There have been many impressive books written about the Abraham Lincoln-Stephen Douglas debates during the 1858 Senate election in Illinois. Harry V. Jaffa, Harold Holzer and Allen Carl Guelzo all stand out for their analyses of one of the most important events in U.S. political history. So much so, it makes one wonder if there’s anything really left to discuss.
John Burt, a professor of English at Brandeis University, has decided to give it the old college try. He took a rather unique approach in his new — and weighty — book, “Lincoln’s Tragic Pragmatism: Lincoln, Douglas, and Moral Conflict.” Mr. Burt examines the Lincoln-Douglas debates with the most unusual thesis I’ve ever seen or read: from the perspective of liberalism.
The head starts spinning at the mere mention of this political term. Where is Mr. Burt going with this book, exactly? Classical liberal or modern liberal? Liberal democracy? Liberal political parties? Liberal portion of food? (OK, maybe not the last one.)
Not quite. Lincoln and Douglas are instead transformed into the political embodiments of liberal thinkers such as John Rawls, Immanuel Kant and Alexis de Tocqueville. Mr. Burt writes that the “hope of liberal politics is that it can establish a tradition of fair dealing among people of different interests and views.” With respect to Lincoln and Douglas, they “sought, in different ways, to work out the relationship between principle and consent in liberal politics, and neither was fully successful in enabling liberal politics to mediate the conflict over slavery.”
Lincoln’s approach to slavery is unveiled in three main themes: “the implicitness of concepts,” “reverse Burkeanism,” and “tragic pragmatism.” In particular, the latter theme is “characteristic of Lincoln’s analysis of the political conflicts of his own era.” It refers to the prevailing wish “to keep the promises the Founders committed their nation to,” but “one always discovers that the exigencies of history unfold new demands out of these concepts, demands our generation has almost inevitably failed.” Hence, Lincoln’s participation with Douglas in this historic moral conflict — the legitimacy of slavery, or lack thereof — had a long-lasting and profound effect on Americans.
Many chapters in “Lincoln’s Tragic Pragmatism” are devoted to breaking down the intricate political positions of both men. While Lincoln would naturally be expected to possess positive virtues, Mr. Burt quantifies that Douglas “is not the villain of this book, although I hope I see his flaws, especially his virulent and passionate racism, with sufficient clarity.” The author’s decision to provide a relatively nuanced analysis with the participant on the wrong side of history makes this book truly stand out.
For example, Mr. Burt examines Lincoln’s claim against Douglas based on the former’s “House Divided” speech. Lincoln’s charge related to his “claim that Douglas was a party to conspiracy to force slavery into every part of the Union” and the author suggests whether it was done “only for strategic reasons.” Meanwhile, Douglas’ charge that Lincoln helped rebrand the Republicans not only as a “new kind of party, a purely sectional party and a purely ideological party whose ability to inflame moral outrage over slavery” in the free states would “dominate national politics without having to seek accommodation with any of its opponents or having to make pragmatic compromises across regional or ideological lines” was just as inaccurate.
Douglas also made a false allegation that the GOP desired to be an abolitionist party, “although hostility to slavery was one of the new party’s key convictions.” At the same time, he recognized his fellow debater’s position on slavery was imperfect. Mr. Burt points out the “grudging quality of Lincoln’s own racism” in his different tones in the Peoria and Charleston speeches. This doesn’t mean Lincoln perceived “black people are in fact inferior,” as he supported granting them specific rights and freedoms. Rather, he felt that if “only one group is going to be in charge, he would just as soon it be his own.” His argument was, therefore, “distorted and inconsistent” in the Charleston speech “because he found it politically necessary to cater to an ugly but intractable sexual and racial prejudice, and would sacrifice consistency to that necessity.”
Without question, the Lincoln-Douglas debates brought the issues of slavery and race to the political forefront before the first shots of the Civil War. Did tragic pragmatism, liberalism and moral conflict shape this period in American history? Not to the extent Mr. Burt suggests, in my opinion. This hardly means his book isn’t worthwhile to read — and it’s definitely an interesting perspective to consider.
Michael Taube is a former speechwriter for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and a contributor to The Washington Times.