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  • Lincoln’s Tragic Pragmatism: Lincoln, Douglas, and Moral Conflict by John Burt
  • Erik J. Chaput (bio)
Lincoln’s Tragic Pragmatism: Lincoln, Douglas, and Moral Conflict. By John Burt. (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2013. Pp. 832. Cloth, $39.95.)

In his famous speech in the crowded halls of the Illinois state legislature in June 1858 in which he accepted the Republican Party nomination to run for the U.S. Senate, Abraham Lincoln argued at length that political attempts to stem the tide of agitation over the expansion of slavery had [End Page 583] failed. The Democratic ethos of popular sovereignty had inflamed, not tempered tensions. According to Lincoln, the battle would not end until “a crisis” had been “reached” and only the free states or the slave states were left standing; a “house divided against itself cannot stand,” said Lincoln. Lincoln’s wide-ranging attack against the doughface Stephen Douglas focused on the senator’s complicity in promoting the slave power and leading the nation away from embracing human equality—something that Lincoln believed was a precondition for freedom. Lincoln would build on these charges over the summer of 1858 as he engaged in seven major debates with Douglas. Lincoln’s understanding of the “reasonable,” which he defined as stopping the expansion of slavery and confining the institution to its original sphere, was “tied to his desire to seek” principled “compromise”; Douglas’s was bound to his “conviction that no settlement deeper than a modus vivendi” was possible within the American political system (291).

The clash of morality and politics and the myriad of ways Clio, the muse of history, was taken hostage in the Lincoln-Douglas debates lie at the heart of Brandeis University English professor John Burt’s well-written, exhaustive, wide-ranging, sometimes frustrating, but often engaging new study. Among Douglas’s multiple conspiracy charges against Lincoln, Douglas maintained that Lincoln was head of an abolitionist party that would “transform the nature of politics itself” because such a party “would be motivated and energized by a rejection of the kind of mutual accommodation that is the principal work of traditional politics” (178–79). Douglas insisted that the 1787 Constitution made compromises with slavery, and that Lincoln overstated the situation when he said that the Founders believed that slavery was on the road to ultimate extinction.

While Harry Jaffa draws from the theories of Leo Strauss in his 1959 work, Crisis of the House Divided, Burt takes the modern political theorist John Rawls as his patron saint and offers the first serious challenge to Jaffa’s classic work. According to Burt, “The promise of equality has a power that many other kinds of moral claims do not have, because the reciprocity it demands is at the heart of democratic political ideals, and democracy cannot be maintained without it” (70). In this sense Jaffa and Burt are very much in line, but Burt departs significantly from the Crisis of the House Divided with his balanced and, at times, sympathetic treatment of Stephen Douglas. As he rightfully notes, Douglas “replaced the language of moral conflict with the language of interest conflict because he feared” that a “descent of the political world” into “crusader” politics would lead only to war (701). [End Page 584]

Lincoln’s Tragic Pragmatism is a blend of history, philosophical and moral inquiry, and literary analysis. Readers looking for a concise summary of the seven major debates between Lincoln and Douglas should see historian Allen C. Guelzo’s Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates That Defi ned America (2008). Unlike Guelzo, Burt has difficulty at times seeing the forest for the trees; as a result, his chapters are lengthy, and the material can be repetitive. However, students of pre–Civil War America will find the work useful.

Burt offers readers a new perspective on the ideology of popular sovereignty and the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act. Douglas believed that southerners would “accept a practical defeat” in the territories if they lost on a vote as long as they were given a fair, democratic chance at winning. Conversely, the North, according to Douglas, would accept a “symbolic defeat” in the sense that slavery was even...


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