A review of Lincoln’s Tragic Pragmatism: Lincoln, Douglas, and Moral Conflict, by John Burt

espite his revolutionary break from tonality, the composer Arnold Schoenberg declared, “There is still plenty of good music to be written in C Major.” Likewise, there are still plenty of good books to be written about Abraham Lincoln. He is the inexhaustible home key of the nation, to which the composers of words ever turn to understand and express the American story. Regardless of the profusion of Lincolniana—a profusion that only promises to increase as this sesquicentennial season marches toward its culmination in April 2015—students of Lincoln (scholars and citizens alike) are willing to listen to new works, especially those that sound fresh depths in our common key.

This is clearly John Burt’s aspiration. In Lincoln’s Tragic Pragmatism: Lincoln, Douglas, and Moral Conflict, Burt, a professor of English at Brandeis University, has not contented himself with finding some heretofore understudied aspect of Lincoln’s character, career, or relationships (books about Lincoln’s humor or Lincoln as lawyer or Lincoln and Walt Whitman are worthwhile but smaller scale). He has not aimed at originality by adopting a narrow disciplinary approach or a bizarre thesis (for instance, a psychosexual analysis of Lincoln as a closeted homosexual). He has not sought to do by words what Booth did by bullet (in certain neo-Confederate and libertarian circles, a shoddy scholarship of character assassination has taken hold, asserting that the tyrant Lincoln was both statist and racist). Nor has he attempted an elegant, measured biography of Lincoln, presenting the essentials for a popular audience (a Charnwood for the 21st century). His ambition is larger, and his book at over 800 pages is correspondingly large. Like Machiavelli’s prudent archer, Burt takes aim at a preeminent predecessor, telling us in the Introduction that “The ultimate model for this book, however, and its ultimate antagonist, is Harry Jaffa’s great book Crisis of the House Divided (1959) and its sequel A New Birth of Freedom (2000).”

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Taking Jaffa as his model means that Burt strives to write philosophically-grounded, historically-informed, text-based criticism, focusing on the Lincoln-Douglas debates, but radiating from that central point to encompass what Walt Whitman called “the whole involved, baffling, multiform whirl of the secession period”—in this case, from Lincoln’s Peoria Address in 1854 to the Second Inaugural in 1865.

Taking Jaffa as his antagonist means, first, that Burt regards himself as belonging to a different line of philosophic forebears; he describes the genealogies as “Plato and Strauss in Jaffa’s case, Kant and Rawls in mine.” (About that match-up, and the political valence of the resulting interpretations, I’m inclined to say “nuff said.”) The second point of antagonism has to do with the verdict on Stephen A. Douglas. Dissenting from Jaffa’s characterization of Douglas as (in Burt’s words) “a kind of hybrid of Thrasymachus and Neville Chamberlain,” Burt situates Douglas “within the liberal tradition” (thus connecting him, like Lincoln, with “Kant, Madison, and Tocqueville”). In turn, this improved version of Douglas entails a revised (more qualified) view of Lincoln. Burt treats Lincoln and Douglas in parallel: each struggles to respond to the changing political situation (flanked by intransigent slaveocrats and equally intransigent abolitionists); each designs complex, not entirely consistent rhetorical strategies and policy positions in hopes of preserving both liberty and union; each in his own way tries to foil the spread of slavery; each teeters on the brink of his own slippery slope, with Lincoln risking the fanaticism and “moral narcissism” of “crusader politics,” and Douglas the amoral relativism of “expediency politics.”

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Eventually though, the parallelism—and with it, Burt’s affected neutrality—breaks down. Not long after rejecting the comparison of Douglas to Thrasymachus, Burt basically admits its accuracy. Lincoln, not having received a classical education, of course never mentioned Socrates’ interlocutor in the Republic, but, having thought deeply about justice, he described the position “to a T”: it amounts to “insisting that there is no right principle of action but interest” and he accused Douglas of doing precisely this. Burt, in Douglas’s defense, points out that his avoidance of moral argument was a strategy to achieve a moral end. By the way, we shouldn’t forget that Jaffa devoted a major section of Crisis to “The Case for Douglas,” arguing similarly that Douglas expected “popular sovereignty” to result in new free states—an expectation that had to be left unstated so as not to provoke Southern ire. Nonetheless, Burt does concede (in an empathetic first-person formulation that he often uses when discussing the ramifications of a rhetorical stance):

If I recuse myself from moral conflicts, even if I do have a moral aim and feel fairly certain of having my way with it, I nevertheless can fairly be said to have treated the power of moral ideas merely as a function of their ability to win out in a contest of force or in a contest of forces of nature, and this is to concede, in the face of my own moral agenda, that there are no moral ideas, and that justice really is only the will of the stronger.

