- - Tuesday, February 2, 2016



By George Kateb

Harvard University Press $24.95, 256 pages

Lev Grossman, in his Jan. 31, 2008 Time magazine essay, “The Lincoln Compulsion,” made this intriguing observation: “There have been more books about Abraham Lincoln than any other American.”

It’s true. A staggering 16,000 books have been written about the 16th U.S. president. Respected historians like Harold Holzer, Allen Guelzo, James McPherson and Doris Kearns Goodwin have analyzed what seems like every nook and cranny associated with his life, political career, writing and speeches. Is there anything left to discuss about Lincoln? Plenty, according to a recent book about this important president.

Princeton University professor George Kateb is both sympathetic and critical of his subject in “Lincoln’s Political Thought.” While his “intense admiration” didn’t disappear, the “cumulative effect of his words leads me to a less unmixed Lincoln than I began with.” Hence, Mr. Kateb’s perception of Lincoln was “now joined to some dismay,” although he still believed “that he was a great man, a good man, and a great writer. There is no need to apologize for thinking that as president he made all the difference, if ever one person of politics could.”

This analysis had nothing to do with Lincoln’s partisan politics, which doesn’t really interest the author. Rather, it had to do with the way he crafted words and made speeches.

“As a lawyer and a politician,” Mr. Kateb writes, “he could be counted on to withhold his full meaning, and to engage in other sorts of distortion.” Hence, Lincoln “either was captivated by what he was saying or was afraid to look closely enough at it, or he did not want to insist on it. Or he wanted to leave it uncertain because he was uncertain, or certain but out of season.”

Here’s one example. Of Lincoln’s deep commitments, which “constituted a political religion,” the deepest was obviously to “human equality” and opposition to slavery. Alas, Mr. Kateb points out “the abolition of slavery was not originally a tenet of Lincoln’s political religion,” and while the president “always hated (and not merely disliked) slavery,” he “never lost his fear of the consequences of immediate abolition.”

To put it another way, when “Lincoln made slavery the wrong that had to be condemned above all, he was joining those persons who saw that if resistance to political slavery was justified on the ground of human equality, the grounds for resistance to chattel slavery — by the slaves or their sympathizers — were unconditional.”

The book also examines the Constitution in Lincoln’s time. In the author’s view, this important document was “fundamentally a constitution of slavery” for white Americans, and “only apparently a constitution of freedom.” While Lincoln was an opponent of slavery, the author asserts some speeches defended questionable concepts.

For instance, he associates Lincoln’s thoughts with “political necessity.” The president believed “the men who framed the Constitution had no choice but to acquiesce in the entrenchment of slavery in the document they were offering the people for ratification.” Lincoln also supported “military necessity” as a war president since it was “indispensable to seizing the opportunity to begin freeing the slaves and thus dismantling the institution of slavery.” To accomplish this particular necessity, “Lincoln chose to override the Constitution and then to justify what he did.”

Mr. Kateb recognizes that Lincoln “could not have stayed in politics if he had not believed there was such a method” to end slavery, “or if he did not at least say that he believed there was such a method.”

Yet, the liberal philosopher still cynically points out that like “everyone active in politics on the antislavery side, he had no strategy that could work within the system.” The irony? Lincoln’s chief political rivals, Stephen Douglas and the Democrats, “had a strategy that appeared to work: popular sovereignty.” While they didn’t believe that blacks had rights, Douglas “could make their human status subject to popular will.”

Mr. Kateb’s decision to mostly ignore politics and public policy in his book creates massive holes in many of his theories. Politics is a game of give and take, after all. This president was forced to use concepts like race, geography, strategy and language in a time of war, struggle and confusion. Lincoln’s personal (and yes, political) strategy in dealing with the South and slavery therefore went much further than mere words.

Nevertheless, “Lincoln’s Political Thought” is unique, engaging and extremely controversial. It will frustrate many readers (as it did this reviewer), but help us learn even more about a great president that so much has already been written about.

Michael Taube is a contributor to The Washington Times.

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