The Lincoln Persuasion: Remaking American Liberalism

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In his last work, J. David Greenstone provides an important new analysis of American liberalism and of Lincoln's unique contribution to the nation's political life. Greenstone addresses Louis Hartz's well-known claim that a tradition of liberal consensus has characterized American political life from the time of the founders. Although he acknowledges the force of Hartz's thesis, Greenstone nevertheless finds it inadequate for explaining prominent instances of American political discord, most notably the Civil War. Greenstone argues instead for the existence of a fundamental bipolarity in American liberalism between what he calls "humanist liberalism" and "reform liberalism." The two traditions, equally liberal, share beliefs in three fundamental liberal tenets - individual rights, private property, and government by consent - but they differ sharply on other, still liberal, beliefs. Humanist liberals, such as Thomas Jefferson and the Jacksonians, emphasized the satisfying of individual preferences; by contrast, reform liberals concentrated on fostering individual human development. Greenstone traces the development of this bipolarity from the political thought of the founding generation through that of the Jacksonians and finally to Lincoln. In the antebellum years, the manifest inability of either political tradition alone to resolve the growing dispute over slavery led Lincoln to the development of a new political outlook that was a synthesis of the two liberal traditions. Greenstone suggests that this synthesis, the Lincoln "persuasion," amounted to a new founding of the nation.

The author offers new analysis of American liberalism and Lincoln's unique contribution to the nation's political life by tracing the development of bipolarity in American liberalism between "humanist" liberalism and "reform" liberalsm from founding generation attitudes through Jacksonians to Lincoln.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"A complex, fascinating, and illuminating book. Its argument, to oversimplify, is that, perhaps better than any American leader in our country's history, Lincoln was able to combine a passionate commitment to changing the country with the political realism required to change the country without tearing it apart."--Father Andrew Greeley, Chicago Sun-Times

"A useful example of the effective use of executive power in its account of how Lincoln succeeded in addressing the central failing of his day--slavery. Lincoln, Greenstone argues, created a moral consensus that placed the highest value on the preservation of the Union, a position with wide support in the North, while skillfully improvising a policy reflecting the principles in the Declaration of Independence that implicitly called for eliminating slavery."--Thomas Byrne Edsall, The New York Review of Books

"The central element in the Lincoln persuasion is a helf-secular, half-religious drive for redemption, a reformist politics aware of its limit. Lincoln's genius, Greenstone avers, was his ability to fashion out of the crisis of the union a solution which began to realize the nation's original promise of freedom. . . . a sustained tour de force which illuminates a good piece of American history. The book is, of course, utterly relevant in a society divided by conflict over the boundaries of market and state, private interests and public solidarities, entitlements and responsibilities."--Norman Birnbaum, Contemporary Sociology

"The Lincoln Persuasion is one of the most important works in American political culture in the past fifty years."--Philip Abbott, The Review of Politics

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691037646
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 7/25/1994
  • Series: Princeton Studies in American Politics
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 6.14 (w) x 9.28 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Table of Contents

List of Charts and Tables
Editor's Note
Introduction to the Book
1 The Lincoln Myth Reconsidered 9
Lincoln's Ulterior Motives 12
Lincoln's Devotion to Liberty and Union 16
Lincoln's Principle of Action 18
Lincoln's Motives and Principle 21
The Problem of Political Conflict: Lincoln vs. Douglas 26
Lincoln's Principle as a Political Solution 31
2 American Political Culture: Liberal Consensus or Liberal Polarity? 35
American Exceptionalism: The Consensus Thesis 36
A Philosophical Critique: Multiple Meanings and Descriptions 48
The Bipolarity in American Liberalism 50
The Liberal Polarity: Conflicting Dispositions 63
3 Adams and Jefferson: A Shared Liberalism 71
Friendship, Rivalry, Friendship 71
The Problem of Adams's Liberalism 73
The Multiple Declensions of New England Culture 76
The Founding Synthesis 78
Equality and the Liberal Polarity 90
4 Adams, Jefferson, and the Slavery Paradox 95
The Slavery Paradox 96
Liberalism and the Issue of Slavery 105
5 William Leggett: Process, Utility, and Laissez-Faire 124
Jacksonian Politics and Humanist Liberal Principles 124
Laissez-Faire: Leggett's Attenuated Republicanism 127
Leggett's Humanist Liberalism: Preferences and Process 130
Slavery 133
6 Stephen A. Douglas and Popular Sovereignty 140
Jacksonian Politics and Humanist Liberalism 141
Douglas's Attenuated Republicanism 145
Preference Coordination 148
Slavery 150
7 Martin Van Buren's Humanist Liberal Theory of Party 154
Jacksonian Democrat and Humanist Liberal 155
Van Buren's Humanist Liberal Theory of Party 158
Van Buren's Attenuated Republicanism 169
Slavery 172
Van Buren's Failure: Slavery and Preference Coordination 179
8 John Quincy Adams 191
Adams's Whiggish Loyalties 192
Adams and Slavery 196
Adams's Liberalism 198
Reform Liberalism and Politics 205
9 Lincoln and the North's Commitment to Liberty and Union 222
Douglas: Negative Liberty and a Quantitative Union 223
Webster: Positive Liberty and a Qualitative Union 226
Lincoln on Liberty and Union: A Conceptual Connection 230
Conclusion: Rule Ambiguity and Liberal Politics 240
10 Lincoln's Political Humanitarianism: Moral Reform and the Covenant Tradition 244
Lincoln's Political Ethic 245
Lincoln's Protestant Ethic 258
Conclusion: Lincoln's Piety 282
Epilogue 284
References 287
Index 299
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