The Lincoln Persuasion: Remaking American Liberalism

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In this, 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.

Originally published in 1993.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

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)

Read an Excerpt

The Lincoln Persuasion

Remaking American Liberalism

By J. David Greenstone


Copyright © 1993 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-08790-0



Memorial day, as W. Lloyd Warner wrote in his study of a small New England city, "is a cult of the dead which organizes and integrates the [community] ... into a sacred unity." In that cult, Abraham Lincoln functioned as a "martyred" saint. Revered as a prophet, his words "intoned ... as if they were a religious chant," he "loomed over the memorial rituals like some great demigod over the rites of classical antiquity." Warner's overt claim was that Lincoln occupies a mythic place in American political culture. Warner suggested, moreover, that understanding the significance of Lincoln—and, more broadly, the significance of the Lincoln persuasion—for American politics requires an analysis based on American culture.

According to the myth, Lincoln was truly the Great Emancipator, who spoke and acted on his culture's profound commitment to human freedom. From 1854 on, Lincoln repeatedly denounced slavery as so thoroughly immoral that it must never be allowed to expand. After his election as president, his position on slavery made secession and civil war virtually unavoidable. During the war, Lincoln proclaimed most of the slaves to be "forever free," he gave crucial support to the Thirteenth Amendment, which freed the rest, and he saw his armies devastate the rebellious slave states. The myth also depicts Lincoln as the wise and principled visionary. He is Father Abraham, who correctly predicted the eventual demise of the peculiar institution and led the North in a terrible war to uproot it. Whereas his contemporaries seemed caught up by the bewildering events that began in 1850, Lincoln drew on the resources of his culture, notably on the rhetoric of liberty and union, in order to illuminate the consuming crisis of their era. In liberating the slaves, he led his generation to free itself from a national sin.

By assigning an important place in American politics to moral issues and to a concern for the community, the Lincoln myth draws on pivotal cultural themes. The myth reasserts, in its own idiom, the seventeenth-century Puritan ideal of the saints' godly errand and the eighteenth-century republican vision of citizen virtue; it prefigures as well the Progressive party's commitment to the public interest a century later. From the mythic perspective, treating Lincoln as if he were just another self-serving politician would be vulgar reductionism—but myths invite demystification.

One kind of demystification was offered by Marx. In "On the Jewish Question," Marx drew an important distinction between, on the one hand, the egoism of civil society that is capitalist economic life, and, on the other, the belief of the bourgeois political community in its own idealism and political morality:

All the presuppositions of ... egoistic life continue to exist in civil society outside the political sphere.... [By contrast, w]here the political state has attained to its full development, man lives ... in the political community, where he regards himself as a communal being.... The political state ... stands in the same opposition to civil society ... as religion [stands] ... to the narrowness of the profane world; i.e., it has always to acknowledge [the profane world] ... and allow itself to be dominated by it.

Marx's account is dualistic, causal, and reductionist. First, it describes two quite different realms, the egoistic economy and the moral polity. Second, it assigns causal priority to the former. Finally, it argues that liberal politics functions to sustain capitalist economic relations, within which self-regarding motives have a certain primacy.

From Marx's perspective, the Lincoln myth epitomizes the bourgeois moralism that masks the underlying but dominant selfishness of bourgeois culture. In Lincoln's case, accounts that attempt to reduce explanations of his actions to one or more of his self-regarding motives have a wealth of evidence to draw upon. In the decade after its passage, Lincoln accepted the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, despite its flagrant bias in favor of the slave owners. In the years before the Civil War, he called only for a "gradual" process of emancipation, which might well take no "less than a hundred years," and he disclaimed any support for the social or political equality of free blacks. This celebrated moderation helped him to win the Republican nomination for president in 1860, and it characterized his presidency. In a famous letter to Horace Greeley in 1862, Lincoln wrote that he intended to free only that number of slaves most likely to preserve the Union. Indeed, the Emancipation Proclamation left unfreed all those slaves whose masters resided in areas then under Union control. The result, Hofstadter wrote, achieved "all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading." Although Lincoln obviously took a leading part in the events that freed the slaves, he confessed quite movingly in his Second Inaugural that he had neither foreseen nor controlled those events.

