Monday, August 12, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: Lincoln and Radical Defense of Liberty

Lincoln and Radical Defense of Liberty
Olav Bryant Smith
Originally published in the February 2013 issue of Empirical

On November 19, 1863, Abraham Lincoln began a speech with these words at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania: “Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

The speech became known as the Gettysburg Address. It is widely known as one of the great speeches in human history. One aspect of its greatness is that it re-asserts a principle of American political philosophy as the touchstone of our republic–this principle that “all men are created equal.”

Nations–as opposed to a collection of more-or-less isolated individuals, or individual states–must have some philosophical principles that guide it through thick and thin, and bind together an otherwise disparate population. Teddy Roosevelt astutely pointed to the real power of the presidency when he referred to his “bully pulpit.” Time and time again, it is the president’s primary role to rally and unify the nation around one or more foundational principles.

For Lincoln, it was the principles of liberty and equality, and the preservation of a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” I turn to Lincoln in this issue partly because February is the month that we celebrate the birthdays of Washington (22nd) and Lincoln (12th). But I turn to Lincoln especially because the movie sensation of late autumn was Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, with a wonderful screenplay written by Tony Kushner, and with Lincoln portrayed by actor Daniel Day-Lewis.

In the first 26 days, Lincoln grossed almost $86 million in ticket sales. As I watched this film in a local theater, twice, I saw a wide variety of citizens (from young to old), wanting to participate in this democratic experiment of ours, on the edge of their seats as they waited anxiously to find out the resolution of a story that was in fact resolved 150 years ago. What was the hook? Why were we drawn to a movie about the struggle between a president and congressional leaders over a legislative action taken during the Civil War? What does this interest say about us as a people? Why are we drawn to the feet of Lincoln once again to learn what it is to be American?

One clue, I believe, is that Spielberg has repeatedly directed films that reveal heroes in struggles of good versus evil. The great dramas of world history are always struggles of good versus evil, though it is not always easy for those caught up in the struggles to recognize their own evil. World War II has provided the backdrop to a number of Spielberg’s films, such as Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan. This time, Spielberg has clearly recognized an opportunity in something much closer to home. In his films about World War II, we never stray far from the fact and horror of the Holocaust.

In this film about Lincoln, we never stray far from the fact and horror of slavery. The film begins after Lincoln’s second term has begun and African-American troops had begun to serve in the Union Army. Using special war-time powers, Lincoln had freed slaves through executive fiat–The Emancipation Proclamation. But he was concerned that this would not hold up in the courts in the long run. Thus, a constitutional amendment was introduced, and had been passed by the Senate once, but had subsequently failed in the House. With the closing days of the war ahead, Lincoln was determined to see it through to passage this second time before reuniting with the southern states.

Familiar enough to contemporary ears, we learn of a divided Congress. Deals would have to be made to assure enough Democratic votes to reach the required majority of two-thirds. The amendment had failed the first time due to a vote strictly on party lines: Lincoln’s Republican Party voting in favor, and Democrats voting against. The film thus becomes an entertaining adventure of political wrestling and intrigue as Lincoln’s administration, led by Secretary of State Seward, unites various factions of Republicans and attempts to win over Democrats by any means possible.

The movie is great fun, and I leave it at that, recommending that you see it for yourself. Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance as Lincoln has left many of us in awe. Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of Team of Rivals,1 when she saw the film, said that she felt like she’d seen the real Lincoln.


In real life, we are often confused by the issues. Lulled to sleep and complacency by the habits and ethos of our own culture and times, it is not always easy to see the evil in our midst. In fact, Lincoln once called a speech by Stephen Douglas about the harmlessness of leaving the issue of slavery to the voters in the new Kansas-Nebraska Territory a “lullaby.” We are too often lulled to sleep by words that suggest we can rest satisfied with lives where we have needed to sacrifice little.

In a time much nearer to us than the Civil War, it happened in Germany. But it is always easier to see the foibles of the distant past and one’s enemies. One wonders in retrospect how millions of otherwise good Germans could have allowed the gross inhumanity to man that the Nazis perpetrated against their Jewish population and others.