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If Douglas is not Thrasymachus, he is persuasively acting the part and, as Burt shows, Lincoln’s concern was with the effects of that assumed stance on “the public mind”—the democratic audience whose moral core would be hollowed out by what Douglas (somewhat unknowingly) taught. Though Burt continues to assert that “Douglas is not the villain of this book,” it must be said that Douglas does lose out to Lincoln. Burt’s title gives priority to Lincoln, as does his analysis.

The ultimate villain (for Burt as for Jaffa as for Lincoln) is John C. Calhoun. Indeed, Burt starts his analysis of Lincoln’s Peoria Speech with a description of Calhoun’s “joint sovereignty theory” by which dangerous innovation “Calhoun in 1837 had already put the Republic onto the rails that would lead it toward the train wreck that destroyed the Democratic Party in 1860, and the Union itself a year later.” Without constitutional warrant, Calhoun maintained that “the territories were not the property of the American people collectively but the joint property of the several states, and that therefore, in administering the territories, the federal government must do nothing that would jeopardize the interests of the slaveholding states in those territories.” Burt traces how this grenade of a doctrine continued to explode during the next 20 years of congressional battles over the territories, including the role it played in triggering Douglas’s desperate counter-innovation: the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act which attempted to shift responsibility to local majorities. Much later (almost 500 pages later), Burt returns to the ideologist of secession, presenting an insightful summary of Calhoun’s attack on the principles of the Declaration of Independence.

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Lincoln’ s Tragic Pragmatism contains much that is excellent. Burt has learned from, and generously acknowledges, the best work on Lincoln (not only Harry Jaffa, but Allen Guelzo, John Channing Briggs, William Lee Miller, Don Fehrenbacher, and many, many others). Aided by literary sensitivity and political horse sense, he is a nuanced interpreter of passages and positions. He is adept at supplying historical background about such matters as the Oregon Debates of 1847 or voter fragmentation during the decade of party upheaval (Buchaneers, anti-Lecompton Democrats, anti-Nebraska Democrats, Fillmore “Americans,” McLean Whigs, Conscience Whigs, Frémont “Americans,” and Liberty Party voters). As befits a professor of English, he mixes in the occasional high-toned reference to canonical American authors like Nathanial Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Ralph Waldo Emerson (and there’s a brilliant footnote on Henry James: page 743, note 30).

Finally, to his credit, Burt is on the trail of the most basic questions of self-government. What happens when a self-governing people wants what it ought not to want? “How can the need to stand by a just principle [i.e., slavery is wrong because all men are created equal] be reconciled with the obligation to secure the consent of the governed?” Can “persuasive engagement” bridge this gap between principle and consent? Can moral conflict over fundamentals be mediated through compromise? Given the limits of persuasive engagement, was the Civil War inevitable? To this last question, Burt reluctantly answers “yes.” Drawing on Lincoln’s descriptions of tyranny and intemperance in his early Lyceum and Temperance Addresses, Burt describes how powerfully the habit of mastery enslaves the masters themselves, in the end foreclosing “the political culture of freedom.”

Mastership, in Lincoln’s view, is, like addiction, a kind of trap door; to choose it is to freely destroy the possibility of one’s own freedom. Mastership is like tyranny: it appears to be an exercise of the agent’s power, but it is in fact the suicide of agency….

The slaveholder is a kind of alcoholic, except that he has not only sacrificed his own will to a compulsion but has also sacrificed the agency of any deliberative body in which he has a say to that compulsion as well, for the institution of slavery is so violent, and so politically unstable, that it must draw all of the other institutions of society around it (corrupting them in the process) in order to survive. In seeing slavery this way, Lincoln has in mind not only the primary violence against the slave needed to keep the slave in line, but also the ways in which slaveholders demand and are given a kind of veto power vastly out of proportion to their numbers. By whipping up loyalty politics and holding the knife to the throat of the union somehow about 100,000 slaveholding families were able to project 30 million people into a war that killed 623,000 of them.

