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  • Lincoln’s Tragic Pragmatism: Lincoln, Douglas, and Moral Conflict by John Burt
  • James Tackach (bio)
Lincoln’s Tragic Pragmatism: Lincoln, Douglas, and Moral Conflict. By John Burt. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Pp. 832. $39.95 cloth; $39.95 ebook)

John Burt’s analysis of the Abraham Lincoln–Stephen Douglas debates is not written for the casual Lincoln reader. More succinct and easier-to-digest accounts of the Lincoln–Douglas debates include David Zarefsky’s Lincoln, Douglas, and Slavery in the Crucible of Public Debate (1990) and Allen Guelzo’s Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates That Defined America (2008). But serious Lincoln scholars or readers, those willing to wade through Burt’s eight-hundred-plus pages of sometimes dense prose, will be amply rewarded for their efforts.

Burt, a professor of English at Brandeis University, has written neither narrative history nor biography. Lincoln’s Tragic Pragmatism falls more properly into the categories of rhetorical analysis and political theory—or, in Burt’s words, “historically informed literary criticism” (p. 10). Burt’s meticulous dissection of Lincoln and Douglas’s arguments during the 1850s concerning American slavery in general, and the extension of slavery into new United States territories in particular, highlights a key problem for debating and resolving moral conflicts in a democracy. According to Burt, slavery, for Lincoln, was a moral problem; the institution was immoral, an affront to the national commitment to the equality of all men that was not easy to uproot but that the Founders of the American republic had hoped would eventually become extinct. For Douglas, slavery was like any other political problem—tariffs, for example—that can be solved through debate and compromise in the political arena. To manage the slavery problem, Douglas advanced popular sovereignty: let the citizens of a state or territory, not Congress, decide, through popular vote, whether to allow or prohibit slavery within their state or territorial borders. Douglas boasted that he cared not whether slavery be voted in or out of Kansas, so long as Kansans made the decision, that, in Burt’s words, “support or opposition to slavery is not [End Page 611] a moral choice so much as either an economic one or a choice best left to personal moral discretion” (p. 161). Lincoln feared popular sovereignty because it removed morality from political debate, and, again in Burt’s words, “moral issues cannot be decided by votes” (p. 93). The South needed slavery to be considered a legal right and a social blessing and to be extended into new territories; antislavery Northerners like Lincoln needed to see slavery restricted and put on the path to extinction. The tragic consequence of the failure of Lincoln and Douglas, and the North and South, to solve the problem of American slavery through debate within the political system “was that 623,000 Americans killed each other” (p. 93).

By carefully analyzing Lincoln and Douglas’s speeches and writings after 1858, including their reactions to the Dred Scott decision, Burt traces the downward spiral of the nation toward civil war. Along the way, he makes some statements about Lincoln’s racial views that will undoubtedly stir debate among Lincoln scholars. Lincoln’s support for the Fugitive Slave Act, his interest in colonization, and his lack of public commitment, before the Civil War, to social and political equality for black Americans are well known. According to Burt, however, Lincoln was embarrassed by his own racism and “consistently chose the arguments that would lay the groundwork for racial equality later, and rejected arguments that would have supported preventing the spread of slavery into the territories but that would have ruled racial equality out” (p. 335). Other Lincoln scholars have argued that Lincoln, before the Civil War, embraced the racial views of a man of his time and place but that during the crucible of war, he began to imagine a biracial nation with political, social, and economic freedom for all.

Burt is at his best when he is closely dissecting Lincoln and Douglas’s arguments. His prose sometimes becomes dense when he discusses political theory more abstractly. Perhaps the most rewarding section of his excellent and demanding book can be found in the later...


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pp. 611-613
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