Lincoln's Tragic Pragmatism: Lincoln, Douglas, and Moral Conflictby John Burt
In 1858, challenger Abraham Lincoln debated incumbent Stephen Douglas seven times in the race for a U.S. Senate seat from Illinois. More was at stake than slavery in those debates. In Lincoln’s Tragic Pragmatism, John Burt contends that the very legitimacy of democratic governance was on the line. In a United States stubbornly divided over ethical/i>
In 1858, challenger Abraham Lincoln debated incumbent Stephen Douglas seven times in the race for a U.S. Senate seat from Illinois. More was at stake than slavery in those debates. In Lincoln’s Tragic Pragmatism, John Burt contends that the very legitimacy of democratic governance was on the line. In a United States stubbornly divided over ethical issues, the overarching question posed by the Lincoln-Douglas debates has not lost its urgency: Can a liberal political system be used to mediate moral disputes? And if it cannot, is violence inevitable?
As they campaigned against each other, both Lincoln and Douglas struggled with how to behave when an ethical conflict as profound as the one over slavery strained the commitment upon which democracy dependsnamely, to rule by both consent and principle. This commitment is not easily met, because what conscience demands and what it is able to persuade others to consent to are not always the same. While Lincoln ultimately avoided a politics of morality detached from consent, and Douglas avoided a politics of expediency devoid of morality, neither found a way for liberalism to mediate the conflict of slavery.
That some disputes seemed to lie beyond the horizon of deal-making and persuasion and could be settled only by violence revealed democracy’s limitations. Burt argues that the unresolvable ironies at the center of liberal politics led Lincoln to discover liberalism’s tragic dimensionand ultimately led to war. Burt’s conclusions demand reevaluations of Lincoln and Douglas, the Civil War, and democracy itself.
Verdict Difficult and demanding but penetrating, Burt’s book speaks brilliantly not only to the troubles of Lincoln’s day but to the problems in respecting differences in American democracy even now.Randall M. Miller, St. Joseph’s Univ., Philadelphia(c) Copyright 2013. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
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Read an Excerpt
From Chapter Three: Lincoln’s Conspiracy Charge
The metaphor of the House Divided might lead one to anticipate that the argument of the speech would be that the slavery problem was so deep that it would continue to make the United States politically unstable until slavery was abolished. That argument, of course, was perfectly plausible, both in its own day and now. But that wasn’t the argument Lincoln devoted the speech to developing.
The speech was mostly invested in developing two different sorts of conspiracy theory, one of them plausible, one of them implausible. Both are versions of what is called the slave power conspiracy thesis. The larger scale, and more plausible, argument, which I will call the “general” slave power conspiracy thesis, was sketched out in the opening paragraphs of the speech. That argument held that it is in the nature of slavery itself, as an economic, social, and political institution, to entrain the entire society around itself. The general slave power conspiracy thesis argued that the political logic of slave societies dictates that slaveholders must always, in defense of slavery, seek to dominate any republic in which they play a part. The consequence for America is that the slave states must inevitably seek to subvert the political order of the republic or resign themselves to the death of slavery.
This “general slave power conspiracy” argument may not have been entirely a confabulation of what Richard Hofstadter called “the paranoid style,” since there really is a fundamental incompatibility between slavery and democracy that committed the slave states to a destabilizing and ultimately suicidal quest for mastery of the republic, even if, as historians now believe, it was slavery that made the republic possible in the first place.
A more concrete version of the general slave power conspiracy theory might have argued that the slave power actually was meditating a plan to force slavery back into the free states. There is no plausible evidence that the politicians of the slave states were pursuing such an aim in 1858. However, it could be argued that if the slaveholders had to seek mastery of the republic in order to defend slavery, a realistic view of their situation would have dictated that sooner or later they would have had to attempt to nationalize slavery. That said, one can use arguments about the threats that one ideology must sooner or later pose to another to prove almost anything, and arguments of that kind are often self-fulfilling prophecies.
The main charge of the speech was more specific than this, and more problematic. Lincoln devoted most of the “House Divided” speech to the claim that Stephen Douglas, in concert with Presidents Pierce and Buchanan and with Chief Justice Taney, had since some time before 1854 been engineering not only the establishment of slavery in the remaining western territories, but also the reintroduction of slavery into all of the free states by judicial fiat. Lincoln developed what I will call the “special slave power conspiracy thesis” in considerable detail, and most of his evidence was extremely flimsy.
Meet the Author
John Burt is Professor of English at Brandeis University.
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