Lincoln: A Weberian Politician Meets the Constitution

By Underwood, James E. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, June 2004 | Go to article overview

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. …

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