But it was accepted during “hard times” (and so many times are “hard times”) as a “necessary evil.” The German people were suffering, wanted a way forward, and were convinced by Nazi rhetoric that it was necessary to galvanize the German people into a military force opposed to the rest of Europe and against a significant portion of its own population.

In the same way, one wonders how millions of otherwise good Americans could have rested comfortably with the idea that so many of our African-American sisters and brothers were hopelessly enslaved for the entirety of their lives. The same sort of lulling to sleep and complacency of accepting a “necessary evil” was at work. Also, consciences were appeased with absurd rationalizations of the inhumanity of those with dark skin. In fact, we should not forget that these rationalizations were still widely used to support segregation in the south as late as the 1970s. Only concerted political challenge over decades led to the changing of the hearts and minds of a majority of southerners on that point.

Slavery had been an institution implicitly acknowledged in the US Constitution. That slaves (referred to as “all others” as opposed to “free persons”) were to count as 3/5 of a person was an ugly compromise of the Constitution that would later have to be amended. The Founding Fathers, North and South, were drawn together in the fight for liberty against a common foe: the King of England. The battle over slavery would have to wait, and hence the concept of states’ rights was born for this, among other reasons. Goodwin writes: At the time the Constitution was adopted, Lincoln pointed out, “the plain unmistakable spirit of that age, towards slavery, was hostility to the principle, and toleration, only by necessity” since slavery was already woven into the fabric of American society. Noting that neither the word “slave” nor “slavery” was ever mentioned in the Constitution, Lincoln claimed that the framers concealed it, “just as an afflicted man hides away a wen or a cancer, which he dares not cut out at once, lest he bleed to death; with the promise nevertheless, that cutting may begin at the end of a given time.”

From a northern point of view, slavery was seen as a necessary evil that was to be contained like a disease until it came to a natural end. But a series of events suggested to Lincoln’s generation that the disease was spreading. Things almost came to a head in 1820 with the emergence of the new state of Missouri. But Henry Clay of Kentucky was among those who suggested the Missouri Compromise, allowing slavery in Missouri, but in no other state in the North.

Then, in 1845, many Northerners (such as Lincoln, Thoreau, and Emerson) opposed the Mexican-American War and the annexation of Texas as an unjust war threatening to expand slavery further south and west. Clay again oversaw the 1850 Compromise, which admitted California as a “free” state, but expanded slavery into other newly emerging western territories. Goodwin tells the story of Lincoln’s shocked reaction to the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act: He told his companion [a fellow circuit court counselor] – “I tell you, [T.L.] Dickey, this nation cannot exist halfslave and half-free.” Lincoln later affirmed that the successful passage of the bill roused him “as he had never been before.” It permanently recast his views on slavery. He could no longer maintain that slavery was on course to ultimate extinction. The repeal of the Missouri Compromise persuaded him that unless the North mobilized into action against the proslavery forces, free society itself was in peril.

Another factor that proved to be a tipping point for Lincoln and other northerners was the Fugitive Slave Act, which was part of the Compromise of 1850. As Ralph Waldo Emerson tells us: I had never in my life up to this time suffered from the Slave Institution. Slavery in Virginia or Carolina was like Slavery in Africa or the Feejees, for me. There was an old fugitive law, but it had become, or was fast becoming a dead letter, and by the genius and laws of Massachusetts, inoperative. The new Bill made it operative, required me to hunt slaves, and it found citizens in Massachusetts willing to act as judges and captors. Moreover, it discloses the secret of the new times, that Slavery was no longer mendicant, but was becoming aggressive and dangerous.

In this way, slavery became the focus of the 1860 election. Lincoln defeated Douglas, immediately prompting the secession of southern states. Lincoln offered continued containment as a way to avoid secession and war, but the South was determined to fight this out. Two years of bloody battles in the South, with little Union success, followed. Union forces fared better in the west under Ulysses S. Grant, but the heart of the war was in the east. Knowing that they must do more than endure Union attacks, the Confederate forces of General Robert E. Lee made their strike into the North. It was only with terrible losses at Antietam and Gettysburg that the tide of the war turned against the Confederate army.

