Understanding Lincoln

I'm very grateful for Diana Schaub's review of my book, particularly for the way she centered her analysis on what I saw as the key themes of my book, rather than on side issues, extensions, or contemporary applications ("Lincoln for Liberals," Fall 2013).

Schaub makes her most interesting and pointed critique of my reading of Lincoln concerning what I call "implicitness." In using this term I develop the view that our explicit, propositional accounts of our values are never fully adequate to them, and that our values have entailments we cannot anticipate, ones which we are forced to confront only by experience.

Schaub is right to say that Lincoln always sought in his public statements—and in particular in his public arguments against partisan opponents—to clarify and sharpen the public mind. She also has a point that understanding political agents to be making implicit commitments they might have explicitly disavowed (such as the commitment to racial equality) could serve as a license to justify just about anything. My argument is that Lincoln's Euclidean habits of argument and his respect for implicitness can be reconciled with each other, and that he deployed the theme of implicitness in a way that minimized (but did not completely eliminate) the possibility that it could be used in an unprincipled way.

Schaub notices that I embraced the idea of implicitness as a way of interpreting the evolution of Lincoln's ideas about racial equality. During the debates with Stephen Douglas, Lincoln made his hostility to slavery clear but denied that he sought political rights or social equality for black people, seeking only to restrict the spread of slavery into the western territories in the hope of fatally weakening it. Once it became clear that emancipation was a necessary precondition for restoration of the Union, Lincoln at first sought black freedom without black citizenship, calling for black (male) suffrage only in the last weeks of the war, and even then very cautiously. When, however, one looks back at some of his wartime declarations, such as his 1862 Annual Message, Gettysburg Address, 1863 letter to James Conkling, and Second Inaugural Address, one sees that he had laid the groundwork for a more robust conception of racial equality he never came to the point of enacting.

Concerning the transformation of his public policies on these issues, Schaub asks the central question: "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?" I don't think the historical record provides very persuasive evidence for the second proposition, much as I wish it were true. I believe that when one looks at the arguments he made about slavery in the western territories in 1858, one sees him groping in the direction of racial equality. The maturation of this view was far from inevitable from the beginning, and the inner logic of its unfolding could only have become clear in retrospect.

My argument about Lincoln resembles his own argument about Jefferson. The issues in Jefferson's case are more pointed because Jefferson's acts and his professions are more contradictory than Lincoln's were. The Declaration did not merely commit the nation to natural rights and limited government but to an ideal of moral equality at odds both with the prevailing racism of the society and with the specific racism of Jefferson's own convictions, particularly in his final years. Yet he trembled for his country when he reflected that God is just, and did his best to keep slavery out of the old Northwest. The arguments we still have about Jefferson are strikingly similar to those Lincoln and Douglas had about him. If we emphasize what in Jefferson's thought seems to transcend the ugly conditions of his time and place, we must face the fact that not only his life but his published and unpublished writings frequently contradict them. If we treat his words in a "historicized" way—in the context of a society which would have balked at seeing those words as a promise of racial or gender equality—then we cannot use those words to find our moral or political bearings now, because in that case their teaching is unacceptable. Even Lincoln, let us remember, in his 1857 Dred Scott speech, understood the founders to be promising to black people only the right not to be enslaved and the right to earn their own bread by the sweat of their brows, not the right to political or social equality, despite what might seem to us to be the obvious implication of the phrase "all men are created equal."

Like Jefferson before him with regard to slavery, Lincoln committed himself and his nation to an ideal of equality that had implications he was not yet completely ready to face, but obscurely knew he would ultimately have to bring both himself and our republic to acknowledge. In doing so, he believed himself to be fulfilling, not overturning, the values of the founders, despite the various inequalities the founders not only tolerated but embraced, because he saw himself as expressing a more profound apprehension of the founding values of the republic than that articulated by the antebellum Constitution.

