Lincoln, Douglas and Liberalism

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), April 30, 2013 | Go to article overview
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Lincoln, Douglas and Liberalism


There have been many impressive books written about the Abraham Lincoln-Stephen Douglas debates during the 1858 Senate election in Illinois. Harry V. Jaffa, Harold Holzer and Allen Carl Guelzo all stand out for their analyses of one of the most important events in U.S. political history. So much so, it makes one wonder if there's anything really left to discuss.

John Burt, a professor of English at Brandeis University, has decided to give it the old college try. He took a rather unique approach in his new - and weighty - book, Lincoln's Tragic Pragmatism: Lincoln, Douglas, and Moral Conflict. Mr. Burt examines the Lincoln-Douglas debates with the most unusual thesis I've ever seen or read: from the perspective of liberalism.

The head starts spinning at the mere mention of this political term. Where is Mr. Burt going with this book, exactly? Classical liberal or modern liberal? Liberal democracy? Liberal political parties? Liberal portion of food? (OK, maybe not the last one.)

Not quite. Lincoln and Douglas are instead transformed into the political embodiments of liberal thinkers such as John Rawls, Immanuel Kant and Alexis de Tocqueville. Mr. Burt writes that the hope of liberal politics is that it can establish a tradition of fair dealing among people of different interests and views. With respect to Lincoln and Douglas, they sought, in different ways, to work out the relationship between principle and consent in liberal politics, and neither was fully successful in enabling liberal politics to mediate the conflict over slavery.

Lincoln's approach to slavery is unveiled in three main themes: the implicitness of concepts, "reverse Burkeanism "and"tragic pragmatism "In particular, the latter theme is"characteristic of Lincoln's analysis of the political conflicts of his own era "It refers to the prevailing wish"to keep the promises the Founders committed their nation to "but"one always discovers that the exigencies of history unfold new demands out of these concepts, demands our generation has almost inevitably failed." Hence, Lincoln's participation with Douglas in this historic moral conflict - the legitimacy of slavery, or lack thereof - had a long-lasting and profound effect on Americans.

Many chapters in Lincoln's Tragic Pragmatism are devoted to breaking down the intricate political positions of both men. While Lincoln would naturally be expected to possess positive virtues, Mr. Burt quantifies that Douglas is not the villain of this book, although I hope I see his flaws, especially his virulent and passionate racism, with sufficient clarity.

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