It is widely known that Lincoln suffered many disappointments due to a lack of aggressiveness on the part of several generals, and that he finally brought Grant in from the West to take charge of the Union armies and end the war. It was with the end of the war in sight that Lincoln moved to make permanent through Constitutional amendment the freedoms he had already granted through executive fiat–the Emancipation Proclamation.


Usually there are deeper philosophical principles at work when things seem to be going awry. As different as Nazi Germany and the US are, the “lulling to sleep” I mentioned above may have similar roots. George Will, in his book Statecraft as Soulcraft, has pointed to a danger built into modern Western political thinking from Machiavelli and Hobbes, through Locke, and beyond to our times. Rejecting the classical theory of natural law and all it applies, these modern political philosophers started from the assumption that all human beings are motivated primarily by self-interest.

Rather than offering a suggestion to encourage a sense of the common good, and service thereto, many modern political philosophers have defined the “public good” (the common good by another name) as what arises spontaneously from individuals pursuing their own self-interest. Will argues that the West has slipped from a belief in natural law, with eternal principles and a divine source of guidance, to a belief in the construction of social institutions as the driver of history, to a belief in the power of individuals, sometimes “heroic” individuals alone, to chart the course of nations. Nietzsche’s philosophy of the “overman” may not have perfectly dovetailed with Nazism, but Nazism was able to build on Nietzsche’s destruction of “thou shalts” and his call to the primacy of the individual will of great men.

In the liberal democracies of the West, this theory of self-interest has been tied to the idea of free-market capitalism. The invisible hand guiding us, taught Adam Smith, brings our self-interested exchanges in the marketplace around to the best-to-be-hoped-for public good. Everything gets reduced to bargains in a marketplace. This is so much the case that Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said that “the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get accepted in the competition of the market.”

Stephen A. Douglas, Lincoln’s primary political rival at both the state and national levels, reduced the question of slavery to economics when he said in a campaign debate against Lincoln: We of Illinois have decided it for ourselves. We tried slavery, kept it for twelve years, and finding that it was not profitable we abolished it for that reason.

Upon hearing this, Lincoln responded: This declared indifference, but as I must think, covert real zeal for the spread of slavery, I can not but hate. . . . I hate it because it deprives our republic an example of its just influence in the world–enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity, and especially because its forces so many really good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty–criticising the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest.

The hypocrisy of tolerating slavery while claiming that the nation was founded on the principle that “all men are created equal” defined the election of 1860 for Lincoln. It had to be overcome either by containment or war. He preferred the former, but was forced into the latter by the South. It may have been an economic issue for Douglas, but it was a deeply personal issue for Republicans like Lincoln and Henry Seward, who became his Secretary of State after losing the nomination to Lincoln.

Goodwin describes how Seward and his brilliant and influential wife Frances took a trip to Virginia in 1835, and were overwhelmed by what they saw. Henry Seward wrote, “How deeply the curse of slavery is set upon this venerated and storied region of the old dominion.” Henry recounted one experience that stayed with him through the rest of his life: Ten naked little boys, between six and twelve years old, tied together, two by two, by their wrists, were all fastened to a long rope, up the sad and weary little procession, drove it to the horse trough to drink, and thence to a shed, where they lay down on the ground and sobbed and moaned themselves to sleep. Frances demanded that they halt their journey and return to the North. She wrote: “Sick of slavery and the South, the evil effects constantly coming before me and marring everything.”

There are some things that matter more than money, and one of those things is the dignity of our fellow human beings before God and before the law. This is something that movie viewers want to be reminded of when they flock to Spielberg’s film. It is right to be concerned with the manipulative political power of money in our country, and the so-called “conservative” defense of the use of those powers at the expense of the rest of the nation. Could it be that the true conservative, as Will suggested, should be cautious about defining the government as a villain and defending laissez-faire economics? Should the true conservative be more concerned about values than money? And could it be that the government is useful in defining the character of our nation?