According to accounts that stress Lincoln's self-regarding motives, the Lincoln myth is a case of hagiography as well as of mystification, because the celebration of the role of beliefs obscures the decisive importance of the self-regarding motives. Whether or not Lincoln was moved by a principled opposition to slavery, he almost certainly reasoned and acted instrumentally to satisfy one or more of those motives. Furthermore, his positions on slavery and union were means that could be adopted, dropped, or changed as the pursuit of his self-regarding goals required. And, if Lincoln's self-regarding motives were decisive, cultural considerations could count only in the relatively trivial sense that for social action to proceed smoothly, there must be some agreement on fundamentals—for example, a shared understanding of basic legal rules.

We have, then, two competing views of Lincoln, each resting on empirically supported intuitions: the view of Lincoln as acting on principle and the view of Lincoln as acting on self-regarding motives. The two may appear to be incompatible and thus "essentially contested," but it is not entirely clear that we must choose between them. Lincoln's conduct, after all, was not a single act but an extended series of actions that can validly be described in a number of different ways. As I will show, Lincoln himself developed a persuasion that effectively appealed to both the idealism and the self-interest of his political allies. He relentlessly pursued political success, yet he also had penetrating, at times profound, moral insights that resonated among his compatriots, presumably because he shared with those compatriots certain fundamental commitments. Moreover, once he had come to prominence during the sectional crisis of the 1850s, his pursuit of success and his moral insights seem to have developed in tandem.

The wisest course for the interpreter, then, may not be to attempt to vindicate one view of Lincoln at the expense of the other but, rather, to ask how his self-regarding motives were connected to the principle at the heart of the myth. In addressing these questions, this chapter first considers Lincoln's political, economic, and social-psychological motives. It next examines what he himself called his "principle of action" with regard to the issues of liberty and union—the principle, that is, that formed the core of his political persuasion. The chapter then analyzes the general differences between motive and principle. Finally, it identifies three important connections between Lincoln's own motives and his principle. Two of these connections are consistent with Marx's reductionist view. First, the principle helped Lincoln pursue his self-regarding aims more effectively, and, second, the principle committed him to supporting the social order in which his ambitions could be pursued effectively. The third connection is contrary to Marx's basic account: there were certain respects in which Lincoln's principle committed him to changing his social and political order—to solving certain fundamental political problems—in ways that limited, rather than served, his ulterior motives. It is at this point, after granting as much credence as possible to the reductionist, ulterior-motive accounts, that we will be able to see the ultimate importance of Lincoln's principle and of his broader persuasion. In so far as the Lincoln persuasion offered solutions to the problems of Lincoln's polity in so far as it was a genuine cultural achievement, we must understand fully the cultural sources of the political as well as the intellectual success of the persuasion.

Lincoln's Ulterior Motives

Lincoln readily acknowledged the importance of his own and other people's self-regarding, ulterior motives. For himself, he put the case with typical wit in his 1858 debate with Stephen A. Douglas at Alton: "The Bible says somewhere that we are desperately selfish. I think we would have discovered that fact without the Bible. I do not claim that I am any less so than the average of men, but I do claim that I am not more selfish than Judge Douglas [roars of laughter and applause]." Different sets of scholars have emphasized three motives in particular: Lincoln's ambition for political office, his ambition for economic success, and his desire for social-psychological independence from the founding generation.

Political Ambition

Lincoln's political ambition is notorious. He loved politics from his youth. He talked about it incessantly, read about it voraciously, and played it for keeps. Bound by the Whigs of his county to vote for another candidate at a congressional district convention, for example, Lincoln still sought votes for himself elsewhere in the district. After finally serving a term in Congress, he "frantically" but unsuccessfully sought an appointment as commissioner of the United States General Land Office, even though he had promised to support a political associate for the position. Depressed by this failure, Lincoln was disappointed once again in 1855, when the Illinois legislature chose Lyman Trumball for the U.S. Senate. Yet, in the words of his law partner, Lincoln's ambition was "a little engine that knew no rest." Driven by it, Lincoln became a leader among Illinois Whigs and later among the state's Republicans.

In advancing his career, Lincoln carefully calculated his positions on prominent issues. As a state legislator in the 1830s, his chief goal was to move the capital of Illinois to Springfield, and, although he dissented publicly from the legislature's proslavery resolutions, he waited until the decision to move the capital had been made before doing so. "Young Lincoln," one biographer has observed, "had elected to work within the system, and was not about to ruin his career" on behalf of blacks. Lincoln scorned the nativist movement during the 1850s, for example, but he muted his disapproval, because he and his party needed the movement's supporters. During this same period, in contrast, some Republicans were consciously using the slavery issue to arouse their own loyalists, and few did so to more effect than Lincoln.

