Lincoln: A Weberian Politician Meets the Constitution
Underwood, James E., Presidential Studies Quarterly
This essay addresses the question of how Abraham Lincoln attempted to reconcile competing demands he faced as president in an environment of extraordinary ethical complexity, demands that would have taxed any American president in such a circumstance. Aside from the practical political, military, and administrative challenges he faced, Lincoln faced the challenge of making decisions in the context of his commitment to five often competing values that he regarded as being of great importance: (1) the value of adhering to a written Constitution widely regarded as legitimate, one that imposed both duties and limits that a president was bound by oath to obey; (2) the value of preserving the Union, one that Lincoln believed inherent in the Constitution; (3) a Weberian value embodied in a commitment to take into account the consequences of possible decisions (central to Weber's ethic of responsibility); (4) the value of universal freedom, a value that could be honored only by assuring that slavery was firmly placed on a path to extinction; and (5) the value of principled decision making, principled in the sense of acting in accordance with one's own conscience, both in relation to one's character and one's obligations to others. Certain of Lincoln's experiences before becoming president are examined because they are fundamental to understanding Lincoln as a moral and political being and because they influenced some of his decisions while president. In addition, concepts drawn from Max Weber's Politics as a Vocation are used to help structure the description and analysis of Lincoln as a decision maker. (1)
Particular attention is paid to several matters: first, the effect on the younger Lincoln of two important incidents--his response to being challenged to a duel and his agonizing decision to renew his engagement to Mary Todd; second, in response to the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, his decision to reenter politics and build a constitutional and moral case against slavery; third, his feelings toward blacks in general and slavery in particular; and fourth and most important, his making decisions as president that highlighted conflicts between and among the several values that claimed his allegiance.
This essay argues that Lincoln managed the problem of reconciling competing values by treating constitutional duties and limitations, including the preservation of the Union itself, as transcendent values against which other values (including considerations of consequences made paramount in Weber's "ethic of responsibility") must almost always give way. The essay also argues that within the limits of his commitment to the Constitution as embodying transcendent values, Lincoln resembles Weber's "politician with a calling."
Weber's Politician with a Calling: Prescription for a Leader
Prefatory to describing his two political ethics, the ethic of responsibility and the ethic of ultimate ends, Weber's "Politics as a Vocation" sets forth three qualities that he believes are necessary for one who would pursue politics as a vocation--a calling, in contrast to one who would practice politics motivated by power as an end in itself or by material gain. (2) Weber seems to say that one cannot practice an ethic of responsibility without having these three qualities. The three qualities are passion, a feeling of responsibility, and a sense of proportion (detachment) (Weber 1946, 115). By passion, Weber means "passionate devotion to a 'cause.'" For Weber (1946, 115), passion in a politician would be useless unless that politician also makes "responsibility to his cause the guiding star of action." And, says Weber (1946, 115), only a politician with a "sense of proportion, the decisive psychological quality of the politician," will have the ability to make his cause the guiding star of his action. What Weber means by a feeling of responsibility is the quality that causes a politician to focus on advancing his cause and prevents him from succumbing to temptations such as those of self-glorification or power. To lose sight of one's "cause" constitutes irresponsibility (Weber 1946, 115-17). (Here Weber uses the term responsibility in a different sense than in his discussion of the concept of an ethic of responsibility.)
In Weber's view, no one can have a calling for politics unless he seeks more than personal glory, political success, or power as an end in itself. As Weber (1946, 117) puts it,
the serving of a cause must not be absent if action is to have inner strength.... The politician may serve national, humanitarian, social, ethical, cultural, worldly, or religious ends. The politician may be sustained by a strong belief in 'progress'--no matter in which sense--or he may coolly reject this kind of belief. He may claim to stand in the service of an 'idea' or, rejecting this in principle, he may want to serve external ends of everyday life. However, some kind of faith must always exist. Otherwise, it is absolutely true that the curse of the creature's worthlessness overshadows even the externally strongest political successes. (3)
As one might expect, Weber (1946, 115) recognizes the incongruity of linking the quality of passion to that of detachment (a sense of proportion). As he puts it, "the problem is simply how can warm passion and a cool sense of proportion be forged together in one and the same soul?" Weber's answer is that the head must control "other parts of the body or soul," leading to the firm taming of the soul, which distinguishes the passionate politician and differentiates him from the 'sterilely exciting' and mere political dilettante ..." (emphasis added). This result, says Weber (1946, 115-16), is possible only through "habituation to detachment in every sense of the word," a habituation that produces "distance towards one's self." For Weber, detachment is to be put in the service of domesticating a passionate devotion to a cause, preventing a politician from merely indulging his own strong preferences. (4)
Having acknowledged the precarious, but necessary, moral position into which, enters he who chooses politics as a vocation, Weber (1946, 120) states precisely what he believes to be "fundamentally differing and irreconcilably opposed maxims" of "ethically oriented conduct." Only one of the maxims, he insists, can guide the behavior of the political leader who practices politics as a vocation. The two are "an ethic of ultimate ends" and "an ethic of responsibility." The distinction between the two has to do with the obligation of an individual to take account of, and accept personal responsibility for, all the consequences, foreseeable and unforeseeable, of the decisions he makes. As Weber (1946, 120) says, he who practices an ethic of responsibility has to "give an account of the foreseeable results of [his] actions." However, he who pursues an ethic of ultimate ends, "the Christian [for example] does rightly and leaves the results with the Lord."
