By Guelzo, Allen C.
First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life
LINCOLN'S VIRTUES: AN ETHICAL BIOGRAPHY. By WILLIAM LEE MILLER. Knopf. 515 pp. $30.
WHILE DESCRIBING the Rawlsian-liberal idea of "the unencumbered self" and "the procedural republic" in Democracy's Discontents (1994), political theorist Michael Sandel highlighted two individuals who represent the pro and con of those terms. They are Stephen A. Douglas, appearing for the unencumbered proceduralists, and Abraham Lincoln, cast in the role of a moralist who insisted on grounding his understanding of liberal politics in natural law.
This was not necessarily a new picture of either Douglas or Lincoln. (Harry Jaffa made the same argument in Straussian terms in The Crisis of the House Divided ). But in Lincoln's case, it was a description that failed to exercise much influence on such biographers as Stephen Oates and David Donald, both of whom were more concerned with Lincoln the politician than with Lincoln the moralist. Moreover, by portraying Lincoln as a moral thinker, Sandel managed to issue a stinging indictment of the failures of American liberalism. Over the course of the twentieth century, Sandel argued, American judges, legislators, intellectuals, and activists yielded to the secular dynamic of liberal democracy and gradually moved to "bracket" moral, traditional, and religious concerns from public life, with the disturbing result that the moral shape of the modern republic had come to look less like the one envisioned by the Great Emancipator than that of the Little Giant. While Lincoln sat imprisoned in his Memorial, the spirit of Douglas animated the great debates at the other end of the Mall.
William Lee Miller's Lincoln's Virtues: An Ethical Biography pursues what made Lincoln a moralist--or rather, how Lincoln managed to blend his moralism with a confidence in liberal democratic politics. This is a departure fully as dramatic as Sandel's, since no other adjective is applied to Abraham Lincoln more commonly, and more inaccurately, than pragmatic. With such a staggering abundance of secondary material on Lincoln--more than eight thousand books by Miller's count--it is easy for incurious Lincoln biographers and historians of nineteenth-century America to look at Lincoln's cautious gradualism on slavery, his skill at political maneuver, and his willingness to compromise and forgive, and to see it all as pragmatism, as if the term were some sort of synonym for practical, or even cynical. Leonard Swett, who knew Lincoln well and worked with him on the Eighth Judicial Circuit in Illinois in the 1850s, agreed that "in dealing with men he was a trimmer, and such a trimmer the world has never seen." Yet, Swett immediately added, "Lincoln never trimmed in principles--it was only in his conduct with men." In contrast to those inclined to see in Lincoln only a skillful politician, Miller wants us to read Lincoln as "quite an extraordinary thinker, on moral-political subjects."
AND NOT ONLY a thinker, but a practitioner Miller's "young man Lincoln" is distinguished by his "great rejections" of cruelty, alcohol, gambling, and racial prejudice, as well as for his great appropriations of reading, ambition, humor, honor, and reason. What is extraordinary for Miller is how this same Lincoln embraced the political life without either jettisoning morals at inconvenient moments or making a cipher of his politics. "What he did instead as a lifelong politician was to realize that role's fullest moral possibilities." On the one hand, Lincoln the moralist will denounce mob rule in the Young Men's Lyceum lecture of 1838, especially when that rule was connected with the murderous suppression of antislavery opinion. But on the other hand, Lincoln the politician will reprimand the overly righteous for browbeating alcoholics in the Washington Temperance speech in 1842. Yet he was as much a politician in the first instance as he remained a moralist in the second, for opposition to Jacksonian mobs was a political stance, and issuing rebukes to the temperance puritans for their confrontational tactics did not compromise his fundamental agreement on the moral ills of drunkenness. …