Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content

Stephen L. Carter

Lincoln's America

Elevating the spirit of the Declaration of Independence above the legalism of the Constitution.

A New Birth of Freedom

A New Birth of Freedom

A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War, by Harry V. Jaffa, Rowman & Littlefield, 2000, 750 pp.; $35

On Hallowed Ground

On Hallowed Ground

On Hallowed Ground: Abraham Lincoln and the Foundations of American History, by John Patrick Diggins, Yale University Press, 2000, 330 pp.; $27.95

Most serious historians will insist that Abraham Lincoln was, on a wide variety of measures, America's greatest president. He was. The reason is not that he ended slavery, but that he roused the nation to fight for it to end. The "great civil war" of the Gettysburg Address remains, to this day, the bloodiest war the nation has ever fought. Hundreds of thousands of lives were sacrificed so that the Union might remain together and slavery might end. The exhaustion of that effort afflicted the nation for another century after the war ended, and some aches and pains are with us still.

Lincoln also remains a subject of mystery and controversy. Historians, both professional and amateur, battle over every aspect of the man. Was he for slavery or against it? Did he press for war or was war pressed upon him? Was he a schemer, a villain, an incompetent? Or a visionary, a hero, a genius? Back and forth rages the argument. In a curious way, our continued fascination with the man is a mark of his greatness: nobody (except John Updike, in a memorable play) writes about Lincoln's immediate predecessor, James Buchanan, under whose administration the Union began to dissolve.

A hot subject of historical debate has been the precise array of forces and personalities that led to the outbreak of the war—and, in particular, the role of the sixteenth president, not in the war's prosecution, but in its beginning. The historian Harry V. Jaffa of Claremont McKenna College has jumped into this fray with his recent volume, A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War, an earnest and persuasive effort to debunk recent revisionist history that has attacked Lincoln for purportedly not wanting to end slavery, not wanting to end the war, and not understanding the implications of his own rhetoric. Jaffa offers a serious exploration of both Lincoln's ideology and his spirituality, placing his words and actions against the moral and religious context of their time. The result is an admiring portrait of a fascinating man.

In recent decades, a variety of critics have offered us a Lincoln who is vague, passive, even pusillanimous, more shaped by the tumultuous events of his era than a shaper of them. Jaffa's Lincoln is a man of intelligence and competence, whose views evolve, but who knows quite early what it is that must be done, then sets about doing it with the tools at hand. When persuasion will work, he uses persuasion. When politics will work, he uses politics. When only force will suffice, he uses force. It would not be right, perhaps, to say that Lincoln thought he was on a divine crusade; but, certainly, he believed that God was on his side.

Jaffa is, without question, a Lincoln booster. Lincoln, he tells us at the very end of the book, "was the truest heir of [George] Washington, because of both the clarity of his understanding and the strength of his character." Lincoln's revisionist critics, he declares, have engaged in "shallow and permissive historicism and relativism." Jaffa's book is, among other things, an answer to the anti-Lincoln wave. So let us see how he responds to some of the criticisms.

In the mysterious yet predictable manner of such things, Lincoln's recent critics have focused on what most historians mark as his greatest achievement: the beginning of the end of slavery. Lincoln, we have lately been told, was a racist, a defender of the status quo who did not really want to end slavery, and who issued his Emancipation Proclamation in a cynical grab for political advantage, in order to win abolitionist votes without actually freeing any slaves.

Jaffa disagrees. He devotes a considerable chunk of his book to demonstrating both the growth and the sincerity of Lincoln's opposition to slavery. Answering, for example, the claim that Lincoln cared about slavery only for the political advantage it might yield, Jaffa offers a bit of realpolitik:

Are we to say that Lincoln's reasons for thinking slavery morally wrong are to be discounted because he presented them in political campaigns? … There is reason to believe that Lincoln wrestled long and hard in private with the question of the morality of slavery, as he had with the question of free will and predestination. Having come to a conclusion, however, he could not let the matter rest there. Moral arguments point to moral obligations. Lincoln could advance the antislavery cause only by gaining political advantage for the antislavery argument.