Both Jefferson and Lincoln were in a position to deny embracing these ideas about equality, and their denials may not have been entirely strategic. Lincoln himself never fully and explicitly embraced social and political equality of the races. And despite what would seem to us to be the pretty plain language of the 14th and 15th amendments, neither did the Supreme Court, nor the federal government, nor much of the political class of the United States for nearly a century after Appomattox, including many of those who inscribed their intentions in the Reconstruction amendments. If one honors Lincoln's values it is because they run deeper than his hesitations did. If one honors the intentions of the authors and ratifiers of the Reconstruction amendments one must look past those hesitations to the values, even if doing so means setting aside some of the lawmakers' contemporary understanding of what equality means. To insist upon an originalist reading of the Constitution, as that word "originalist" is currently understood, is to deny that racial equality is a key value our republic must not trample. Lincoln did not know the meaning of the promise of equality when he made it.

John Burt
Brandeis University
Waltham, MA

 

Diana Schaub replies:

Based on John Burt's reply, two points of disagreement emerge: the meaning of the Declaration and the question of "the evolution of Lincoln's ideas about racial equality."

We might as well start at the beginning. Burt attaches the word "promise" to the Declaration's language about equality. His notion of "implicitness"—the view that "our values have entailments we cannot anticipate"—seems to me closely linked to his choice of the noun "promise." A promise—as in the "for better or worse" of the marital vow—might well involve more than the parties to the promise naïvely expect. However, I don't believe that either Jefferson (taking him as paradigmatic of the founding generation) or Lincoln regarded human equality as in the nature of a promise. Instead, the Declaration calls it a "self-evident truth," unfortunately not evident to every self the world over (either then or now), but evident at least to those Revolutionary Americans who had hold of it.

On Jefferson's understanding, all men—white and black, male and female—simply were equal in the relevant sense of being endowed with natural rights to life and liberty. I suppose one might describe this as God's promise (or gift) to man, but it is not a promise made by men to one another or by the government to the governed. It is instead the essential truth of the human condition, a truth not invalidated by the harsh fact that most human beings have lived under political orders that violate their natural rights—slavery being the most dramatic instance.

Although equality is not a promise, it does have political ramifications. For Jefferson, it meant that black slaves were surely entitled to liberty, but not necessarily entitled to American citizenship, since natural rights are distinct from civil rights. Those who have acted to secure their own rights by bringing forth a government pledged to that object should not abuse the notion of consent by enslaving non-consenting others. At the same time, there is no obligation to include all others in your body politic, especially if, as Jefferson sincerely believed, inclusion on a footing of equal freedom might culminate in race war. In the fundamental but limited sense of equality spoken of in the Declaration, Jefferson is perfectly egalitarian and non-racist.

In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson floats the idea of black intellectual inferiority, although he later retracts his doubts about "the grade of understanding allotted to them by nature," noting that the circumstantial limitations of enslavement might be responsible for the deficiencies he observed. Though the racist speculations in his writings are profoundly disappointing and repellent to us today, they aren't necessarily incompatible with the meaning of the Declaration, since as he himself explicitly put it in his 1809 letter to Henri Grégoire: "whatever be their degree of talent it is no measure of their rights. Because Sir Isaac Newton was superior to others in understanding, he was not therefore lord of the person or property of others." There is no natural right to rule—not by whites, not by men, not by the rich, not even by the wise. The only legitimate foundation of rule is consent.

Lest my own view be misconstrued, let me say that my sympathies have always been with Frederick Douglass, who believed in the possibility not only of common citizenship but of full racial integration and a new composite nationality. Nonetheless, I think it's highly significant that Douglass did not argue for black suffrage by appealing to the "promise" or "inner logic" of the Declaration. He fully understood that the political claim to equal citizenship required a different sort of argument than the natural and universal claim to freedom. In order to secure passage of the 15th Amendment, Douglass appealed not to the Declaration but to the Constitution of 1787 (arguing, with documented historical warrant, that free blacks formed part of "We the People"). He highlighted the history of black contributions to the building and defense of the nation, stretching from the labor and loyalty of black slaves to the courage and patriotism of black soldiers. He stressed the nation's debt of honor, and he made blatant appeals to white self-interest, warning that without civil and political equality, the Negro would become "a scourge and a curse to the country." In other words, Douglass's arguments were grounded in the specific, historically contingent character and experience of the American political order. Since consent in the United States had taken the concrete form of society-wide male suffrage (a form which was not, in fact, mandated by the more open-ended principles of the Declaration, which allowed for consent to take a variety of institutional shapes), any race-based exclusion would be invidious.