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Burt admires how Lincoln, despite the closed hearts and minds with which he dealt, nevertheless held on to “an imagined construct” of “the respectable opponent.” As he said in the opening of the Peoria Address: “I do not propose to question the patriotism, or to assail the motives of any man, or class of men.” Lincoln never assumed that dialogue was futile, because he never demonized his opponents or sanctified his side. While this combination of charity and humility is most stunningly visible in the Second Inaugural, it is present throughout his speeches. At Peoria, Lincoln said sympathetically of the Southerners that “They are just what we would be in their situation.” At Cooper Union during the lead-up to his election, speaking directly to the Southerners, Lincoln said, “I consider that in the general qualities of reason and justice you are not inferior to any other people.” This generous assumption of the good will of his opponents was matched by Lincoln’s regular declarations of his own fallibility, beginning when he first ran for office at age 23: “upon the subjects of which I have treated, I have spoken as I thought. I may be wrong in regard to any or all of them; but holding it a sound maxim, that it is better to be only sometimes right, than at all times wrong, so soon as I discover my opinions to be erroneous, I shall be ready to renounce them.” Having from the first been open to second thoughts, Lincoln was able to discover the deeper thought that all shared in the national sin of slavery—a thought that disallowed retribution. Burt, in discussing the Second Inaugural, explains that

When Lincoln said “let us judge not, that we be not judged,” he did not mean, as Douglas meant when he quoted the same passage during the Lincoln-Douglas debates, that nobody is in a position to question the morality of slavery. What Lincoln restrained here was not his sense that slavery is wrong, but his sense of moral privilege over slaveholders, his sense that he was different in kind from them. Douglas had assumed that no actual human being is capable of making a moral distinction without transforming it into a club to wield against his enemies, and that no moral claim ever gets made without self-congratulation. But Lincoln’s strictures against “judging” did not mean that nobody should judge slavery, only that nobody has a right to imagine that they are morally pure relative to their enemies.

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The lesson Burt draws, with obvious applicability to the conduct of our political life today—marked as it is by the opposed errors of non-judgmentalism and self-righteousness—is that:

Good and evil matter intensely, but we are never allowed to know whether we are completely on the side of the angels or not, and we are bound by that recognition not to a craven surrender of our moral claims but to a magnanimous and pragmatic development of those claims.


We must act “with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right,” but we must not claim that the vision God allows us is identical to God’s own omniscience. At the close of the Cooper Union Address, as he faced not the vast work of reconstruction but the “menaces of destruction to the Government” from secessionists, Lincoln expressed a similar thought. There he spoke not of firmness but of daring: we must “dare to do our duty as we understand it.” Burt calls the necessary attitude, arising from an awareness of human fallenness and moral complicity, “tragic pragmatism,” or as he puts it in his final paragraphs, “a leap of faith.”

It must be noted that, on Burt’s reading, the content of this faith remains a bit obscure:

When Lincoln spoke of God’s claiming the outcome of the struggle on slavery, what he meant by “God” here seems to be the inner logic of violence as an agent of implicitness and becoming, which transforms the moral personalities of human beings in unpredictable but in retrospect comprehensible ways.


I’m quite prepared to believe that Lincoln’s religiosity was not altogether orthodox; however, he does suggest in the Second Inaugural that the interpretation he is forwarding—namely that God is exacting a blood price for the nation’s transgressions—does not entail “any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him.” Whatever the status of Lincoln’s personal faith, I doubt that “the believers in a Living God” would accept Burt’s naturalistic definition of the divine as “the inner logic of violence as an agent of implicitness.”

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This word “implicitness” is a key one for Burt; it does a large part of the work in his appropriation of Lincoln for progressivism. As he explains it, “the implicitness of a value means that our understanding of it is never fully adequate, and that it has entailments we cannot anticipate and that only experience forces us to confront.” Take equality, for instance: Burt grants that the founders regarded slavery as unjust (at the same time that they could not see their way free of it, at least not immediately); however, they did not anticipate that the full extension of the founding principle of equality would entail black citizenship. “Only concrete political exigencies force these entailments out of the shadows of latency, where they prepare the way for yet further entailments, unanticipated until they become urgent but inevitable once they do.”

