On hallowed ground : Abraham Lincoln and the foundations of American history /
John Patrick Diggins.
New Haven : Yale University Press, c2000.
xxi, 330 p. ; 24 cm.
0300082371 (cloth : alk. paper)
More Details
New Haven : Yale University Press, c2000.
0300082371 (cloth : alk. paper)
catalogue key
Includes bibliographical references and index.
A Look Inside
About the Author
Author Affiliation
John Patrick Diggins is Distinguished Professor of History at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.
First Chapter

Chapter One

Abraham Lincoln:

Toward a Synthesis

with Foundations

    The Specter of Synthesis

    "What this country needs," wrote novelist Saul Bellow in Herzog, "is a good five-cent synthesis." Today the very idea of "synthesis," mocked as a product of the supposedly complacent and conservative decade of the 1950s, is all but forbidden in American historiography. At least in academic circles, the idea of consensus is demonized--taken to mean the suppression of differences below and the imposition of authority from above. America is so culturally multifarious and, we are frequently told, so irredeemably divided along lines of race, class, and gender that the search for synthesis may seem futile.

    Yet when one considers the ideas and institutions through which hitherto excluded groups have made gains in America, one can hardly ignore that we are living in a rights-based political culture in which claims to opportunity based on the historical tradition of inalienable natural rights are derived from Lockean liberalism, a tradition conspicuously absent in the two perspectives that have prevailed in recent historiography: classical republicanism and Marxist radicalism. Is it not possible that there is more that unites the American people than divides them? The case for consensus can still be made today the way Lincoln made it in the middle of the nineteenth century. More than any other figure in American history, Lincoln both embodied and espoused the principles of right to labor, property, and opportunity, and I treat his political and moral philosophy as a foundation that might guide us through our troubled times.

    Today, however, one hears only of "anti-foundationalism." In much of contemporary historiography, and especially in philosophy and political theory, we find a widespread conviction that life and mind have no grounding foundations, that what we believe and do are simply what we happen to think and act in a given circumstance and context. According to this view, knowledge itself, rather than being anchored in natural law or religious principles, functions only in the service of power, and people often submit to the exercise of power over themselves without necessarily having consciously consented to it.

    Years ago the American government endorsed legislation dealing with "truth in advertising." Such laws would be regarded as oxymoronic to the anti-foundationalist thinker (and perhaps also to the Madison Avenue marketing strategist). According to the logic of anti-foundationalism, there is no knowable reality behind representations that the mind itself constructs; therefore, what need is there to insist on an objective truth beyond the beguiling messages of advertising? From this perspective, consumers remain under the thrall of power, mediated through a language of signs and images. Outside of this system, there is no genuine truth.

    This depressing cultural abyss is the result of the confluence of two philosophical systems: European poststructuralism and American neo-pragmatism. The two have joined together to reinforce two claims: first, that we delude ourselves insofar as we believe that truth exists external to ourselves, to be claimed through an act of uncovering or recovery; and second, that this delusion masks the reality that truth-claims are, in fact, only the imposition of our own subjective interpretations. There can be no true knowledge, no access to anything universal, transcendent, and morally binding, and the effort to be "philosophical" about ultimate ideas, to try to ground a principle in some antecedent concept, is dismissed as naive. Many philosophers, particularly poststructuralists and neo-pragmatists, have thrown in the towel and have given up trying to get in the ring with truth as a conceptual antagonist and have happily announced the beginning of a "post-philosophical" era. In the eighties Richard Rorty announced the "end of philosophy" and turned the discipline over to language and rhetoric, just as John Dewey had earlier seen the limitations of philosophy as he turned it over to science and experimentation. We must, it seems, get over our yearnings for objective truth.

    What is to be done when philosophy is thought to be nothing more than a nostalgic pining after the there that is no longer there? The answer, say the poststructuralists and neo-pragmatists, lies within society and its conventions. Instead of reaching for the universal, we should look to the local and regard as legitimate whatever enjoys agreement and shared sentiment.

    More than a century ago, Lincoln had to wage intellectual war against just this kind of reasoning, for the denial of truth and the claim that all beliefs are a matter of circumstance was precisely the position that Southern politicians took to defend slavery. The defense of slavery was articulated in George Fitzhugh's book Sociology for the South, or the Failure of Free Society and in Henry Hughes's A Treatise on Sociology, Theoretical and Practical . In both books, the realities of the plantation replaced the ideals of philosophy. In the debates leading to the Civil War, the South had customs and convention on its side; it was defending local consensus. Lincoln rejected such claims, arguing for larger, national consensus--the "philosophical cause" of liberty, accessible to each and every human being. "Whenever the question [of slavery] shall be settled," Lincoln asserted, "it must be settled on some philosophical basis. No policy that does not rest on some philosophical public opinion can be permanently maintained." Whereas today many scholars hail the "end of philosophy," Lincoln hoped that politics could be elevated to the status of philosophy in order to address the most crucial moral issues facing the nation. Without a philosophical sensibility, all politics would be power and America would be unable to recognize the goals that it is failing to achieve.

    To some historians today, the outbreak of the Civil War proves once and for all that American history can be neither consensual nor exceptional. A people who war among themselves can hardly be said to subscribe to a synthesis. In a text that greatly influenced the New Left, William Appleman Williams's The Contours of American History (1961), the author speculates why the American public has been so preoccupied with the Civil War. "Underlying that persistent involvement is the realization that the war undercuts the popular mythology that America is unique. Only a nation that avoided such a conflict could make a serious claim to being fundamentally different."

    It does seem that the Civil War crisis compromises the idea of American consensus, and certainly it dramatized the breakdown of the constitutional system, which was, after all, specifically designed to control conflict. Yet as the historian Louis Hartz pointed out, that crisis was the one instance in American history when a region of the country no longer identified with its national history and instead asked to be considered separate and different. But this attitude only led to a schizoid political temperament, as Hartz also discerned. For while the South romanticized its own "feudal ethos" in order to rationalize the existence of slavery, and while it chose to ignore the Jeffersonian egalitarianism in the Declaration of Independence, it had, in the writings of John C. Calhoun and others, to return to the Jeffersonian Enlightenment and the doctrine of natural rights to justify its own right to nullification and secession, and to claim as its own the liberal idea of self-determination.