Moreover, as Jaffa points out, Lincoln opposed slavery in public even when taking that position was risky. After all, although it is easy to forget the fact, he lost the Senate seat he contested with Stephen Douglas.

Then there is the matter of the Emancipation Proclamation, once considered among the great political documents of history. Jaffa is unpersuaded by revisionist scholarship insisting that it was a cynical document of little actual effect:

The Emancipation Proclamation progressively deprived the Confederacy of a vast reservoir of slave labor, which had enabled many more Southern whites to serve in the Confederate ranks than would otherwise have been possible. It also added great numbers of emancipated slaves to the ranks of the Union armies, as well as giving them the greatest of all incentives to fight. Notwithstanding the Proclamation's exceptions and exemptions, which proved temporary, it destroyed the viability of the institution of chattel slavery in the whole Union.

What about the charge that the Proclamation, because justified on the ground of "military necessity," should not be taken seriously as an assertion of moral authority? Writes Jaffa:

In issuing the Proclamation, Lincoln acted from military necessity. In the Gettysburg address, Lincoln called upon the nation to ratify what had been done, not simply because it was necessary, but because it was good.

This argument does not quite refute the central charge of Lincoln's critics, who believe that he did as little toward freeing the slaves as he could, but Jaffa may well be right that they are reading his words too literally, not understanding the subtle mind at work beneath it all. Perhaps by doing as much (not as little) as he thought he could, and by justifying his actions not merely as a military necessity but also as fealty due a higher principle, he sought to inspire his countrymen to do what was right once the terrible war ended. Or maybe, as Lincoln's critics insist, it was all cynical.

But this seems unlikely. Jaffa is meticulous in distinguishing two aspects of Lincoln's thought on slavery that many of the sixteenth president's contemporary critics tend to conflate. It is true, says Jaffa, that candidate Lincoln consistently denied any intention of using federal power to end slavery (other than by restricting its expansion). But this was the only possible response to the campaign by Democrats (including Lincoln's predecessor, the pro-slavery Buchanan) who tried to defeat the Republicans by smearing them with responsibility for John Brown's 1859 raid on Harper's Ferry.

Besides, argues Jaffa, we must look at Lincoln through southern eyes. And there we see the other Lincoln, the one who insisted, for most of his political career, that slavery, sooner or later, was bound to end. Indeed, Lincoln, according to Jaffa, always desired "to place slavery in the course of ultimate extinction." This was the Lincoln the southerners saw when they looked, even if many modern interpreters overlook him; and if this was not the real Lincoln, then the southern states were not so much racist as stupid, for they rushed to begin their secession from the Union immediately upon his election, not waiting to see whether his policies on slavery would be as unthreatening as Lincoln's most strident critics nowadays contend. In short, it is difficult to understand, if Lincoln really was no abolitionist, what the southern states imagined they were seceding from.

Jaffa also has something to say to those who think Lincoln conceded too much to the South in his campaign for the presidency or in his first inaugural address. In particular, he places Lincoln's explicit endorsement of the fugitive slave clause in a striking intellectual context. Jaffa concedes what others have noted, that Lincoln thought the clause good for the slaves.

But this does not, says Jaffa, have anything to do with supporting or opposing slavery. Lincoln thought slaves better off under the clause because the clause was a mark of a strong central government: the Constitution would never have been ratified without it. The slave states insisted on the clause, so Lincoln believed, precisely because they feared the new federal government would be strong enough to prevent the return of slaves. Only a government of sufficient might to generate those fears would also possess sufficient might to prevent the spread of slavery into the territories. The existence of the clause was, for Lincoln, proof that the power to limit slavery existed. That was the reason the slaves were better off with the clause than without it.

And what about Lincoln's spirituality? It has become almost a commonplace of writing about the sixteenth President to assert that he was at best a deist, and more likely an atheist. Jaffa, although cautious on this matter, seems inclined to disagree. I have already mentioned Jaffa's assertion that Lincoln contemplated so crucial a Christian question as the interplay of predestination and free will. Although Lincoln, notoriously, belonged to no church, he often mentioned God in his speeches and writings, and frequently referred to "the Savior." But he never, as far as anyone has been able to uncover, mentioned Jesus Christ by name.