Lincoln was born in 1809. Thomas Jefferson’s presidency had just ended, and Madison’s was just beginning. Lincoln’s generation revered the Founding Fathers, and they saw themselves in a privileged position. With that privilege, they recognized a responsibility. They were determined to move beyond the limits their fathers’ generation had necessarily struggled under as they moved toward independence from Britain, to take advantage of the opportunities that had been won for them, and to spread that freedom to as much of the rest of mankind as possible. Goodwin writes: It was a country for young men. “We find ourselves,” the twenty-eight-year-old Lincoln told the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, “in the peaceful possession, of the fairest portion of the earth, as regards extent of territory, fertility of soil, and salubrity of climate.” The founding fathers had crafted a government more favorable to liberty “than any of which the history of former times tells us.” 

Now it was up to their children to preserve and expand the great experiment. These passages capture concisely, I believe, the spirit that draws us in to a film like Lincoln. We, too, generations later, find ourselves in the midst of “the great experiment,” and recognize the weight of that responsibility. The question now, as it was then, remains whether we can govern ourselves at all, in the first place, and, secondly, whether we can, and in what ways, expand that freedom. The question now, as it was then, is whether we are a people guided only by self-interest, or whether there are principles that transcend self-interest. As historical observers, we enter back into the fray of the Civil War to learn what lessons can be taught about the limits to freedom and how we, as a people, can learn to overcome them in the midst of contentious political dynamics.

Barry Goldwater, as the 1964 Republican presidential candidate, spoke these now famous words written by his speechwriter Karl Hess, who thereafter became one of the primary spokespersons for the libertarian movement in America: “I would remind you that extremism in the defensive of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” There are times when radical response is necessary, especially when justice is at stake. As John Cobb wrote in “The Importance of Being Radical” (Empirical, July 2012): [M]odern society has needed radicals as much as earlier. A century ago, few voices were pointing out that American society was rooted in racism and sexism. The vast majority of Americans dismissed such talk as ‘radical’ and therefore irrelevant. They were right that it was radical. But these radical voices finally forced themselves into the public consciousness. More and more people recognized that the call for radical change had truth and righteousness on its side…. The work of radicals has changed society radically. Even many who were once irritated and even angered by them are now grateful for their work.

In most cases, it is true that one can hardly go wrong abiding by principles of moderation. But in the face of extreme injustice, protected by the current ethos of a particular culture–especially when that culture has become blind to the evils of its own ethos–it is necessary to step outside of the common refrain and sound the radical call to change in one’s own time.

That is what people are drawn to in the story of Lincoln. He is a bigger-than-life heroic figure who, along with Seward and other members of Lincoln’s “team of rivals,” answers the call of conscience to stand up to injustice–even at the cost of his own life. It is a story of the passionate pursuit of the attainment of liberty, and the expansion of that liberty. That is always a radical notion, coming (as it does) as a challenge to conventional wisdom.

Lincoln paid for his leadership soon thereafter with his life. The sadness of his loss reverberates through history to create a heaviness in our hearts almost 150 years later. The Civil War has become for us, as citizens of the United States of America, a mythological symbol of the fight of the forces of good against the forces of evil.

Myths, in the truest sense of the word (and not in the disparaging sense) are stories that lift up truths about reality that purely descriptive language can’t get at. We can participate in myths, allow those myths to become a part of us, and allow our own egos to give way to the higher ideals contained within the myths.

Thankfully, we have rid ourselves of the accursed disease that was institutional slavery. But we face other diseases in our midst that must be eliminated, including other kinds of slavery just as vile–human trafficking and the sweatshop labor that we support through the demand for cheap goods from overseas. History offers the possibility of a purification of the human spirit. The evils of our own time seem subtle and debatable to us only because we have become accustomed to them. They are part of our ethos, these “necessary evils” that we tolerate because they seem so difficult to overcome.

They are tolerated, too, because of individual self-interest and the worry that upsetting the proverbial apple cart will lead to personal economic adversity. May we reach a stage of maturity where we can do our own part to stand up to the injustices of our age. We must become radicals, reaching first for the root of those evils in our own hearts, only thereafter to see and remove the root of those evils in the world around us.

Be sure to visit the Empirical website to subscribe!

If you are a writer and are interested in writing for Empirical, check out this link to find out how to submit.

No comments:

Post a Comment