His eloquent attack on the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 revived a career that was in partial eclipse after his opposition in Congress to the Mexican War. In 1858, Lincoln distinguished himself from Douglas by emphasizing his own belief in slavery's immorality, while at the same time playing down his and Douglas's specific agreement on the institution's fate in Kansas and their partial agreement on the broader question of its expansion. Once the campaign began, however, Lincoln also made an appeal to more conservative voters by disclaiming the idea of social and political equality for blacks. Moreover, his policy of excluding slavery from the territories would have protected white settlers from having to associate or compete with blacks whether they were slave or free. "Irrespective of the moral aspect of this question," as he carefully put it, "I am still in favor of our new Territories being in such a condition that [they will be] ... an outlet for free white people everywhere." During the war, the same penchant for political calculation continued. Most notably, the complex terms of the Emancipation Proclamation, for example, were explicitly designed to appeal to the border states as well as to Republican strongholds in the North; the proclamation was adopted "only after all his other policies [compensated emancipation in the border states, for example] had failed."

Capitalist Loyalties

Lincoln was also enthusiastic about the capitalist pursuit of wealth and profit. The son-in-law of a prosperous banker, he joined in promoting Illinois railroads, and he represented many of them in court for sizable fees. In 1840, "he helped renew the charter of the Springfield state bank ... partly out of loyalty to Whig chums who were indebted to that institution." Over the next twenty years, Lincoln himself accumulated substantial financial equity.

As a member of the Illinois legislature and later of Congress, Lincoln was "sound" on those issues that tied most northern business interests first to the Whig and then to the Republican party. In 1860 he readily accepted a platform that "spoke in timid and faltering accents about slavery ... but on [the] economic questions ... its voice rang out loud and clear." Once in office, Lincoln approved tariff, homestead, banking, and railroad legislation, as well as a liberal immigration policy that was intended to hold down wages by replenishing a labor force already drained by western settlement. During his administration, Charles and Mary Beard concluded, "the Republicans had accomplished amid the crash of arms what neither the Federalists nor the Whigs had been able to achieve in time of peace."

Until then, slave-owning interests had resourcefully opposed essentially all of this program. According to this familiar economic account, therefore, Lincoln opposed slavery because the planter class was the chief political enemy of his business allies. The proclamation, to be sure, respected bourgeois property rights by exempting the slaves belonging to loyal border-state slave owners; however, in freeing all other slaves without compensation, it effectively destroyed the economic base of the southern planters.

Social Status and Problems of Parental Authority

Although a sometime leader in his church and village community, Lincoln's father Thomas was an illiterate and a failure in the eyes of his more obviously successful son. Troubled by his inferior social background, the son, according to a sympathetic biographer, harbored "considerable hostility" toward his father, "all mixed up with love, rivalry, and ambition." Lincoln, for example, invited none of his relatives to his wedding, and he told his parents about it only months later when he happened to visit the family farm. In 1851, when his father was dying, Lincoln could manage only to write a stilted letter. When he was "repeatedly ... urged to make a parting visit, he first ignored the letters from his family and then finally wrote to his stepbrother saying that he would not come. The press of business was one excuse; the minor illness of his wife was another.... Thomas Lincoln died a few days later. His son did not go to the funeral." Thomas Lincoln was neither a model of success nor a source of encouragement for an ambitious son; he could never really have been a worthy rival in his son's eyes. Lincoln's actions, interpreted psychoanalytically, thus suggest Oedipal feelings that were never fully developed, or resolved, by identification with his father.

Lincoln's rivalrous feelings, however, could be shifted from his personal conflicts with his father to a public conflict with the founders of his country. Having won independence and launched the great republican experiment, the "fathers," especially Washington, were painted in mythic terms that captured the imagination of Lincoln and his peers. How then, as Lincoln himself asked in his 1838 Lyceum Address, could the new generation equal these accomplishments, unless it either tore down the republic or preserved it in a way that outshone the achievements of the fathers? After dutifully praising the fathers in the Lyceum Address, Lincoln subtly disparaged them by suggesting that they benefited from good fortune and acted out of passion. Still, Lincoln conceded that his own generation could try only to preserve its republican inheritance—a role so modest it would never satisfy an ambitious Caesar, who "thirsts and burns for distinction" and "scorns to tread in the footsteps of any predecessor." So great would be the usurper's ambition that he would violate the fathers' "temple of liberty"—whether his cause be "emancipating slaves or enslaving freemen."


Excerpted from The Lincoln Persuasion by J. David Greenstone. Copyright © 1993 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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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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