What about Lincoln, then? Earlier I said that the Declaration presents equality not as a "promise" but as a "self-evident" or axiomatic truth. Although there are places where Lincoln uses the orthodox language of "axiom" or "standard maxim" to describe the primary truth of the Declaration, his most famous formulation calls human equality a "proposition" to which the nation "conceived in liberty" was "dedicated." All these terms ("self-evident," "axiom," and "proposition") are borrowed from mathematics, but it is worth reflecting on Lincoln's shift from one Euclidean term to the other. A proposition, unlike an axiom, requires a proof (as early as the Lyceum Address, Lincoln speaks of the need for "a practical demonstration of the truth of a proposition…namely, the capability of a people to govern themselves"). While "proposition" has something of the prospective quality of a "promise," they aren't the same thing.

In the midst of a civil war, brought on by a serious falling away from the meaning of both equality and consent, it seems right for Lincoln to imply that a truth once firmly held as self-evident had moved into the ranks of a propositional truth that must be proved in action—that action being the maintenance of the Union. His rallying speech is designed to ensure that the nation, and the cause of popular government, "shall not perish from the earth." He uses the future tense, but his words do not soar into the Progressive stratosphere. They are here on earth ("here" is, in fact, the most frequently used word in the Gettysburg Address, occurring eight times in its ten sentences). Not perishing—the survival rather than the perfection of democracy—is the aim. Yet, it isn't a small aim; it might even be earth-shaking, since the Union preserved will constitute the needed proof, and thus will be a "new birth of freedom."

Burt argues that the "ideal of equality" had "implications [Lincoln] was not yet completely ready to face, but obscurely knew he would ultimately have to bring both himself and our republic to acknowledge." I agree that the republic had a great ways to go in overcoming racial prejudice; however, I think a case can be made that Lincoln was not himself in need of such consciousness-raising. Burt says he doesn't think "the historical record provides very convincing or unambiguous evidence" that Lincoln held more advanced views on race that he concealed or qualified for prudential reasons. He sees Lincoln as "groping," dimly understanding, finally maturing, but still falling short of "fully and explicitly embrac[ing] social and political equality of the races." I understand the reasons for such a view, but I also think that the evidence for an alternative view can be found in a close reading of Lincoln's own words.

The Peoria address, his first appearance on the political scene after the repeal of the Missouri Compromise in 1854, contains a remarkable passage in which, after saying that he would focus on the extension of slavery to the territories, Lincoln instead engages in a comprehensive thought-experiment, considering what the nation's options would be "if all earthly power were given me." His "first impulse" he says "would be to free all the slaves, and send them to Liberia,—to their own native land." But he recognizes two sorts of difficulties with this plan: the freed slaves would not be prepared for pioneering and the U.S. doesn't have the resources to transport them. Although Lincoln remained interested in colonization efforts, he, unlike Jefferson, was quite able to envision other possibilities. He was not paralyzed by racial fear.

Since Exodus-style colonization is unlikely, Lincoln wonders, "What then? Free them all, and keep them among us as underlings?" In considering this option, Lincoln's concern is that such a degraded version of freedom might be as bad as slavery: "Is it quite certain that this betters their condition?" Frederick Douglass concurred, declaring in an 1863 speech in which he too considered various scenarios: "Do anything else with us, but plunge us not into this hopeless pit" ("The Present and Future of the Colored Race in America").

So Lincoln pushes on, "What next?—Free them, and make them politically and socially, our equals?" Here, Lincoln's reflections get really interesting. His first reaction is to say "my own feelings will not admit of this," but he quickly amends that to say "and if mine would [emphasis added], we well know that those of the great mass of white people will not." So Lincoln can at least imagine a change in his own feelings on this matter. Moreover, his next move is to call into question these widespread prejudicial feelings on the part of whites: "Whether this feeling accords with justice and sound judgment, is not the sole question…. A universal feeling, whether well or ill-founded, cannot be safely disregarded." Lincoln understands the force of white prejudice, hints that it is wrong (unjust, unwise, and "ill-founded"), and is aware of the obstacle it poses even to the project of emancipation. If he shares this anti-black animus to some extent, his insight into its nature is the beginning of its extirpation.