    Thus even during the Civil War--so often viewed as a challenge to the idea of national consensus--the North and South argued over the correct interpretation of Lockean principles, rather than over the principles themselves. The North saw property as a reward for labor, and the South regarded property as the right to possess another's labor and perceived state sovereignty as the right to withdraw from a Union that had been based upon the consent of the governed. During 1861-65 the United States was engaged in a war over slavery and, as well, a war over the right to secession, the right to define the nature of the Union, and the right to claim the ultimate seat of sovereign authority. It was a civil war, not a social revolution, and hence consensus survived. It reasserted itself in late-nineteenth-century debates over currency, tariffs, railroads, lobbies, and other issues that agitated what Mark Twain aptly called the "Gilded Age."

    Before the Civil War there were, of course, some isolated exceptions: One thinker who posed the most outright--even desperate--challenge to liberal consensus was George Fitzhugh, the southern apologist for slavery and defender of Cavalier chivalry. Fitzhugh, who had been generally neglected in American political thought, intrigued Hartz as one who departed from the liberal tradition to offer a critique of it from the viewpoint of hierarchy and paternalism, which supposedly created a more humane environment for slaves than the brute "wage slavery" of the North. Fitzhugh, Hartz observes, tried to steer the minds of Southerners away from American liberalism. Many felt that his arguments scarcely deserved an audience. The abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, for example, refused to answer Fitzhugh's attack on northern liberalism, declaring: "Argument is demanded--to prove what?" Fitzhugh himself had a nervous breakdown trying to prove that his views would unlock America from the prisonhouse of liberalism.

    From Politics to the "New Birth of Freedom"

    Although Lincoln was lauded by contemporary luminaries, including Americans such as Emerson and Whitman and the Europeans Tennyson and Tolstoy, he has been treated less kindly by recent historians. The Harvard historian David Herbert Donald's Lincoln is a case in point. Donald describes Lincoln as a crafty, politician always strategically planning for the next election; a prudent man tempered by a "pragmatic approach to problems" that rendered him content to respond to critical situations rather than anticipating them; an upstart of "unquenchable ambition" who ran for the presidency without having any sense of the depth of secessionist sentiment in the South and without any clear plan for preventing the outbreak of civil war. Moreover, Lincoln's much quoted remark--"I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me"--is cited by Donald as evidence of "the essential passivity of his nature."

    When Lincoln uttered those thoughts, in April 1864, he was responding to a complaint that he had violated his pledge in his First Inaugural Address not to interfere with slavery. He now had to explain why he had issued the Emancipation Proclamation of the previous year. Having taken an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution, Lincoln wrote in a private letter, he came to see the necessity of using power not to preserve slavery but to rid the country of it so that the institution could no longer "permit the wreck of government, country, and Constitution all together." Rather than expressing "passivity," Lincoln was expressing passion tempered by logic. "Was it possible to lose the nation, and yet preserve the constitution? By general law life and limb must be protected; yet often a limb must be amputated to save a life, but life is never wisely given to save a limb."

    Lincoln's rumination on the inscrutability of events, far flora demonstrating passivity in the sphere of politics, may well suggest a higher philosophical wisdom in the face of history. The enigma of fate and will has perplexed thinkers for centuries; Lincoln was only expressing the possible illusion of free will in determining the outcome of events, a riddle that he saw dramatizing itself on the bloody battlefields of the Civil War, just as Stendhal and Tolstoy had seen it unfolding in all its gory mystery in the Napoleonic War of 1812. Standing above Lincoln the politician is Lincoln the philosopher, who sees in history the tragedy of human life. "Lincoln's own career," wrote the Dutch historian Pieter Geyl, "furnishes striking proof that the fate of mankind is not from the first to the last governed by reason." The same vision of history resonates in the thoughts of many of the nineteenth century's greatest historians, including Alexis de Tocqueville, Henry Adams, Thomas Macaulay, and Jacob Burkhardt. All saw that in the new democratic age it would be difficult to attribute any influence over the destiny of humankind to the will and conscious decisions of individuals, and it would be even more difficult to discern a rational pattern in the chaos of events. Likewise the protagonist in Stendhal's The Charterhouse of Parma wanders about the battlefield at Waterloo "understanding nothing," unable "to make head or tail of what was happening." In his fragment "Meditation on the Divine Will," found after his death, Lincoln wondered about the purpose and will of God and understood nothing.

    In contrast to Donald, Garry Wills takes seriously Lincoln's meditations on history and politics, and in Lincoln at Gettysburg he offers an eloquent analysis of the symbolic significance of the military battle in America's act of remembrance. As a learned scholar trained in the classics, Wills would have us believe that the American president rose to Ciceronian heights in his speeches and addresses. He contends that Lincoln, in delivering his address at Gettysburg, intended to redefine the meaning of America so that the Civil War would be won not only militarily but also ideologically.

    Wills insists that Lincoln "cleansed" the Constitution as a document that had once countenanced slavery and that hence had been "tainted with official sins and inherited guilt." He quietly "altered the document from within," bringing the "legal compromise" that allowed for the continuation of slavery "to its own indictment." By doing so, "he performed one of the most daring acts of open-air sleight-of-hand ever witnessed by the unsuspecting." According to Wills, the crowd departed from the blood-drenched fields of Gettysburg not knowing that they had been delivered a new conception of government, with broadened powers and responsibilities. With Lincoln's emphasis on the proposition of equality, Americans were given "a new past to live with that would change their future indefinitely."

    The Gettysburg Address does indeed represent the most powerful of American statements about the nation's own self-definition. But the speech never mentions the Constitution and it has little to do with its legal compromises about slavery. Rather than giving the American people "a new past," Lincoln gave them an old past, the eighteenth-century America that offered "a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." Such an orientation, claimed Lincoln, would return the Republic to its definite origins in the Declaration of Independence. The Gettysburg Address was not so much a transforming document as a call to sustain a consensus that Lincoln was sanctifying in the name of the battlefield's fallen dead.

