergymen only a few weeks before issuing the proclamation that was already in his desk).

Three things came together to make the Emancipation proclamation politically possible: a convincing argument that emancipation was required by military necessity, a battlefield victory to make the proclamation not seem to be a desperate improvisation, and evidence that the border states would not be driven to secession by the act.

The battle of Antietam settled both of the last two matters, first by being in a way a Union victory, but also, more importantly, by demonstrating the people of Maryland would not rise up in support of the Confederacy (as the Confederates, remembering how Union troops had had to fight their way though Baltimore to the defense of Washington only a year before, had reason to believe they might).

Barbara Frietchie as much as George McClellan made possible the Emancipation Proclamation. But it had been waiting its occasion a long time before that, and Lincoln may have been revolving the possibility as early as the attack on Fort Sumter itself.

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