Burt uses this Hegelian, historicist notion of how ideas manifest themselves in the world to explore Lincoln’s views on race and the status of blacks in America. During the debates with Douglas, Lincoln denied he had any intention to forward political or social equality for blacks. He also, like Thomas Jefferson and Henry Clay before him, endorsed colonization as a way to achieve black freedom without black citizenship. (Burt has a good section on the anti-slavery and anti-racist character of Clay’s sponsorship of colonization.) By war’s end, however, Lincoln had dropped all mention of colonization and was calling, cautiously and qualifiedly, for black suffrage. Is this a shift that demonstrates Lincoln’s ability to grow and mature, or at least his ability to adapt? Alternatively, did he all along hold more advanced views on race that he judiciously concealed until circumstances, which themselves bore the mark of his influence, allowed for their expression? Did Lincoln shift with the times or did the times come into better alignment with Lincoln? Burt, in effect, splits the difference, claiming that

Despite repeated denials that he favored racial equality, Lincoln 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…. Lincoln’s final views were in a way implicit in his earlier ones, and in coming out in favor of black suffrage after years of explicit denial of a commitment to such a thing, he was still not completely reversing field, since the commitment had precedents as deep as the denials did.


“Implicitness” allows Burt to waffle as to whether Lincoln was quite aware of what his choices meant. “Racial equality was within the penumbra of his intentions,” he writes, “in the shadows of his own willing…acknowledged and unacknowledged,” obscure even to himself.

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Although “implicitness” is a source of some insights, Burt overdoes it—both in his frequent appeals to it (repetition and reformulation render this book at least a hundred pages bigger than it needs to be) and in his questionable applications of it. As an all-purpose explanation, it strikes me as both flaccid and overwrought. Case in point:

“The better angels of our nature” is another name for what I have been calling the public mind, that zone of implicitness in which values take on all the complexity (and all the opacity) of living things, those identity-forming intuitions that always elude complete articulation but that inform and drive what we do articulate. To invoke the better angels of our nature is to invoke that intense but indescribable gravitational field that holds together the scraps of our acts and arguments and makes something whole and human of them, that ever-changing ground of becoming and belonging by which we are transformed into what we did not know we already were, and to which we are called back, by a shadowy kind of force, when we have bewildered ourselves.


The tenor of Burt’s analysis, here and in general, seems to me false to the spirit of Lincoln’s rhetoric and statesmanship. Lincoln did worry that the public mind had become bewildered, but the solution was not “a shadowy kind of force” calling us back intuitively to an “ever-changing ground of becoming.” Lincoln favored explicitness, not implicitness. As Lord Charnwood put it, he had “a passion for what the Greeks sometimes called ‘dialectic’; his rare capacity for solitary thought, the most marked and the greatest of his powers, went absolutely hand in hand with the desire to reduce his thoughts to a form which would carry logical conviction to others.” With Euclidean rigor, he sought to bring the nation back to its essential self, to its principled being as set forth in the interlocking truths of the Declaration. In a famous passage from his Dred Scott speech, Lincoln describes how the assertion of human equality served

to set up a standard maxim for free society, which could be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.


There certainly is a progressive element in this hope for the worldwide success of self-government. At the same time, however, the fixed standard sets limits. Lincoln says clearly that equality means equality with respect to rights—inalienable rights, that is. The Declaration commits the nation to natural rights and limited government, and not implicitly to plural marriage or Obamacare or whatever is next on the progressive agenda of ever-shifting becoming.

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The public mind needs to be sharpened rather than fuzzed over with “penumbras” and “imbrications.” Lincoln, from his first public statement to his last, sought to clarify and enlighten the public mind. In 1832, in his first run for office, he called education “the most important subject which we as a people can be engaged in.” Six years later, in his Lyceum Address, he called for “sober reason” to be molded into “general intelligence, sound morality, and, in particular, a reverence for the constitution and laws.” Four years later, in the Temperance Address, he panegyrized “mind, all conquering mind.” Throughout the decade leading to the Civil War, Lincoln patiently taught “the definitions and axioms of free society,” reminding Americans of the “understanding” of the Fathers. In the First Inaugural, he pleaded with his countrymen to “think calmly and well.” Finally, four days before his assassination, in almost the last sentence of his last public address, Lincoln said that “Important principles may, and must, be inflexible.”