In this connection, Weber argues that a politician must accept the necessity of employing "morally dangerous means," something that Weber sees as inherent in the political world. Thus, Weber (1946, 126) says that "he who seeks the salvation of the soul, of his own and of others, should not seek it along the avenue of politics." Weber (1946, 125-26) argues also that "whoever wants to engage in politics at all, and especially in politics as a vocation, has to realize ... ethical paradoxes. He must know that he is responsible for what may become of himself under the impact of these paradoxes. I repeat, he lets himself in for the diabolic forces lurking in all violence." (5)
Weber (1946, 120) himself explicitly disavows any intent to present his two political ethics as mutually exclusive in their practice. He does so in a much-quoted and passionate statement about the proper conduct for a leader who pursues politics as a vocation.
It is immensely moving when a mature man--no matter whether old or young in years--is aware of a responsibility for the consequences of his conduct and really feels such responsibility with heart and soul. He then acts by following an ethic of responsibility and somewhere he reaches the point where he says: 'here I stand, I can do no other.' That is something genuinely human and moving. And every one of us who is not spiritually dead must realize the possibility of finding himself at sometime in that position. In so far as this is true, an ethic of ultimate ends and an ethic of responsibility are not absolute contrasts but rather supplements, which only in unison constitute a genuine man--a man who can have the 'calling for politics.' (6)
The question arises on what can a politician base his determination that "here I stand, I can do no other." Presumably a "saint" who followed an ethic of ultimate ends would have no difficulty in finding grounds for so saying. For example, the radical abolitionist would merely have said, "Human bondage is morally wrong. Therefore, I shall go to the wall for abolition and damn the consequences." Aside from weighing consequences through responsible judgment, Weber (1946, 117) himself seems to suggest two possible answers to the above question. He suggests one when he says that "the serving of a cause must not be absent if action is to have inner strength."
The cause itself, Weber says, is "a matter of faith." A superficial reading of Weber might suggest that a politician following an ethic of responsibility becomes a mere pragmatist who cannot resist any expedient that will gain him more power. But, nothing could be further from Weber's meaning, as indicated in his statements about the necessity of serving a cause in order to assure "inner strength." As Weber (1946, 117) says, "the politician may serve any one of a variety of worthwhile ends," but he cannot serve merely his own interest. Granting that a politician must have a cause would certainly appear to strongly shape one's weighing of consequences and reinforce Weber's point that he who has a genuine calling for politics must exercise in unison both political ethics. (7)
The second of Weber's (1946, 119-20) possible answers to the question of what can legitimately enter into the politician's consideration of consequences lies in what he says about the politician's stance toward evil, namely, that the proposition holds that "thou shall resist evil by force, or else you are responsible for the evil winning out." The admonition to resist evil points Weber's "politician with a calling" away from narrow calculations based on considerations of power, self-interest, and purely pragmatic considerations. However, having said this, it must be acknowledged that Weber recognizes and accepts the inherent and tragic involvement with power and force that is the fate of all who accept the role of politician as well as the impossibility of knowing for certain whether the consequences of one's actions will include evil. But Weber's "politician with a calling" is not generally free to ignore the consequences of his acting in the political world, as could one who follows exclusively an ethic of conviction. (8) However, because one can never foresee, or control, all consequences, there come those occasions when one has no choice but to take a stand regardless of consequences and "do the right thing," in other words, act in a way that is in accordance with one's convictions.
The Affair of the Duel and Marriage to Mary Todd: Lessons in Principled Decision Making
Early in his adult life, Lincoln resolved two personal crises in a way that helped prepare him to become "a politician with a calling." Wills (1998, 11) stated recently that "we no longer expect a leader to use the character-building experiences of his life in order to measure up to his larger responsibilities...," as for example Wills says Aeneas did in "descending into hell to learn what he needs to face up to his destined task." However, Wilson (1998) argues that long before he was president, Lincoln learned a very important lesson in private life that would decisively shape his public conduct as president. That lesson was that he must stick to his resolve, to what Lincoln characterized as "the chief gem of his character" (Wilson 1998, 289-92). And sticking to his resolve meant that he would need to curb his natural proclivities; in short that he would need to "tame his soul"--to demonstrate detachment. He would need to allow himself to do what he saw was right as a matter of principle both with respect to the obligation to maintain what he saw as valuable in his own character and with respect to the related question of his obligations to others. As Weber would say, the young Lincoln needed to learn how to create distance toward himself by allowing his head to control his body and soul.
During a relatively short span beginning in 1839 and ending in 1842, Lincoln confronted and successfully resolved two major conflicts that shook him to the core. One of these involved the question of how to respond to a challenge to a duel by the Democratic state auditor, a man whom Lincoln had attacked viciously and unfairly in a pseudonymous letter to a newspaper. The other involved the question of how …
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Publication information: Article title: Lincoln: A Weberian Politician Meets the Constitution. Contributors: Underwood, James E. - Author. Journal title: Presidential Studies Quarterly. Volume: 34. Issue: 2 Publication date: June 2004. Page number: 341+. © 1999 Center for the Study of the Presidency. COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group.
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