    It can hardly be said that the Gettysburg Address "remade" America. More than a decade before the address, Calhoun had noted how the "character of the government had been changed" from the "federal republic" envisioned by the framers "into a great national consolidated democracy." The superior economic strength of the North and the military conquests of the Union Army did the remaking; in the Gettysburg Address Lincoln hopes for "a new birth of freedom" so that the "honored dead" would not have fallen in vain. Ironically, that new birth would have its instrumental enactment in the Constitution when the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments were added toward the conclusion and in the aftermath of the Civil War. These civil rights amendments incorporated the egalitarian principles of the Declaration into the Constitution; henceforth America's liberal consensus, which promised rights to life, liberty, and property, would depend upon the authority of the courts and the government for enforcement. The ideals of democracy, rather than resting upon the consent and sovereignty of the people, would turn on the power of the state in an environment where equality and democracy vie with one another when the wishes of the few struggle against the will of the many.

    Where the Constitution's framers saw their task as curbing popular control of government, Lincoln's achievement was to make government serve the needs of unpopular causes. Thus liberalism, which historically rose in opposition to government, was to look to government and the courts to control whatever stood in the way of its ideals. With the civil rights amendments the national government is invested with the authority to act in the name of the whole people in preserving liberty and property and guaranteeing the equal protection of the law. In the post-Civil War era, however, the politics of Reconstruction compromised the authority of the national government, and thus the ideals of racial equality were to lay dormant until the twentieth century. When they finally reemerged in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the Lockean ideals of liberty and equality had undergone an ironic twist. Once espoused in the act of resistance to government, with sovereignty residing in the will of the majority, they now came to depend upon government for their realization. The liberalism of property and opportunity, once rooted in local sentiment, became nationalized and formally legalized in the U.S. Constitution.

    Consensus Historians and Lincoln

    Although Lincoln's political values represented the full force of the liberal consensus, consensus historians themselves have treated Lincoln in ways that have obscured his towering place in American history. The first historian to articulate a consensus perspective, Richard Hofstadter, saw the Civil War as sustaining the continuity of America's political culture and considered Lincoln himself to be so much a part of the country's "bourgeois" mentality that his politics became almost synonymous with the sphere of business. Hofstadter's The American Political Tradition (1948) offered the provocative chapter "Abraham Lincoln and the Self-Made Myth." In the introduction (which an editor asked Hofstadter to write after he had completed the text), Americans are told what they have been all about since the very beginning of their history: "The sanctity of private property, the right of the individual to dispose of and invest it, the value of opportunity, and the natural evolution of self-interest and self-assertion, within broad legal limits, into a beneficent social order have been staple tenets of the central faith in American political ideology." We should not be misled by the conflicts and antagonisms in American history, for the contestants are motivated by the same ends of self-interest even if expressed in different objects of desire; hence the spectacle of "conflicts between special interests--between landed capital and financial or industrial capital, between old and new enterprises, large and small property." The occasional ferocity of ideological struggles only conceals the common drives of the antagonists. "Even when some property right has been challenged--as it was by followers of Jefferson and Jackson--in the name of the rights of man or the rights of the community, the challenge, when translated into practical policy, has actually been urged on behalf of some other kind of property."

    So absorbed was Hofstadter in his own vision of consensus that he treated Lincoln less as a moralist than as an opportunist--one who dared not challenge public opinion, a "professional politician looking for votes," a historical figure who must be judged "among the world's great political propagandists." Hofstadter acknowledged that slavery violated Lincoln's egalitarian sentiments and that if the institution were to be justified as property, Lincoln, in his own words, would place "the man before the dollar." But in opposing the expansion of slavery instead of condemning it outright, which according to Hofstadter Lincoln did only to appease the abolitionists, Lincoln in his view avoided taking a moral stance; instead he appealed to the self-interest of northern laborers whose economic position would be threatened if slavery moved out of the South. Hence the struggle between slavery and anti-slavery merely represented two forms of property.

    Hofstadter's hero in The American Political Tradition was the abolitionist Wendell Phillips, the one figure who remained so far outside that tradition that he reversed Lincoln's priorities and preferred to see the South successfully secede so that slaves who had escaped to the North would be freed even if the Union were lost. In contrast to other figures in the book, Phillips alone articulated a socialist critique of the wage system, the maldistribution of property, and the authority of wealth, only to find that his anti-capitalist sentiments left him in "isolation." As a vigorous agitator, Phillips, though "a thorn in the side of complacency," nonetheless remained impotent to challenge the liberal consensus.

    Whereas Hofstadter desired, as did Hartz, to see if consensus had any loose links in its iron chain, Daniel J. Boorstin sought not to challenge the chain but to celebrate it. Beginning with The Genius of American Politics (1953) and continuing in several subsequent books, Boorstin hammered out a reassuring thesis. Ever since Tocqueville, E. L. Godkin, and Lord Bryce, it had been assumed that democracy was at odds with the demands of philosophy, with a high degree of civilization, and with a classical dedication to a noble conception of public life. Boorstin insisted, in emphatic contrast, that it was America's "genius" to have freed itself from the speculative temptations of mind and to have learned to enjoy what is common, average, and ordinary. Boorstin assured Americans that their country has succeeded historically precisely because politics and society got along marvelously well without the need of intellectuals and their misleading theories. Further, he was happy to report that Lincoln, unlike the more charismatic and vision-driven political leaders of Europe, was a prudent, level-headed backwoods lawyer, and hence among the "respectable spokesmen for the respectable community." Nearly a half-century before our contemporary postmodern thinkers, Boorstin depicted America as having no philosophical foundations! Whereas Tocqueville and Weber thought they saw American history as animated by ideas, particularly Anglo-American Puritanism and liberalism, Boorstin wrote an essay titled "The Place of Thought in American Life" to prove that it had no place.