Burt’s deficiency as a guide shows up most clearly in his misunderstanding of Lincoln’s constitutionalism. Indeed, he does not even use the word, instead speaking of “constitutionalization”: “Constitutionalizing each question is not merely a way to raise the stakes, to enlist a truly trumping authority on one’s own side. It was, and is, at bottom, an attempt to silence one’s opponents completely.” Yes, it can be. The slaveocrats, for instance, tried to claim constitutional warrant for the permanence and continued expansion of slavery and, thus, to brand the Republican Party as unconstitutional in its very aims. Lincoln, by contrast, tried to de-constitutionalize the issue, arguing that whether slavery would exist in the territories was not a matter settled by the Constitution, but was instead a policy matter to be settled by political disputation at all levels of government (including the voters) and among all branches. Moral objections to slavery might then inform one’s policy choices since there was no constitutional obligation to suppress them (as there was, say, with respect to the rendition of fugitive slaves). However, Lincoln’s de-constitutionalization was itself based on his reading of the Constitution. In a regime like ours, “constitutionalization” is inevitable; it is the mark of a people who revere their founding charter and seek constitutional warrant for their mode of life. What matters is one’s fidelity to the text and the accuracy (always contestable of course) of one’s interpretation.

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Lincoln’s criticism of Douglas’s Freeport doctrine reveals just how serious Lincoln was about living by the Constitution. (Note: living by the Constitution is the very opposite of “the living Constitution”—a notion whereby liberal judges pump fresh infusions of rights into a document that would otherwise, in their view, be moribund.) In the second debate at Freeport, Lincoln asked Douglas how he could square his endorsement of Chief Justice Roger Taney’s opinion in the Dred Scott case, which asserted, in part, that the Constitution “expressly affirmed” the right to hold slaves in the territories, with his doctrine of popular sovereignty which allowed local majorities to decide for or against slavery. In response, Douglas devised another doctrine, a patch of sorts now referred to as the Freeport Doctrine. He suggested that localities and state legislatures could effectually undercut the Court’s decision to guarantee property in man by passing “unfriendly legislation,” refusing to provide the legal support necessary for the functioning of a slave system. Lincoln, who did not believe that there was a constitutional right to slavery in the territories, lambasted Douglas for so blithely countenancing a form of nullification. Having acknowledged a constitutional right, Douglas then allowed it to be gutted in practice. Lincoln showed how Douglas’s doctrine could just as readily be employed by Northerners unwilling to return fugitive slaves, despite the existence of a federal law and constitutional language requiring their return. Lincoln’s final sentence of the debates skewers Douglas: “Why, there is not such an Abolitionist in the nation as Douglas, after all.” Burt sees this remark as “only a flash of wit” and the full passage as hyperbolic—a “sign not only of partisan excitement but also of a slippery argument.” The passage is indeed witty and dramatic (modeled I suspect on the passage from Daniel Webster’s “Second Reply to Hayne” in which Senator Robert Hayne is pictured leading the army of nullification). But Lincoln, like Webster, is altogether serious when he says: “I repeat that there has never been so monstrous a doctrine uttered from the mouth of a respectable man.” Burt blurs the crucial distinction between Lincoln and Douglas. Lincoln rejected Dred Scott as binding precedent and planned to challenge it in all the lawful ways a system based on checks and balances permits, such as electing a Congress and president pledged to overturn it (whether by appointing new judges, passing legislation that expressed a different understanding of the powers of Congress, or pursuing a corrective constitutional amendment). By contrast, Douglas professed allegiance to Dred Scott (and denounced Lincoln as revolutionary for criticizing it) and yet reassured free-soil voters that they could elude its effects. Here, we should give the last word to Harry Jaffa, who lucidly explained that

Douglas’s Freeport Doctrine was nothing less than a calculated indoctrination in incontinence. In so far as it was not sheer hypocrisy, it sanctioned the refusal to perform the most solemn of recognized constitutional obligations. As such, it was subversive of the entire process of moral education in the principles of free republican government.


Lincoln was alert to the widening breakdown of constitutionalism, whether stemming from Calhoun’s state-based nullifiers and secessionists, or the Garrisonian abolitionists’ antinomian exaltation of the individual conscience, or Douglas’s granting free license to the popular will. It was all of a piece. We have seen a version of it lately in a president who has sworn his oath of office upon the Lincoln Bible, pledged to take care that the laws be faithfully executed, and then decided not to enforce laws he personally dislikes. Abraham Lincoln is still our best resource for understanding the meaning of the Declaration and the constitutional obligations of citizens and statesmen. As he knew, the public mind needs strong fortification if the nation is to preserve—or recover—its political institutions.

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Author John Burt discusses this review with Diana Schaub in our online feature, Upon Further Review.

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For Correspondence on this review, click here