Still, Jaffa gathers enough examples to persuade us that Lincoln must have been either a religious man or a clever dissembler. To take one of many examples, Jaffa quotes Lincoln's farewell speech in Springfield as he departed to assume the office of president: "Trusting in Him, who can go with me, and remain with you and be every where for good, let us confidently hope that all will yet be well. To His care commending you, as I hope in your prayers you will commend me, I bid you an affectionate farewell." Hardly the language of deism.

Jaffa also sees Lincoln, in an important way, as the founder of one version of what we have come to call the civil religion:

It is undoubtedly true that Lincoln has become the greatest interpreter of America's religious destiny in part because of his distance from any sectarian religious identification. Every church or synagogue can think of him as one of their own, because he scarcely ever spoke a word inconsistent with such an assumption. By belonging to none, he belonged to all.

For Lincoln, the civil religion—the public, quasi-official religion of the nation—was "a perfectly nonsectarian Christianity" which he often invoked, during the 1850s, in his repeated references to the Declaration. In Lincoln's rhetoric, the Founders became "apostles of the justice of the Creator to his creatures." The Declaration, for Lincoln, restated the Golden Rule. The nation that forgot the Declaration and insisted on the Constitution was turning its back, not only on the Founders, but on the Creator. Lincoln, says Jaffa, always insisted on reading the documents together.

Jaffa offers the example of Jefferson Davis's theology to show us what, in Lincoln's view, slaveholding Christians got wrong. Davis argued that God "stamped diversity on the races of men," either at the time of the Creation or after the Flood. Lincoln answered Davis, not with the Bible, but with the Declaration's firm statement that "all men are created equal." The civil religion supposes that it is possible to have public theological disputes that are not sectarian in nature, and that was what Lincoln attempted. The principles of charity and neighbor-love that permeated his speeches, treated by Lincoln as divine commands, would nowadays be of equal appeal to Protestants, Catholics, and Jews.

Still, it is important to recall the source of those divine commands: they were, for Lincoln, immanent in the Declaration of Independence, and, thus, reflective of the ideals of the Founding generation, ideals not only political but religious. Lincoln did not trust what we might nowadays describe as "legalism": if one relied on the words of the Constitution alone, the pro-slavery side had at least as good a claim to truth as did the abolitionists—probably better. In an argument over right and wrong, Lincoln thought resort to first principles more productive than reliance on the words of a legal text.

Jaffa reminds us that Lincoln emerged as a political figure in the midst of the era of optimism—whose prophets he interestingly identifies as Hegel, Marx, and John C. Calhoun—a time when the progressive view of history was in vogue, the notion that humanity continues to advance morally, without regard to the actual intentions of the rational actors of any particular moment. Lincoln, however, was inclined to the view that humans must use their reason to decide the direction in which to advance. To Lincoln, the view of progress as inevitable was naive, and could lead to long tenure for great injustice.

Through it all, Jaffa insists that we view Lincoln through the eyes of his era rather than our own. Lincoln's morality, says Jaffa, was "governed by prudence," a notion "largely beyond the ken" of his contemporary critics. Like Lincoln himself, Jaffa plainly believes in prudence, moderation, and caution, and perhaps we should, too—not because there are no great moral absolutes, but because moral crusades not governed by moderation lead to excess and destruction.

The striking irony, of course, is that Lincoln, nowadays often condemned for his moderation, sacrificed more Americans for his vision of justice than any leader before or since. Possibly the critics are right, and the Civil War dead were slain for a pack of cynical lies: if so, they believed the glorious lies, and died for their truth.

Another very thoughtful addition to the Lincoln collection is On Hallowed Ground: Abraham Lincoln and the Foundations of American History, by historian John Patrick Diggins of the City University of New York. To Diggins, Lincoln the grade-school dropout "became the most profound president in American history … a philosopher-president who felt deeply that modern humankind is tragically condemned to live in a universe of power and sin." No optimist, in other words, but a thoughtful, politically astute pessimist who believed in the necessity of the assertion of power—government power—to set matters aright.