    Thus to Boorstin the Civil War represented no disruption to consensus because the event lacked "ideology," and by that much disputed term he meant an idea or theory resting on philosophical foundations, on some solid bedrock that is self-evident and indubitable. We Americans, Boorstin insisted, never needed a philosophy of truth or an ideology that would fixate on the conceptual at the expense of the actual, the purposeful to the neglect of the procedural. Whereas Hartz saw the domination of a single ideology of liberalism, Boorstin praised America for being anti-ideological and hence committed to nothing visionary, theoretical, or moral. Ironically, even as a conservative historian Boorstin anticipated neo-pragmatism and poststructuralism in advising that modern life can do without philosophy because we live by experience alone.

    Inspired by his vision of the "givenness" of American history, of the pragmatic temperament of the American people and the robustness of their environment, Boorstin depicts the country's greatest political tragedy as, to use a chapter title, "The Civil War and the Spirit of Compromise." Boorstin's argument is both ingenious and disarmingly simple. He wants us to believe that because the Civil War was fought along sectional lines, because each side professed to be defending its basic institutions and cultures rather than envisioning a new society in the making, any "elaborate philosophizing" about the issues would have been "superfluous." Instead, according to Boorstin, the war provides "an admirable illustration of our tendency to make sociology do for political theory, to merge the descriptive and the normative, to draw the `ought' out of the `is.'" Boorstin emphasizes the "hardheadness" and "obvious factual basis" of the pro-slavery argument positing the South's superior wealth, and George Fitzhugh's Sociology of the South demonstrates the Americans' peculiar scientific habit of mind. Even the Northern abolitionist Phillips struck this note when he tried to show the opposite, that the South's economic deterioration was due to slavery. In Boorstin's view, Lincoln, too, avoided moral heroics and instead appealed to the material interest of the white workingman. And John C. Calhoun appealed to the past in his effort not to change the Constitution but to defend it. His aim, Boorstin reminds us, was "not revolution but restoration ."

    Thus both sides in the Civil War, in Boorstin's opinion, avoided the pitfalls of ideology and brought the sectional debate down to the hard ground of social facts and the dictates of experience. "Every statistical detail became a clue to a way of life. `Givenness' was here expressed in the assumption that life as it was in America--whether in the North or the South--gave the outlines of life as it ought to be, that values were implicit in experience." If such were the case, if moral values simply derived from daily experience, if the ethical sprang from the actual, clearly America had no need for foundations. Or did it?

    Curiously, Boorstin's thesis about the antifoundational "genius" of America cannot begin to explain why the Civil War happened. If life as it actually was came to be accepted as life as it ought to be in America, why did the North and South have to go to war? The answer is, contrary to Boorstin's thesis, that reality violated ideology, that the "is," instead of merging with the "ought," blatantly contradicted it. The historical existence of slavery represented a threat to liberty and a shared sentiment involving free labor and humankind's right to land and earned property. The liberal consensus survived precisely because Lincoln took seriously political principles and upheld a covenant with the past--a covenant that became nothing less than an ideology that morally elevated the meaning of America. Lincoln believed in political ideas as "propositions," and nothing was more foundational to him than the Declaration of Independence, the "sheet anchor" of the Republic.

    Lincoln, Jefferson, and the Declaration of Independence

    What, then, would hold America together? In the context of our contemporary "culture wars," the academic world commonly assumes that America cannot possibly be explained by a fundamental unifying principle. Multiculturalists, Marxists, and feminists, though they may emphatically disagree with one another, are united in their belief that an overarching "synthesis" of American history is repressive and that submitting to a theory of "consensus" is regressive--that it returns us to an older body of scholarship from which women, African Americans, and ethnic minorities had been excluded. The academy assumes that unity masks domination and that only diversity can sustain freedom.

    Herewith one of the many ironies of American history. In the nineteenth century, the most strenuous denunciations of the idea of American consensus came not from those who opposed slavery but from those who supported it or remained indifferent to it as a moral issue that deserved to be brought up in politics. Senator John C. Calhoun, for example, demanded that the South be recognized for its differences, especially its "inequality of condition" that made it an oppressed minority region as compared to the politically predominant northern and western states. He also took delight in "deconstructing" the Declaration, thereby demonstrating to his satisfaction that the principle of equality is "contrary to human observation" and that the state of nature on which the idea of equality rests is a fanciful literary fiction. Citing Locke's statement that "all men are born free and equal," Calhoun told the Senate in 1848:

Taking the proposition literally there is not a word of truth in it. It begins with "all men are born" which is utterly untrue. Men are not born. Infants are born. They grow to be men. And concludes with asserting that they are born "free and equal," which is not less false. They are not born free. While infants they are incapable of freedom, being destitute alike of the capacity of thinking and acting, without which there can be no freedom.

    Calhoun attributed such presumably faulty thinking to a "philosophical turn of mind," which is "disposed to look to more remote recondite causes." But Calhoun chose to ignore what Locke had in mind when he insisted that people come into the world from the state of nature equal and free since it is in society, and not nature, that the domination of some human beings over others originated. Calhoun also insisted, as do some postmodernists today, that there is no higher truth in politics than the presence of power and the conflict of opposing interests.

    In his debates with Lincoln, Stephen Douglas also denied that America could flourish only with a common moral foundation. Douglas told Americans that Lincoln was completely irresponsible in insisting that a house divided cannot stand and that the country cannot endure half-slave and half-free. Such a position presupposed that there "must be uniformity in the local laws and domestic institutions of each and all the states." On the contrary, Douglas argued, when the country's political foundation was laid, the architects of the Constitution "knew that the laws and regulations which would suit the granite hills of New Hampshire would be unsuited to the rice plantations of South Carolina." Rather than having any synthesizing principles, "our government was formed on the principle of diversity ... and not that of uniformity." We cannot hold different people to a single standard of truth or morality. "We must take them as we find them, leaving the people free to do as they please, to have slavery or not, as they choose." Sounding like a modern-day poststructuralist, Douglas denied the existence of any moral foundation that would allow us to discriminate between competing beliefs and practices. Denying that the Declaration was a covenant containing binding truths and inalienable universal rights, Douglas held instead that the meaning of liberty simply varied with the meanings and usages it had in different parts of the country. Accordingly, he campaigned on a platform to give people in the territories the sovereign right to vote slavery "up or down."

