Posted: August 24, 2015
very author should be so lucky to have a reader as thoughtful and committed to careful reading as Diana Schaub (“Equality and Liberty,” Winter 2014/15). She gets a lot right, a few small things wrong, and raises three related issues that are worth engaging at length. These concern my treatment of God, equality, and democracy.
On these subjects, Schaub gets off on the wrong track, mainly by virtue of misreading my treatment of the idea of Nature’s God. She writes: “Allen desperately wants there to be a solid non-religious foundation for rights. She betrays the same discomfort that I have seen in my students when they encounter Martin Luther King, Jr.’s insistence on the theistic assumptions that inform the practice of nonviolent resistance. She wants the wiggle-room of the ‘and/or’ formulation.” Schaub seems to suggest that I am seeking a secular foundation for the Declaration of Independence, and so also writes: “It’s hard to build this kind of political religion on the sandy soil of secular self-interest.”
In fact, I seek a compromise arrangement, or an overlapping consensus, that will permit believers and non-believers both to embrace the Declaration. The religious language in the Declaration similarly crafts a compromise. It studiously avoids commitment to any particular theological doctrine or sectarian view; this made it possible for deists like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson to affirm the same document as a Puritan like Roger Sherman. In so doing, the Declaration’s religious language signals not only democracies’ profound need for compromise but also, specifically, the central importance of religious compromise. Schaub comments that my reading of this passage may be “close” but is less than “faithful” to the text, and, in a sense, she is right. The compromise that I identify as possible—between the faithful and the secular—goes beyond that effected in 1776 among Christians, deists, and closet atheists. I do not, however, believe that it goes much beyond it—so stark already were the disagreements that characterized the religious views of the time. My reading is true to the Declaration in seeking to probe the contours of the space it provides for religious compromise, and testing that space for capaciousness.
Because Schaub reads me (I think) as choosing a side in the fight between faith and secularism rather than as attempting to forge a compromise, she then misreads my account of human equality. Schaub argues that I treat equality as a purely human creation, rather than as something that precedes our own doing. She writes: “On her reading, nature (and/or God) blesses us with political life and we, in turn, make various beautiful forms of equality our political handiwork. Thus, [Allen] evokes equality not as a pre-political datum, but rather as a flower ‘only half bloomed in this land.’” In fact, I argue that we are blessed with a natural equality that consists of both our moral equality and our political capacity. In the Declaration, our moral equality is expressed with reference to our basic rights (which capture the fact that we just do pursue our survival, freedom, and well-being and ought to be left alone to do so, if we are to be the kinds of creatures we are and to have a chance at peace).
But our natural equality also consists of our political capacity to build governments that protect our basic pursuits as enforceable rights. The right use of our natural equality is through the deployment of that political capacity to establish political equality. So, yes, we ought to make “various beautiful forms of equality our political handiwork,” but equality does not make its first appearance on the human stage on account of our own handiwork. Equality enters the world when each of us does—which was, of course, in the case of every single one of us, not a matter of our own doing.
The key question, then, is how best to understand the project of building from moral to political equality. What should be the object of our handiwork? A republic, or a democracy? In my view, this is a non-question. In fact, it can only seem a real question if, again, the compromises that secured the early American polity are obscured. The politics of the early United States were characterized by an argument over whether more democratic or more aristocratic approaches to politics should prevail, and to suggest that a single term—whether “democracy” or “republic”—came to define the new political entity obscures the enduring argument over that question and the history of specific compromises achieved to make it possible for those who disagreed powerfully with one another to participate nonetheless as equal shareholders of the new set of public political institutions.
Plenty of people probably voted for the Constitution because they thought it created a “republic,” but plenty of others probably did because they thought it forged what Alexander Hamilton called a “representative democracy.” Once again, a close look at the founding shows us the formation of an overlapping consensus. Whatever we may call governments that derive their power from the people, they can function only with compromise. The right kinds of compromise make it possible for people to play the same game, even if for different reasons. Not all compromises are worthy, but there are many more good ones than we commonly believe these days.
Institute for Advanced Study
Diana Schaub replies:
I think Danielle Allen’s restatement of her position confirms my initial characterizations (which were perhaps not stated clearly enough).
I think I did not misread her when I asserted that she is intent on finding “a solid non-religious foundation for rights.” I did not say, or mean to imply, that she wants such a foundation to be the only one or even the prevailing one (indeed, I don’t have any reason to think it is her own preferred foundation). I understood that she aimed at inclusiveness. My point was simply that the Declaration is not phrased in terms of two possibilities: the religious or the secular. As Allen says, she is seeking a “compromise arrangement” or “overlapping consensus.” However, her desired consensus is different from the one in the Declaration, as she acknowledges when she says that, “in a sense, [Schaub] is right” that the reading offered in Our Declaration is “less than ‘faithful.’”
In the quest for inclusiveness, the scope of possible agreement between believers and non-believers is a key question. “Closet atheism”—which might be better described as philosophic agnosticism about the ultimate questions of cosmology—can comport quite comfortably with the Declaration’s original formulation and meaning. However, the atheism we encounter today cannot. Much of contemporary atheism is arrogantly dogmatic. As we see from the transfigurations wrought in the last couple of decades, the uncloseted version of a thing has profoundly different social effects from the closeted version.