The Lincoln of Diggins's tale understood what most of his countrymen did not: that the Civil War was not just about slavery but about history, "a struggle over a foundational consensus that was once regarded as 'self-evident.'" In that struggle, the nation settled not only the issue of slavery but also the issue of philosophy. America had to decide not so much what it stood for but rather the direction in which it would look to discover what it stood for. The early nineteenth century, Diggins believes, was an era that showed all the weaknesses of a nation that looks only forward; it took Lincoln to remind the people that greatness and mission could also be discovered by remembering the foundational past.

So Diggins invites us to follow Lincoln's intellectual journey, tracing both the sources and the evolution of the sixteenth president's ideas on justice. In the course of the journey, Diggins picks up on a theme sounded some years ago by Garry Wills (and mentioned by Jaffa), reminding us that Lincoln, in the Gettysburg Address, inverted the American rhetorical tradition that prevailed in his day by exalting the Declaration of Independence over the Constitution. Lincoln's particular contribution was to suggest that the rights which we possess have a source beyond the government itself (as the Constitution implies), that they are inalienable and self-evident, and that they are the endowment of the Creator. If they are natural in this strong sense, then no government can take them away, no matter what its founding documents imply. Consequently, if slavery is a violation of natural law, a Constitution purporting to allow it is also a violation of natural law.

This much of Lincoln's thought is well known (although some Lincoln critics deny that he thought so deeply). But Diggins adds another level. He argues that what Lincoln really did was to establish in American thought the notion that we owe a degree of fealty, perhaps even allegiance, to the dreams of the Founders. Lincoln's identification of the Declaration rather than the Constitution as the summary of those dreams was perhaps a useful trope. The important point is that Lincoln brushed aside the brisk moral confidence of the new nation, which thought it could remake itself, in true Jeffersonian fashion, each time a new generation took over. Lincoln dragged the nation forward by turning its attention backward: greatness, it turned out, was to be found in realizing the Founders' hopes.

There are hints, in Lincoln's rhetoric, of an awareness of the peculiar forms of sharp political debate in America. In his famous Cooper Union speech, Lincoln told his audience what he thought it would take to reassure the worried South. "This and this only: cease to call slavery wrong, and join them in calling it right. … The whole atmosphere must be disinfected from all taint of opposition to slavery, before they will cease to believe that all their troubles proceed from us." What Lincoln said then of supporters of slavery might today be said about supporters of abortion: that in the rhetoric of the pro-choice side, there does often seem to lurk a notion that the correct solution is not only for abortion to remain a right, but for critics to shut up. The debate itself must end for justice to be done.

But ending debate on a contentious moral issues when the nation is split down the middle (or, in the abortion case, often leans to the other side) is no way to run a democracy, and people who want debate to end have no business calling themselves liberal. The liberalism of Lincoln understood the virtue of keeping an issue alive in the face of public opposition, even if one must be politic and circumloquacious in how one does so.

Lincoln's liberalism has another, deeper lesson, one that today's conservatives would do well to keep in mind. The "dual sovereignty" that the Constitution of the United States unquestionably created was nevertheless a hierarchy: the state sovereigns and the federal sovereigns were not on the same level. Each had its own sphere—but the federal sphere was the stronger. To argue otherwise was ultimately to justify the "pernicious abstraction" of secession. The way that many contemporary politicians and commentators trumpet the virtues of "states' rights" as an antidote to "big government" is more reckless than conservative.

Perhaps most important, Lincoln understood that America itself is a special place, marked by a unique understanding of the world, and an unusual vision—some would say a divine vision—of its place in that world. In the contemporary academy, it is somewhere between unfashionable and disreputable to point to the nation's historical self-understanding as the source of, say, the rights we deem fundamental. One does not, in serious scholarship, suggest that America is unique at all, unless one means to suggest that it is uniquely bad.