Despite his statement that "We can not, then, make them equals," Lincoln does not give up. He moves from these three schemes of immediate emancipation (each highly troubled in some way) to a final suggestion: "It does seem to me that systems of gradual emancipation might be adopted." Gradualism does not obviate the eventual need to figure out where blacks stand in the polity; however, it does give time for both blacks and whites to adjust to new realities.

The fact that Lincoln sees all this, that he walks his audience so carefully through it, suggests to me that he has an openness to "the other" (to use contemporary lingo) that is not the result of historical developments, but of rigorous reflection about himself and his fellow man. If the logic of bettered race relations really is "inner" then it can be understood in advance by analysis. It doesn't depend on some Hegelian dialectic or "trial by contraries," as Burt says. It can be arrived at by a sufficiently inquiring mind.

Although I agree with Burt that, in terms of his policy positions, Lincoln never came out forthrightly in favor of full political equality, it seems to me that he did express (early and clearly) the democratic requirement for that eventual outcome, given the near certainty that the freedmen would remain in America, the land of their birth. His cautious gradualism on the race question is attributable to preparing the public mind for that consummation.

This exchange of letters is derived from the discussion between John Burt and Diana Schaub posted at our online feature, Upon Further Review.

Defending Big Data

Christopher Caldwell has distinguished himself as one of the most prescient observers of society, business, and technology. So it is a tragedy that, in an atypical fog, he has reinterpreted the book I co-authored, Big Data, through the lens of ideological politics and produced extrapolations that resemble something one would expect to read in Dissentmagazine from the 1980s ("Information Slaves," Fall 2013).

To step back: what's meant by big data, boiled down, is basically applying empiricism and statistics to new areas (thinkMoneyball), or harnessing information to do new things (like self-driving cars). It shares a lineage more with Galileo's science than Mark Zuckerberg's Facebook.

So when Caldwell asserts that big data "is going to make a lot of people less free," one can only ask what brand of hippy-dippy Leftist pap he's been inhaling. Likewise his view that "the alliance of Big Data and Big Government is an intellectual humiliation for those conservatives" who strove to reduce taxes to encourage entrepreneurship. Putting these ideas together makes as much sense as a Rorschach test. But if anything, it swings in the opposite direction: conservatives might claim victory in creating the environment for a new generation of information-based businesses to flourish.

The review gets weirder. My co-author, Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, and I are scolded for not calling Google a monopoly (we use the terms "dominance," "gatekeeper," and "data-baron" because the market is not monopolistic). We're criticized for pointing out flaws in the no-fly list (it would be odder still to defend it). We spend a quarter of the book examining the dark side of big data only to be told we merely "pooh-pooh" it. What did Caldwell think we meant by our litany of data abuses, from Japanese internment to the Nazis' using Dutch civil records to round up Jews? Ultimately, the review makes me feel a victim of friendly fire.

"The situation calls for caution," he concludes, as if a preemptive regulatory kommisar. His final words (about web users "clamoring for their own enslavement") fall just short of suggesting we have nothing to lose but our chains and the world to gain. Please bring back the real Christopher Caldwell!

Kenneth Cukier
The Economist
London, England

John Ford and Race

Douglas Jeffrey's review of my book, The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend ("Monument Valley," Fall 2013), begins with the bald and misleading statement that I have interpreted John Ford's classic western "as a film about race" and that my view is "typical of contemporary criticism," which sounds like an insult when Jeffrey says it. Well, yes, I do believe the movie is about race ("They're not white, not anymore," says the protagonist referring to a group of rescued white captives. "They're Comanch."), but it's about many other things as well—gender, violence, vengeance, religion, honor, and the triumph of love over hate, to name a few that I discuss in my book. Jeffrey also claims, incredibly, that I view all of Ford's westerns "through the prism of race." He wants to pick a fight with contemporary (read liberal) critics and he has no intention of letting any inconvenient facts get in his way.

For the record, my book pays homage to Ford as a supreme cinematic artist who not only helped create the classic western and its attendant myths but who, as he aged and his artistry matured, both deepened and at times undermined and dissected those myths. Jeffrey lumps me and my book with those contemporary villains like Clint Eastwood and Quentin Tarantino who he believes hold a postmodern view of "a world with only anti-heroes." It's easy to see where Jeffrey is trying to go with all of this, but I reject his insistence on twisting my book into a suitable vehicle for his simplistic, ideologically-driven journey.