    When Lincoln replied that even in a democracy people do "not have a right to do wrong," he appealed to foundational truths in religious scripture and the Declaration. Lincoln's reasoning proved liberating precisely because he upheld what in our time postmodernists have put down as "essentialism"--the view that truth, reality, and human nature itself can be defined by their intrinsic properties. This view enables moral and political thought to aspire to that which is universal rather than particular; that which is necessary instead of contingent; eternal truths and timeless ideals rather than transitory facts and shifting historical contexts. "The world," Lincoln wrote in 1864,

has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now, are such in the want of one. We all declare for liberty, but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases, with himself, and with the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men's labor. Here are two, not only different, but incompatible things, called by the same name, liberty. And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two different and incompatible names--liberty and tyranny.

The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep's throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as his liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act, as the destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep was a black one. Plainly the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word liberty; and precisely the same difference prevails today among us human creatures, even in the North, and all professing to love liberty.

    Where the postmodernist calls for seeing life as contrived and contingent, and where the pragmatist calls for "turning away" from origins, metaphysical foundations, and first principles, Lincoln sought to recall America to its founding ideals. He looked to the Declaration not only as America's moral and political foundation but also as the "immortal emblem for humanity" everywhere in the world. To Lincoln, the Declaration endowed America with meaning and value and provided principles that he hoped would unify the country. Ironically, the Declaration's author, Thomas Jefferson, saw his own creation quite differently. A localist rather than a nationalist, Jefferson never intended that the Declaration should stipulate principles that would unify the country, that it should be binding on the individual, or, what is more crucial, that it was consciously intended to apply to all people. He had written of equality and natural rights only with white male citizens in mind. Later, when Lincoln proclaimed in the Gettysburg Address that "our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal," he had a better grasp than Jefferson of the original idea of equality as formulated by Locke. In criticizing monarchical and patriarchal rule, Locke wrote that men and women are not born into subjection, and that in the state of nature no one has the authority to "take away or impair the life, or what tends to be the preservation of life, the liberty, health, limb, or goods of another."

    The historians Pauline Maier and Garry Wills argue that Lincoln ignored Jefferson's original intent when he read into the Declaration a universalist interpretation that extended equality and natural rights beyond white males. True, but Lincoln's reasoning was closer to Locke's than Jefferson's was. Referring to a black female slave, Lincoln wrote: "In her natural right to eat the bread she earns with her own hands without asking leave of anyone else, she is my equal and the equal of all others." Slavery stood condemned for violating three liberal principles that Jefferson himself once described as "self-evident": slavery denied blacks the right to liberty, free labor, and property as a means to the undeniable need of every human being for self-preservation; it prevented them from exercising the right to consent to the form of rule over them; and it withheld from them the right to resist unjust power.

    A Lockean liberal with a Calvinist conscience, Lincoln believed that the Republic could be both explained and guided by a unifying principle. Where Jefferson's Declaration was a manifesto of separation and dissolution, Lincoln reconceived it as a symbol of national unity. Although Jefferson praised agricultural labor, he often identified with aristocratic leisure and longed for a "natural aristocracy"; Lincoln, by contrast, valued work, ambition, and those who struggled hard and took advantage of any opportunity to rise from the lower to the higher ranks of society. Although politics ran in Lincoln's blood, it was the life of labor and industry that he extolled in his sense that the principles of the Declaration made possible the "race of life" in a truly "free society." Speaking in New Haven, close to the scene of a shoemakers' strike, Lincoln stated: "I want everyman to have a chance--and I believe the black man is entitled to it--when he may look forward and hope to be a hired laborer this year and the next, work for himself afterwards, and finally to hire men to work for him. That is the true system."

    Lincoln's "true system" has been dismissed by our eminent radical historian Eric Foner. A president of the American Historical Association, Foner regarded the ideology of free labor as important historically but unreliable politically. "In the post-war years," he wrote, "the same cult of the self-made man and economic success would come to be a justification of every action and privilege of the business class." Would it not also become a justification of every advancement and privilege of the academic class? The beginning academic starts out as a "hired laborer" and works hard to become a full professor so that instruction and grading of exams can be turned over to teaching assistants. As Thorstein Veblen pointed out long ago, there is little difference between the business world and the academic world, between profit-minded entrepreneurs and career-minded "captains of erudition." Ambition, the desire to succeed and excel, characterizes the athletic and entertainment world as well as that of business and the academy. To trace an idea to its uses and abuses in one class is a revealing attempt to discredit it by establishing guilt by association. But are we to believe that the "self-made man" can only be greedy and grasping while the collectively made working class is innocent and idealistic and the professorial class is noble and virtuous?

    The dismissal of Lincoln's "true system" only indicates that much of what he stood for seemed too caught up in the capitalist culture of ambition, competition, and profits that the 1960s generation rejected, even while its members' own energies would later move in that direction as rock stars went for the big money, black athletes negotiated Nike contracts, and professors demanded higher salaries. Another subject close to Lincoln, American nationalism, also had little meaning to a generation that saw America as a "one-dimensional" nightmare. The idea of patriotism lost its innocence in the Vietnam War, a blundering, tragic conflict for which there could be no Gettysburg Address. Young Americans did die in vain, and the health and continuity of American historiography became discredited. With the ravages of the war, Lincolnian ideals seemed more irrelevant than ever as historians divided along generational lines. Older scholarship had once concerned itself with the conditions that made freedom possible; younger scholars sought--and still seek--to expose the conditions that made domination inevitable. So caught up were radical scholars in the paradigm of power, control, and domination, so fixated on structures, the reification of systems, and the disappearance of the human subject, that they, like many conservatives and even the CIA, failed to foresee the collapse of communism and the outburst of freedom in 1989.