But John Patrick Diggins, like Lincoln himself, betrays an affection for what is often dismissed as Americanism—not a nationalist commitment to winning, but an understanding that we are embedded in a historical and cultural narrative that might actually have something to recommend it. America has made great mistakes, but it has also fostered, and often fought for, great ideals. When we forget the possibility of America's greatness, we miss out on a good deal of history, philosophy, even theology that has important lessons to teach us.

If this is so, then all cultures cannot be equally valuable—not in philosophical or political terms. Diggins is firm on this point. Although sympathetic to the ideal of multiculturalism, he is also grimly aware of its central paradox: "Those who seek to teach an indiscriminate openness to all of history risk misleading students into thinking that one can have the best of both worlds: a culture of lineage and a politics of liberty."

To celebrate equality and liberty is to make a universalist claim for values that lie near the heart of the Western experience; to celebrate cultures that deny equality and liberty is at war with the claim itself. There lies the puzzle. How is the multiculturalist to treat a traditional culture that sharply disputes Western visions of, say, the role of women or the proper expression of human sexuality?

Actually, the evidence we have suggests that many multiculturalists resolve this paradox by retreating to cultural imperialism. It turns out that we should "celebrate" only the aspects of other cultures that we already happen to like. Those that we do not, we should condemn for their dangerous primitivism and try to change. One sees this, to take a prominent example, in the attitude of the Episcopal bishops of the United States toward their brethren in Africa, Asia, and South America, who, as they dissent from the changing sexual mores of the Western provinces of the Anglican Communion, are seen as not only dangerously wrong but worthy of condemnation. At least on matters of human sexuality, cultures different from our own, it seems, are valued only insofar as they value what we value. Multiculturalism ends where sex begins.

Multiculturalism is not the only place where Diggins faults liberals for their loss of focus on Lincoln. Diggins locates a rejection of Lincoln's ideas in a place few of us would think to look: consumerism. Diggins, remember, believes that it was Lincoln who turned the nation's attention back to the Founding generation, and thus to God, and thus to the need for sacrifice, at a time when Americans were coming to see themselves and their values as self-created. A created human possesses obligations different from those that a self-invented human might have. Consumerism, says Diggins, is a fresh repudiation of the Founders, and thus of Lincoln as well:

Consumption marks the end of the primacy of politics and the beginning of the domination of economics, the end of values as something that can be stabilized and preserved and the beginning of change as the only thing that matters, the end of looking back to the founding of the Republic to gain inspiration from its original principles and the beginning of looking forward to a life where circumstances prevail over any sense of principle based on historical ideals.

Diggins sees contemporary liberalism as obsessed with freeing life from a "sense of principle based on historical ideals"; the very idea that history and tradition matter, says Diggins, is anathema to modern liberalism. This, he believes, is liberalism's loss. The Left of a generation ago, he contends, understood America better.

Analyzing such documents as the Port Huron Statement, Diggins concludes that the Left of the 1960s was far more pro-American than the academic Left of the present day. The 1960s Left believed in a set of American ideals that had been lost through an overemphasis on individualism and production, and an underemphasis on community and value. They argued, often, for bringing the nation back to what they saw as its more pure roots; they combed the great documents, from the Declaration to the Constitution to Lincoln's speeches, for evidence that earlier generations were committed to the "egalitarian ideals" of the era. They were, we might say, Kennedyesque: they wanted to make America the great, free, and equal nation it was supposed to be, and then to export that greatness to the world.

The Left of today lacks both the confidence and the patriotism of the Left of that earlier age. Lincoln's heirs, says Diggins on the final page of his book, are those "who believe in the gospel of work and try to live for conviction as well as comfort." Although he does not quite say so, he seems to believe that today's liberals (to say nothing of today's conservatives) find conviction an inconvenience, for they too often love their own power and—yes—comfort more than they live the ideas they profess.

