Lincoln's Defense of Politics: The Public Man and His Opponents in the Crisis over Slavery

Lincoln's Defense of Politics: The Public Man and His Opponents in the Crisis over Slavery

Lincoln's Defense of Politics: The Public Man and His Opponents in the Crisis over Slavery

Lincoln's Defense of Politics: The Public Man and His Opponents in the Crisis over Slavery

Synopsis

Abraham Lincoln is chiefly remembered for two historic achievements: he freed the slaves, and he saved the Union. That Lincoln did these things is not controversial. What is controversial is the connection between the moral and constitutional aspects of these achievements. Lincoln refused to see pro-Union and antislavery principles as exclusive, and thus he would not uphold one set of principles to the exclusion of the other or allow one to serve in the other's place. Lincoln's opponents of the time denied these connections. They felt obliged to take sides and to choose between morality and the law. In Lincoln's Defense of Politics, Thomas E. Schneider examines six key figures from among the two groups that were Lincoln's opponents: the states' rights constitutionalists-Alexander H. Stephens, John C. Calhoun, and George Fitzhugh-and the abolitionists-Henry David Thoreau, William Lloyd Garrison, and Frederick Douglass. Lincoln differed from both groups in his political attitude toward the question of slavery. He made it clear that he regarded his own approach as more comprehensive than the more narrowly focused constitutional and moral ones favored by his opponents. Schneider uses the men from each of these groups to illustrate the broad significance of the slavery question and to shed light upon the importance of political considerations in public decision making. Secession and war deprived Abraham Lincoln of the opportunity to demonstrate to the South that while he was opposed to any further extension of slavery, he bore no feelings of ill will toward the southern people. Lincoln did not expect southerners to concur with his party's view of slavery as morally wrong, but he called on them as "national men" to consider whether sectional harmony was likely to be restored on any basis other than the one proposed by the Republicans. Slavery, he believed, was the only thing that could threaten the integrity of the nation. Lincoln's Defense of Politics is not primarily a work of history but a consideration of historical alternatives on their merits. It addresses itself to a question of perennial interest and significance: what is the nature and value of politics? Political theorists as well as students and scholars of American political thought will find this work of particular importance.

Excerpt

Retrospective endorsement of the historic achievements of Abraham Lincoln's administration—ending slavery and maintaining the integrity of the Union—has tended to overshadow misgivings about the manner in which those achievements were realized. Among Lincoln's contemporaries, however, such misgivings were rife, and they have never altogether disappeared.

On one hand, emancipation came about through a proclamation, “warranted by the Constitution upon military necessity,” that, to cite Richard Hofstadter's well-known description, “had all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading.” Frederick Douglass was even more pointed when he said of the Emancipation Proclamation, a year after its issuance, “I have applauded that paper and do now applaud it, as a wise measure—while I detest the motive and principle upon which it is based. By it the holding and flogging of Negroes is the exclusive luxury of loyal men.” Lincoln could exempt the people of the loyal slave states from his proclamation because it was directed not at slaveholders as such, but at rebels.

On the other hand, conservative Unionists worried that Lincoln had freighted the cause of restoring the constitutional authority of the federal government with an unnecessary and dangerous moral commitment. “And now … in such a crisis as this—must the question of the . . .

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