    Appropriately, it was a Hungarian refugee, Professor Gabor Boritt of Gettysburg College, who had to explain to us in his 1978 book Lincoln and the Economics of the American Dream the meaning of Lincoln to America and to the world itself. In a 1994 edition, Boritt noted that he wrote the book

during the Vietnam war and the post-Vietnam era when American self-respect was at a low ebb. I will never forget wandering from one bookstore to the next in the Harvard Square area of Cambridge, finding volumes and volumes of Lenin's work but nothing on the shelves by Lincoln. Since I felt deeply for America and the troubles of its sorrowful Civil War president--their many faults notwithstanding--I realized that to stay true to myself I would have to go against the current of mainstream intellectual life. I also realized that attempting to defend the notion that a historical figure may deserve not merely critical analysis but also celebration would seem sophomoric to many professional historians. Upon their good opinion, in turn, my own life as a historian would depend. I went ahead all the same, and things worked out. I am grateful.

    When Lincoln declared "I want everyman to have a chance," he was referring to what Boritt has rightly called "the economics of the American dream." In an 1861 speech to German immigrants in Cincinnati, Ohio, Lincoln went to the heart of that dream. "I hold the value of life is to improve one's condition. Whatever is calculated to advance the condition of the honest, struggling laboring man, so far as my judgment will enable me to judge of a correct thing, I am for that thing."

    In its truest and most enduring sense, Lincoln's "everyman" transcends differences of gender, race, and ethnicity and stands indiscriminately for all humanity. A labor theory of value based on equal opportunity for all could well be America's redeeming synthesis; and Lincoln's fervent belief in American nationalism and the Republic as "the last best hope" for liberty in the world could provide the bonds of nationhood.

    "It Hath No Relish of Salvation in It"

    Much of the historiography in the second half of the twentieth century has downplayed Lincoln's accomplishment as a political and moral philosopher. Although it is true that Lincoln went only as far as the fourth grade in school, he became the most profound president in American history, a thinker who, while recognizing that the profit system was the driving force of society, drew back from deifying the almighty dollar; a philosopher-president who felt deeply that modern humankind is tragically condemned to live in a universe of power and sin. The depth and quality of his thought is evident both in the conclusions he reached and in his mode of reaching them.

    Lincoln sought to clarify issues by treating them as "propositions" and "axioms," issues that should be accepted based not on the tyranny of custom but on their intrinsic merits. In the Gettysburg Address, he spoke of equality as a "proposition" that the country was dedicated to, which implied that it was an ideal to strive for, to be upheld even when impossible to realize as an ultimate reality. Where Hartz and Hoftstadter saw liberal consensus as expressing little more than different forms of property, Lincoln saw it expressing nothing less than equality as a moral as well as an economic commitment; and where Boorstin believed that Americans wisely refused to dedicate themselves to ideology or any abstract principle. Lincoln explained why principle must determine practice. Thus as a "proposition," equality needed to be proven in thought as well as approximated in action. The South ridiculed the idea of equality as preposterous given the uneven distribution of talents and abilities. But Lincoln drew upon reason and logic to demonstrate that to deny equality to one person or a group is to endanger the rights of all people. In a "Fragment on Slavery" composed privately in 1854, Lincoln reasoned in terms of premises and definitions to illustrate what implications follow from certain assumptions. To Lincoln, knowledge was a matter of method of reasoning. Listen to his mind at work:

If A. can prove, however conclusively, that he may, of right, enslave B.--why not B. snatch the same argument, and prove equally, that he may enslave A.?--

You say A. is white, and B. is black. It is color , then; the lighter having the right to enslave the darker? Take care. By this rule, you are to be the slave of the first man you meet, with a fairer skin than your own.

You do not mean color exactly?--You mean the whites are intellectually the superiors of the blacks, and therefore have the right to enslave them? Take care again. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with an intellect superior to your own.

But, say you, it is a question of interest; and, if you can make it your interest, you have the right to enslave another. Very well. And if he can make it in his interest, he has a right to enslave you.

    As a politician Lincoln was also an educator, and he sought to have Americans become self-conscious about their own relativistic predicament and recognize that geography divides the American mind. After telling listeners how much he "hates" the institution of slavery, he condemns the sin and not necessarily the sinner. "Let me say I think I have no prejudice against the Southern people," he stated in Peoria in 1854. "They are just what we would be in their situation. If slavery did not now exist amongst them, they would not introduce it. If it did now exist amongst us, we should not instantly give it up.... When it is said that the institution exists; and that it is very difficult to get rid of, in any satisfactory way, I can understand and appreciate the saying. I surely will not blame them for not doing what I should not know how to do myself." But while Lincoln possessed a sense of the relativity of knowledge, an attribute that prevented him from rushing to judgment, the texture of his thought was ultimately essentialist and universalist; he believed that humanity had certain qualities and endowments that applied to all people everywhere. In a speech delivered in Chicago in 1858, he made it clear that the Declaration was not restricted to white Anglo-Saxons, as though it belonged only to the descendants of Locke and Jefferson. The Fourth of July, Lincoln declared, belongs to anyone who comes to America in search of freedom. "That is the electric cord in that Declaration that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together, that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world [applause]."

    Although Lincoln tried to reason logically and ethically, the illogical realities of politics and the amoral nature of power often led him into what appeared to be inconsistencies and hesitations. While he called upon Americans to obey the Constitution and its laws in 1838, he himself thundered against the Supreme Court at the time of the Dred Scott decision in 1857 (which denied free blacks citizenship) and suspended habeus corpus during the Civil War. Although in debates with Douglas in 1858 he declared that a "house divided" cannot stand, he was willing to allow it to stand when, in the midst of the Civil War, he acknowledged that if possible, he would accept the reentry of the South into the Union with slavery intact. Although he decried the Russian suppression of Hungary during the European revolutionary uprisings of 1848, by arguing that people have a right to rise up and "shake off" an existing regime and to form a new one, he also insisted, in 1860-61, that the South had no such right to withdraw from the existing Union. As for slavery itself, Lincoln, though repelled by the institution, conceded that white society looked upon racial amalgamation with a "natural disgust," and time and again he warned that the sentiments of society, however repugnant, cannot be disregarded.