Glenn Frankel
The University of Texas at Austin
Austin, TX

Douglas A. Jeffrey replies:

Professor Frankel refers to my "bald and misleading statement" that he interprets The Searchers in terms of race. In the very next sentence he baldly and honestly admits it. If being puzzled by this is his definition of simplistic, I plead guilty. I never of course suggested that his book makes no reference to gender, violence, and other themes, only that its emphasis is on race—a fact even a casual reader would find undeniable. As for our substantive disagreement, the quote Frankel offers to support his race-based interpretation actually undermines it. That the rescued captives referred to by the protagonist as "Comanch" are in fact not Comanche, but white, indicates that what he means by "Comanch" transcends race. The fact that this isn't obvious to someone who has given the film as much thought as Frankel is further proof, as my review suggested, that his brand of criticism is severely blinkered by the prejudices of our day.

Bluster aside, there is nothing else new here. Frankel simply reasserts his book's thesis that the "mature" Ford of The Searchers was engaged in subverting what he had earlier accomplished—a misguided notion sufficiently addressed in my review. I need to clarify for the record, though, that I admire Clint Eastwood and in no way consider him a villain. Quentin Tarantino is another matter.

Wagner's Genius

Thanks to Algis Valiunas for a masterful, concise, and insightful introduction to Wagner's main works ("Wagner High and Low," Fall 2013). Following Barry Millington's Wagner, however, he inordinately fixates on the composer's anti-semitism. Yes, "the terrible man and his truthful art," as Owen Lee says. Valiunas cites the great Austrian composer Mahler, a Jew who loved Wagner's music; he is the more mature critic. Great art endures because of its universal relevance. It is perverse to focus on the narrow "German" rather than on the universally relevant concept "Art." Many have experienced the truth of Wagner's contention that, beyond suffering and the need for renunciation, Art can lift us toward a holy, transcendent intuition of, and participation in, something beyond discursive concepts. (See John Pohanka's Wagner the Mystic.) That is surely the culminating, enduring meaning and insight of Meistersinger.

Valiunas does cite Mahler's insight that Mime in the Ring is above all a picture of the potential for baseness in us all. Much turns on our interpretation of the conceptual ambiguity of the ending of the Ring, and on whether or not we understandParsifal as the more mature clarification of those last measures of pure music, where Wagner felt we could soar beyond words and concepts in pure Art. "Redemption by love" is the common interpretation of that very last sublime cadence, ending in a most tranquil key. It would seem to support, if not suggest, Parsifal as a culminating "fifth opera" of the Ring. (See Paul Schofield's Redeemer Reborn.) Valiunus understands this last work much better than Nietzsche, who persisted in identifying Christianity with the gnostic heresy it rejected. Valiunas's description of the work as "sublime as clerestory light" and "steeped in the healing power of Nature" points deftly to Parsifal's word to Kundry, "You weep—and see, the meadow smiles" [watered by her tears].And also to the work's theme of Durch mitleid wissend—Enlightened through compassion. All in all, a much richer and complex understanding of life than that asserted by the naïve optimism of Feuerbach and the early utopian endings of the Ring, and by the simplistic, cynical Schopenhauer ending of the Ring! There is a Cross at the heart of Being. Suffering is an inevitable price for the joys of living in this universe. Recall Herman Melville's late poem "The New Rosicrucians," where "anew we twine/ the Rose-vine round the Cross."

William Gillham
Albion, MI

Brush Up Your Shakespeare

Although I am grateful to Mark Heberle for his review of my book, and for many of his comments, I am also puzzled ("The Play Is the Thing," Fall 2013). From its title to its conclusion, his review describes and criticizes a book that is not the one that I have written. I do not attempt "to recover—and uncover—the classical political thought within five plays" that I examine but to articulate Shakespeare's political wisdom, which is—to be sure, and as I stress—pre-modern, but is also something other than "classical political thought," since (for one thing) it takes into account developments of Christian origin. I do not, moreover, "read Shakespeare as political philosophy." I read him as a poet of the first rank, who would (as would, for example, Homer) have addressed the same questions of high political life—including divine justice—that one finds addressed in works of Socratic political philosophy but who was not, as far as we know, intent (as were the Socratics) on using the examination of those questions as a means of leading their readers to a life of philosophy or to an admiration of philosophy.

