- Lincoln and Liberty: Wisdom for the Ages ed. by Lucas E. Morel
In this collection of essays by historians, political scientists, and legal scholars, editor Lucas E. Morel takes up the political legacy of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency in an intended retort to his modern-day progressive claimants. Though it is more pronounced in certain chapters than others, the volume’s unifying theme is its contesting of a recent practice of interpreting Lincoln’s [End Page 571] career as part of an evolutionary narrative in which the sixteenth president “grew” beyond the political conventions of his time and the prejudices that accompanied them. Race and slavery are the most obvious applications of this thesis, although contributors also target more cryptic extractions from Lincoln’s political philosophy, including the meaning and characteristics of statesmanship and its relation to the modern scope of government.
The resulting volume broadly emphasizes an alternative position in which Lincoln is said to acquire something of a timeless characteristic, albeit a simultaneously specified one that synchronizes with the volume’s own philosophical predispositions. Rebuffing a tendency “to remake [Lincoln] in our image” (xii), the collection stresses Lincoln as a consistent antislavery man and principled political operator who only appears to “evolve” with surrounding events. This Lincoln’s actions are better understood as a product of his philosophically rooted constitutionalism and an underlying moral devotion to human equality. Though their genesis is only lightly emphasized in the book, these notes reflect a political philosophy rooted in the works of Harry V. Jaffa and subsequent expressions of the Straussian school interpretation of the Civil War era.
Briefly summarized, philosopher Leo Strauss registered a strong objection to what he saw as a persistent “historicism” of most historical scholarship. By contextualizing historical figures as “products of their time,” certain scholars became susceptible to obscuring, or even denying, deeper philosophical truths at the root of past events. When the engaged historical particular carries the moral gravity of human slavery, a philosophically unchained examination risks missing the big question amid its pursuit of particularized context and nuance. Jaffa saw these patterns afoot in the “revisionist” work on Lincoln, and much of the current volume follows suit. The central modern Straussian grievance with the evolutionary narrative essentially rests on a further finding of “historicism.” An evolving Lincoln, even if responsively shaped by unfolding events, evidently pivots politically in ways that are less than philosophically fixed.
There is some use to this argument, as a Lincoln unchained from moral judgment against slavery is also a Lincoln stripped of the deeper context of his own political world. Just as Richard Hofstadter pushed this dissociation too far in Jaffa’s time, other “revisionists” today might be similarly diagnosed. To this end, Thomas Krannawitter’s essay in the volume is essentially an updating of Jaffa’s thesis, with recent political interpretations of Lincoln by Alan Dershowitz and Mario Cuomo set squarely in its sights. [End Page 572]
Yet this Straussian approach is not without drawbacks. The quest to halt the intrusions of “historicism” actually chafes with several necessary tools of the historian’s craft. Jaffa’s Lincoln was effectively elevated to the role of “hero” in an intercentury philosophical dispute, a process that left him largely sanitized of the less-statesmanlike human complexities that historical empiricism forces scholars to confront. A philosophically stable Lincoln needn’t also be a Lincoln stripped of any error, or incapable of changing his mind.
Even as we should engage the deeper principles of his worldview, the political Lincoln was still a product of the antebellum American electoral scene; a figure as much imbued with the ideological political economy of Henry Clay and the moderate antislavery pragmatism of a mid-century northern Whig as any abstract appeal to the Declaration of Independence. In fact, it is this context that tells us how Lincoln operationalized his philosophical principles and—yes—when and how he strayed from them. These latter instances occur not necessarily by design, but...