    Because Lincoln failed to challenge openly a bigoted public opinion, he has been charged with succumbing to it and being more concerned with preserving the Union than freeing the slaves. The charges are accurate but ill-conceived. How could Lincoln win office in a democracy without heeding popular sentiment? Politics to Lincoln was a means to an end, and everything depended on preserving the Union. For if the Union dissolved, how could slavery be abolished? That Lincoln succeeded in both saving the Union and freeing the slaves is testimony to how a genius can confront contradictory principles in action: in this instance the South's right to self-determination and the Union's right to self-preservation.

    "Rarely was man so fitted to the event," observed Emerson of Lincoln and the Civil War. Lincoln represented a marvelous fusion of two stances that some postmodernist thinkers regard as completely incompatible. Today it is fashionable to deride the idea of truth as little more than the will to interpret, to regard reality as a representation without a reference to the actually real, and to insist that we must see everything as a product of time and contingency. Many assume that one must be either a sophisticated pragmatist (or poststructuralist) and look upon truth as something made rather than found, or remain a naive absolutist and see truth and value in past first principles. Fortunately for America, Lincoln saw things differently. He succeeded in being as flexible as he was foundational, in practicing an expedient politics of circumstance and an essentialist politics of conviction.

    As a politician, Lincoln was a pragmatist willing to adjust to events and to adapt different policies to different circumstances, ever ready to revise positions based on new developments, and determined not to see America bound by the dead hand of history. As a philosopher, however, Lincoln was a moralist and even an absolutist, unswerving in his belief that natural rights are inalienable and hence inviolable, that the Republic's founding principles have the capacity, if properly understood, to remain immune to change, and that the meaning of right and wrong is not relative and dependent upon time and place.

    Although historians like to describe Lincoln as operating completely within the "American Pragmatic Tradition," he would probably have had a hard time adhering to the actual philosophy of pragmatism as it arose in the late nineteenth century. Pragmatism insisted then, and persists in claiming now, that there is no knowledge outside of experience. But to Lincoln values are born of remembrance, not forthcoming experience. The pragmatists minimized the importance of the historical past because only the present and future--the true "experience" in their view--could be acted upon and changed. Hovering over the pragmatist's mentality is what Santayana called "the dominance of the foreground." Lincoln, in contrast, sought to have Americans reenact the past in imagination so that the Spirit of '76 would not fade from memory.

    The burdens of history weighed heavily in Lincoln's political thought. As early as 1838, in his Young Men's Lyceum Address, delivered in Springfield, Illinois, Lincoln lectured Americans on the meaning of the rule of law in a democratic society. At the time of the address America had been reeling from mob violence against abolitionists and blacks. Lincoln used vivid descriptions to depict lawlessness spreading as though nature had gone mad--images of "dead men seen literally dangling from the boughs of trees upon every road side; and in numbers almost sufficient, to rival the native Spanish moss of the country, as a drapery of the forest."

    But why should Americans be law-abiding if obedience is based on nothing more than fear of punishment? Why respect the rights of others? Lincoln is not preaching mere legal allegiance to abstract institutions. Instead he wants Americans to understand that the freedoms they enjoy had their origins in the Revolution of '76, an episode of courage, heroism, and sacrifice, a political struggle born of pure spirit, a nation so conceived in the blood of liberty that freedom entails responsibility even more than opportunity:

Let every American, every lover of liberty, every well wisher to his posterity, swear by the blood of the Revolution, never to violate in the least particular, the laws of the country; and never to tolerate their violation by others. As the patriots of seventy-six did to the support of the Declaration of Independence, so to the support of the Constitution and Laws, let every American pledge his life, his property, and his sacred honor;--let every man remember that to violate the law, is to trample on the blood of his father, and to tear the character of his own, and his children's liberty. Let reverence for the laws, be breathed by every American mother, to the lisping babe, that prattles on her lap--let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges;--let it be written in Primers, spelling books, and in Almanacs;--let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice. And, in short, let it become the political religion of the nation; and let the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the grave and the gay, of all sexes and tongues, and colors and conditions, sacrifice unceasingly upon its altars.

    In classical terms, one might say that Lincoln had an intuition for the bond that exists between pathos and mathos , between suffering and its significance. Lincoln could link "sacrifice" to the "sacred" since he knew full well that politically the Republic was born in violence, and during the Civil War America would once again see blood flowing on the nation's "hallowed ground." Almost as though acting out a classical tragedy, the Civil War dramatized the interrelated themes of guilt, vengeance, and justice. America, the whole nation and not just the South, was morally responsible for tolerating slavery; the South must be retaliated against for jeopardizing the Union with the act of secession; and retribution and redemption could come only by returning to the Declaration and reaffirming equality as a universal principle.

    Yet even before the Civil War the note of tragedy resonated in the Lyceum Address. Ironically, although Lincoln called upon Americans to make the Constitution and obedience to its laws "the political religion of the nation," he knew as well as his southern opponents that the Constitution served to protect slavery and hence violated the Declaration. An institution that can do good can also do evil. Abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison burned a copy of the Constitution, and slave owners understood perfectly well that the Constitution recognized slaves as a species of property. In trying to incorporate the emancipatory spirit of the Declaration into the conservative character of the Constitution and claim that both symbolized America's "political religion," Lincoln was wrestling with a conceptual contradiction. Long before guns opened fire on Fort Sumter, the stage was set for tragedy.

    If a label must be applied, Lincoln might best be described as a "Christian pragmatist," to use Reinhold Niebuhr's expression: a thinker who sees history as contingent, politics as morally ambiguous, and God as an inscrutable silent presence; a thinker who, nevertheless, accepts the responsibility for making choices between conflicting alternatives and greater and lesser evils.