Above all, I do not "assume," as Heberle claims I do, "that Shakespeare would have read, absorbed, re-imagined, and dramatized classical political thought"; contrary to what Heberle claims, the references that I make to Aristophanes, Plato, Aristotle, and Machiavelli do not rest on any such assumption. (My references to Plutarch and Holinshed are another matter.) They are intended, instead, to be of assistance to the reader who might find in them reflections of a similar or auxiliary kind to those prompted by Shakespeare. In one instance, to be sure, I defend a claim that a character (Prospero) is "philosophic" on the basis of a statement made in a Platonic text (the Phaedo) about what philosophy is, but even there I do not claim or imply that Shakespeare was familiar with that work or statement. Nor do I, on the other hand, presentJulius Caesar "as its creator's most sustained and complex critique of classical political philosophy" (emphasis added). I have to wonder where in my chapter on Julius Caesar Heberle found a single sentence that suggested a critique of "classical political philosophy," as opposed to, say, a critique of Brutus's Stoicism and Cassius' Epicureanism (both of which are explicitly referenced in the play). To repeat, I treat Shakespeare as a great poet who, like Homer, turned his attention to a careful analysis of political life—that is, to an analysis of the battle between human beings who have competing understandings of virtue and vice, noble and base, just and unjust.

Heberle appears to find distasteful or wrongheaded my attempt to examine each play "act by act, scene by scene, speech by speech." His distaste is probably well founded; I too admire the ability of, for example, a Harold Bloom to write a short, thematic essay on each play. But that was not my aim, and if I may say so, my approach to the plays has its own advantages—chief among which is that it does not overlook significant details. Heberle finds, however, that my final four essays, which have fewer scholarly footnotes than has the first, are also "less coherent" than the first, if "still illuminating." I would have been glad for at least one example of this alleged incoherence. He notes in the same context that the five plays examined in my book have been the subject of a course on Shakespeare that I have taught, and he suggests that my final four essays suffer from that fact. I would again have been grateful for examples, but none are offered, and so I am left to wonder how teaching a course on five plays for more than a dozen years, off and on, reconsidering and revising, attempting to make my arguments clear to many different students, is detrimental to a book of this sort.

Heberle, finally, faults me for excluding from my study the history plays, "despite their manifestly political content." He acknowledges that in my introduction I make an argument against their inclusion on the ground that "political life in these plays is distorted and diminished by Christian ethics." He claims, however, that this argument "would seem to be a good reason for examining" them. It would indeed, were one interested in writing a book on the diminishment of political life by Christian ethics. But that was, very explicitly, not the book I set out to write. I also point out in my introduction—as Heberle does not mention—that in my Macbeth chapter I do examine this matter. He says nothing about that chapter, except to sniff that my interpretation of Macbeth and of King Lear "would be familiar to anyone who has spent much time with these plays." Let me suggest in reply that I very much doubt it.

In his penultimate sentence Heberle argues that according to me, Prospero's "ultimate wisdom…discovers no difference between a stage play and the ‘insubstantial pageant' of the world that, like all of us, will ultimately ‘dissolve' and ‘leave not a rack behind.'" "And yet," Heberle concludes, "Shakespeare endures." This conclusion is enigmatic. Does Heberle seriously hold that the temporary endurance of Shakespeare's poetry suggests that that poetry is immune to what will dissolve everything else in the world? Or that it otherwise constitutes a refutation of Prospero's profoundly insightful lines concerning the dissolution of the world? Perhaps Heberle has a convincing alternative to what Prospero says. If so, I would be interested to learn what it is.

Timothy W. Burns
Baylor University
Waco, TX

Bravo!

What a great issue (Fall 2013)! Michael Nelson and Christopher Caldwell outdo the norm for book reviews, right in the first few pages. Nelson hits major points in his sober review of Romney's campaign. Caldwell provides really a sterling overview of the big data question and how it ought to be a property rights issue. Really, a model of not being overwhelmed by a recent development that everyone else is genuflecting over as deeply as they can. Bravo!

Geoffrey White
Kanawha, IA

 

The Parthian Shot's Mark Helprin is on leave to write a book.