Multiculturalism again provides Diggins with fodder when he turns to contemporary critics who have understandably assailed Lincoln's embrace of the egregious notion, a very common one in the Civil War era, that the slaves, once freed, should return to Africa. Lincoln mentioned this idea often, but he seems to have abandoned it, except as a distant plaything, after he presented it to a group of free black men at the White House and experienced their incredulity. Diggins applauds the free blacks for their rejection of the proposal: "In this instance they, and not Lincoln, understood the meaning of American exceptionalism."

The point Lincoln missed—and which Diggins wants us to see—is that there was in America then and is in America now a remarkable promise, unfulfilled, to be sure, but immanent, hidden but ready to spring forth, the promise of the Founding era, the promise of a nation that believes itself blessed by God and is therefore willing to act as a blessed nation should. The free blacks who rejected colonization saw in America's great promise the future they preferred.

Diggins then uses the episode to critique the identity politics of our own era. The black people of Lincoln's day, he implies, understood the promise of America better than those who today suggest that black youth "should study Africa as vital to knowledge of their heritage." Otherwise, why should the slaves not have been thrilled at Lincoln's offer? Diggins denies the equality of cultures, especially in their political ideas, and he thinks the West has right what many traditional societies have wrong:

"[F]reedom is a distinct phenomenon born not in cultural transmission but in political conflict and struggle, and human rights do not grow on trees, nor do equality, tolerance, and democratic self-government drop from the sky."

His larger point is well taken: not every society has equal regard for the rights and values that have dominated American political thought since Lincoln's day. There are good reasons, then and now, to prefer living here.

Yet there is more to Africa than what Diggins concedes to it—art and music, he seems to think, are the main reasons to study it. Actually its rich history, with all its violence and contradiction, holds great lessons. One is that skin color has not been, historically, a mark of commonality. In Africa, as all over the globe, bitter wars have raged and continue to rage among groups that, to racially minded Americans, look just the same, even though history, ethnicity, religion, and culture may separate them quite sharply. As Diggins reminds us earlier in the book: "Using history for the purpose of identity is, as Friedrich Nietzsche warned, fraught with unsuspected paradoxes." The act of citing history may disprove what we are trying to prove. The enormous paradox of Afrocentrism is that there was no Africa until Europe invented it. For black Americans to look to Africa in order to understand blackness is to allow the Eurocentric invention of race-as-color to prevail over both history and common sense.

Diggins also overlooks the rich spiritual gifts of the African continent—a deep sense among so many people that they live very close to the divine. One reason that Pope John Paul II has targeted Africa for special works of evangelism, as have many Protestant groups, is precisely the sense that its people overwhelmingly reject the exclusively naturalistic and materialistic vision of reality that has so destructively taken hold in the West.

Here, then, is Lincoln's ultimate lesson to us: if all we believe in is what we see and what we build, we lack a firm foundation on which to rest arguments over right and wrong. Today's secular theorists would argue against slavery on the ground that it deprives the enslaved individuals of their rights, or, possibly, that it constitutes an inefficient use of human capital. Lincoln, like the abolitionist movement whose leader he finally became, was more fortunate. He was not the prisoner of a dry secularism that drains moral argument of its passion. He was, as Diggins paints him, the chief interpreter of an American spiritual tradition that is dismissed today, as it was when Lincoln came along in the middle of the nineteenth century, as outmoded and even reactionary.

Abraham Lincoln demanded more of the nation than the self-seeking that is the predictable result of an ideology of self-creation. By elevating the spirit of the Declaration of Independence above the legalism of the Constitution, he managed what few other American leaders have: he persuaded people to sacrifice for others when they had little to gain for themselves. Today's politicians, who measure success by opinion polls and win their popularity by feeding voters from the public trough, would do well to heed Lincoln's example. But they won't. Winning is more fun than being right.

Stephen L. Carter is William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale University Law School. He is the author most recently of God's Name in Vain: The Wrongs and Rights of Religion in Politics (Basic Books).

NOTE: For your convenience, the following books, which were mentioned above, are available for purchase:

A New Birth of Freedom, by Harry V. Jaffa
On Hallowed Ground, by John Patrick Diggins

Most ReadMost Shared