    But however one describes Lincoln, consider what he achieved in the realm of political thought. He succeeded in balancing an ethic of responsibility that held himself as well as the American people accountable for the consequences of their actions; an ethic of duty that asked Americans to live up to the country's original principles embedded in the Declaration; and an ethic of forgiveness that might have saved America, had he lived, from a politics of hate, malice, and revenge. Above all, even though he was no true believer, he brought religion to bear upon politics and had no hesitation citing the Bible as a source of moral authority. It should be recalled that in both classical republicanism and radical socialism there is no important place for religion; on this Machiavelli and Marx could agree. But Lincoln brings religion into the liberal consensus, and the Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural Address asked Americans to ponder "the judgments of the Lord." Earlier, when debating Douglas over the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which proposed to open these territories to slavery, Lincoln thundered: "It hath no relish of salvation in it." The line came from from Shakespeare's Hamlet .

    Lincoln was also a master of rhetoric, and even though he knew language could be duplicitous, he did not hesitate to use language to define something, to determine its essential qualities and thereby establish its meaning. Lincoln was a master at what philosophers call the "analytic statement," one that turns on its stipulative defining properties and whose truth or falsehood can be established by analyzing the statement itself. "As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the differences, is no democracy."

    "What pregnant definitions," Emerson exclaimed of Lincoln's way of reasoning; "what unerring common sense; what foresight; and, on great occasions, what lofty, and more than national, what humane tone! His brief speech at Gettysburg will not easily be surpassed by words in any recorded occasion." For Emerson, Lincoln served as an example of an exceptionally American version of nobility: "A great style of hero draws equally on all classes, all the extremes of society, till we say the very dogs believe in him." "Abraham Lincoln," at home with the humblest and admired by the wisest, is "perhaps the most remarkable example of this class that we have seen." Emerson could reconcile genius and democracy, the one and the many, and thereby see a vital unity residing within the diversities of American life. Is it not time to have students and readers understand history the way Emerson saw it and Lincoln lived it? One of the needs of the soul, wrote Emerson poetically, is to have a vision of America as a whole. Abraham Lincoln provided such a vision. In his patriotic nationalism, in his liberal dedication to work and opportunity for all, and in his religious devotion to justice, charity, and magnanimity, American history reached its most sublime synthesis.

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Choice on 2001-02-01:
What makes history interesting is the perspective with which the historian approaches the subject. Each generation rewrites history from its own unique viewpoint, reassessing and reinterpreting the events of the past. Diggins, an intellectual historian, argues that the recent emphasis on diversity and multiculturalism misses the mark; his assessment of the past is that from the Enlightenment, and especially John Locke and his influence on the Declaration of Independence, springs American democracy. While other cultures and societies have validity, it is "dead white guys" who have created the greatness that is America. The problem with Diggins is his myopic viewpoint; while white males are important in the making of America, he ignores the reality that the Declaration of Independence did not grant either women or African Americans rights, and that had the center not been pivoted, they would still have no rights. A final criticism would be his connection to Lincoln, which is tenuous at best. At the same time, however, this is an important book for the questions it raises and the discussion that will follow. It should be read in conjunction with Gordon Wood's The Radicalism of the American Revolution (CH, Sep'92). Graduate students and faculty. D. R. Jamieson; Ashland University
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 2000-08-25:
"As an ex-Catholic," Diggins writes in the preface to this new volume, "I have no quarrel with being told that the religious beliefs I once held were simply a matter of the circumstances of my birth. But I do have a problem with schools of thought that claim we can get along without the authority of truth." Fiercely contesting Marxist and poststructuralist theoryÄas well as what he considers to be the divisiveness of multicultural politicsÄDiggins offers up a reading of the life and legacy of Abraham Lincoln. How, he wonders, did the Great Liberator define the ethical foundation of the American nation? And can his complex interpretations of the founding fathers' ideals inform contemporary views of patriotism and citizenship? Examining one by one the three core pillars of Lincoln's political philosophyÄthe need for Emersonian self-reliance, the sanctity of private property and the necessity for self-determinationÄDiggins (Max Weber: Politics and the Spirit of Tragedy), a professor of history at CUNY, explains their applicability throughout American history. Lincoln's vision, he argues, was nearly 100 years old by the time he most eloquently articulated it and has animated and united every aspect of the American experience since 1776Äand continues to do so now. Polemical and erudite, this book is bound to ruffle a lot of feathers. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
This item was reviewed in:
Kirkus Reviews, August 2000
Publishers Weekly, August 2000
Washington Post, September 2000
New York Times Book Review, November 2000
Chicago Tribune, December 2000
Choice, February 2001
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Publisher Fact Sheet
In this provocative book, Diggins offers a sweeping reassessment of American history, emphasizing the foundational role of Abraham Lincoln's moral & political theory.
Bowker Data Service Summary
This volume offers a reassessment of the foundational role of Lincoln's moral and political theory. It argues that in the central tenets of his political faith, we find the purest expression of the values that have guided American history.
Unpaid Annotation
In this sweeping assessment of American history, a history professor emphasizes the foundational role of Abraham Lincoln's moral and political theory, arguing that his focus on the value of labor and the rights to property and self-determination are values that can still unite Americans.
Table of Contents
Prefacep. ix
Introductionp. 1
America's Extrapolitical Foundations
Abraham Lincoln: Toward a Synthesis with Foundationsp. 17
America's Lockean Moment: The Revolution and the Spirit of '76p. 41
American Identity in an Age of Political Correctnessp. 71
American Exceptionalismp. 101
Of Thee I Sing
The Pride and the Pain: History in the Classroom and in Public Controversyp. 127
The "Last Best Hope" or the "Suicide of the West"?p. 152
Politics at the Center, Professors at the Peripheries: The Legacy of the 1960sp. 182
Class, Gender, Race: The Hidden Consensus
What Do Workers Want?p. 211
Outside Demanding In: Women Between Republicanism and Lockeanismp. 236
Black America and the Liberal Traditionp. 256
Conclusion: The "New Self" and the "Tragic Ambiguity"p. 278
Notesp. 293
Indexp. 322
Table of Contents provided by Syndetics. All Rights Reserved.

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