June 27, 2018 Articles

Book Review: Lincoln's Tragic Pragmatism: Lincoln, Douglas, and Moral Conflict

A highly interesting book that some readers may find heavy-going.

By Dennis Owens

John Burt
Lincoln’s Tragic Pragmatism: Lincoln, Douglas, and Moral Conflict
The Belknap Press: Harvard University Press

John Burt is not a lawyer or a historian. He is a professor of English at Brandeis University. We found his book to be beautifully researched, highly interesting, and quite important. But, G.K. Chesterton wisely wrote: “There are no uninteresting subjects. But we must remember that there are uninterested people.” This is 800 pages of deep scholarship, rigorous analysis, subtle study of very fine points, and extensive exploration of political philosophy and of morality. It is a study of the rhetoric of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. We fear that many readers will find it heavy-going. We found it extremely worthwhile. But, then again, we are devoted to Lincoln, and we love reading about history, rhetoric, practical ethics, and political theory.

Professor Burt presents us with the finest study of the debates in many years. The best work ever on the debates is still Harry V. Jaffa’s Crisis of the House Divided, published in 1959. That work has influenced every examination of the debates since. Jaffa was a student of Leo Straus; he taught at Claremont Graduate School for decades.

The debates showcased Douglas’s “popular sovereignty” versus Lincoln’s view that slavery was morally wrong. Lincoln argued for a doctrine of natural right. Douglas advocated grassroots democracy. Jaffa pointed out that this conflict was identical to that between Socrates and Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic. Douglas said that the people of Kansas should be able to decide whatever they wanted for themselves as to their state government. Lincoln answered that only a prior commitment to the moral law could make the people free. That is, voters in Kansas should not be allowed to choose an evil choice: to expand the territory of slavery. Lincoln appealed to the self-evident truth of equality in the Declaration of Independence. This provided a moral touchstone for the American republic.

Jaffa’s argument was highly original in that he demonstrated how an 1858 debate over a senate seat addressed the most profound themes of the Western intellectual tradition. For Jaffa, a failure to adhere to the transcendent doctrine of natural law was tantamount to descending into relativism and nihilism.

Professor Burt is impressive in his precise handling of very fine points of distinction of how Lincoln phrased his arguments in one town versus another venue. We have never encountered such a precise study as this. But, the author does not look to Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, or Aquinas. He looks to the late John Rawls and his seminal A Theory of Justice (1971). (Rawls is very heavy-going, to be sure.) Rawls believed in equal outcome as justice (to put it simply, but still accurately). He felt that a society’s purpose is not to ensure liberty and peace, but to create an order where everyone could feel reasonably satisfied that their interests were being served by the commonwealth. Thus, Burt defines liberal democracy as an effort to establish a tradition of fair dealing between people of different interests. Boundaries are to be set by reasonableness and engagement. As a result, Burt is not well disposed to Lincoln’s view that the Slave Power was conspiring to spread slavery throughout the Union. He calls this position “weak” and “implausible.” This view would seem to ignore the entire Dred Scott decision.

The author’s mastery of fine points of American history in that era is remarkable. His handling is all particularly fine of the Toombs bill, Hammond’s “mud-sill” speech, Stephens’s “cornerstone” speech, and the strange attraction of “colonization.” But, the views and the motivation of Abraham Lincoln do not fit the specification of Rawlsian philosophy. Lincoln believed in the law, not just fairness. He saw democracy as promoting self-improvement (with himself as a prime example) and not just promoting fair dealing. Lincoln did not free the slaves out of a “tragic pragmatism,” but because he believed freedom was good and slavery inherently evil and because the war powers allowed him to do it at that time.

Professor Burt’s fine study is marred with his digression to the twenty-first century and its conditions. He calls free markets a form of “fundamentalism,” describes appeals to the Constitution as “coded language” for racism, and defines capitalism as “Darwinian brutality.” The liberalism of Rawls calls explicitly for the avoidance of such morally “inflammatory” complaints. The author seems to be unaware of this. Fortunately, such lapses are rare.

We are glad that we read this book. We disagree with its root premise. But, this is a sophisticated, scholarly, and penetrating search into an important subject. It is a significant achievement.

Keywords: litigation, appellate practice, Lincoln, Lincoln-Douglas debates, Harry V. Jaffa, John Rawls

Dennis Owens practices appellate law in Kansas City, Missouri.


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