Even Thomas Jefferson, who argues that the law ought to tolerate avowed atheists (since the avowal “neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg”), makes clear that he speaks only of liberty for the “operations of the mind.” Thus, in Query XVII of Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson, having defended the right “to say there are twenty gods, or no god,” goes on to argue that the courtroom testimony of an avowed atheist might be rejected and socially stigmatized. Abraham Lincoln seems to go further when he says that the one who is “an open enemy of, and scoffer at, religion” has no right “thus to insult the feelings, and injure the morals, of the community in which he may live.” In other moods, Jefferson too recognized the threat of moral injury. In the very next Query after his qualified defense of public atheism, he worries whether “the liberties of a nation [can] be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God.”
My further point was that Allen’s attempt to find “overlapping consensus” between believers and non-believers undercuts the ground she needs if she is to realize her own hopes for a “beloved community.” The phrase, which comes from Booker T. Washington, via Martin Luther King, Jr., captures the exalted character of her political aspirations and underlying “sublime optimism about human potential” (which she attributes to the Declaration as well). Although there is much that believers and non-believers can agree on when it comes to goals like security and prosperity, a beloved community requires more. Beloved communities require soulful individuals, and followers of Thomas Hobbes ain’t that.
On human equality, again, I don’t think I have misread. I grant that Allen subscribes to a notion of both original equality and politically achieved equality, and further that she thinks we can achieve real, tangible equality as a result of a “blessed” (or “lucky,” since we should remember our need to overlap with the atheists among us) fact of our nature: our equality in political capacity. My point was that the founders would not agree with her thesis of equal political capacity (at least not in its strong version) or her view that the main aim of political action is the achievement of equality of condition. My formulation in the review, which was perhaps too schematic, was an attempt to show two things: how Allen shifts the main weight of equality forward, into an egalitarian political project (her avowed aim) and how she does so by denying that there is any pre-political realm or status. I think I am correct in saying that Allen does not regard equality as a “pre-political datum” since, for her, humanity’s original equality includes equality with respect to political capacity. In her view, we are political beings through and through—and that does seem to me a departure from the anthropology of the Declaration.
So, on to government. When the Declaration says the people may design whatever form of government seems to them “most likely to effect their safety and happiness,” it makes room for choices other than democracy and more democracy. For instance, we might deploy our political capacity by making allowance for politically significant forms of inequality. Federalist 10 argues that “the first object of government” is the protection of “the diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate.” Allen’s exclusive focus on equality leads to a neglect of other goods that human beings seek through government, like liberty, stability, and good administration.
The final issue raised by Allen is compromise. It is incorrect to say that I spurned compromise as “temporizing with prejudice.” Rather, I embraced compromise as “temporizing with prejudice”—surely you wouldn’t reject my willingness to compromise just because my reason for compromising is not the same as another’s. It is true that I don’t believe compromise is a good in itself or that the spirit of compromise is a virtue. Prudence is a virtue, and while it often supports the call for compromise, it doesn’t always.
My model for such judgment is Abraham Lincoln. It’s interesting to look at Lincoln’s 1852 eulogy for Henry Clay, who had acquired the sobriquet “the Great Compromiser” for his role in brokering the Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1850. In praising Clay, Lincoln ostentatiously avoids using the term “compromise,” instead stressing Clay’s anti-slavery stance and “his ruling passion—a love of liberty and right, unselfishly, and for their own sakes.” With great subtlety, Lincoln positions himself as the heir of Clay, “as the man for a crisis.” When that crisis arrived, Lincoln famously rejected the scramble for compromise measures. The Crittenden Compromise, for instance, was a legislative attempt to avert the dissolution of the Union by relenting on the question of the extension of slavery into the territories. Lincoln quashed it, since it would in effect have invalidated the people’s choice of Lincoln and the Republican Party, as expressed through the mechanism of a perfectly constitutional election. He felt duty-bound to reject it. “And the war came.”
A more demanding practice of self-government would be one that resuscitated not simply compromise but prudence, with its ability to sometimes counsel flexibility and at other times hold out intransigently for principle, even at great cost. Of course, I don’t entertain the utopian hope that prudence will ever be generally possessed (I know I don’t have it)—or that “collective intelligence” and “egalitarian approaches to knowledge cultivation” could ever substitute for it—and so I would prefer that we not dismantle the “inventions of prudence” (Federalist 51) that have been constitutionally bequeathed to us.
My thanks to Lucas Morel for his incisive and large-hearted review (“Our Fathers,” Spring 2015). It is a lucky author who is taken so seriously and explained so well. Morel and I mostly agree on Lincoln and the founders, but part ways on Lincoln’s religion. There are two reasons for this, one biographical, one historical.
Morel downplays Lincoln’s congenital darkness. It is risky diagnosing dead people, but Lincoln was certainly prone to depression in the ordinary sense of the word, if not the medical. His temperament found expression in his reading. Morel leaves Lord Byron—Romanticism’s Jim Morrison—off my list of Lincoln’s favorite poets, and leans too much on the religious consolation to be found in William Shakespeare. But there isn’t much religious consolation in Shakespeare, except perhaps in the romances and some of the comedies, which Lincoln did not prize. His inner theater played Macbeth, not The Winter’s Tale or A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The verses Lincoln himself wrote are bleak indeed.
Lincoln’s temperament inflected his understanding of the nature of things. I believe one reason his youthful intoxication with Thomas Paine’s deism wore off was that it was too optimistic for him: religions are horrible, but the God of philosophy and science made a wonderful world! We must imagine Lincoln thinking, And where is that?
Morel argues that Lincoln, like George Washington before him, believed in an all-superintending Providence. He did, but their Providences were different. Washington’s was no New Age comforter (follow your bliss), but it did tend to reward hard work in the world. Lincoln’s Providence could be capricious, cruel, and opaque. In Lincoln’s lifetime it killed his mother, sister, sweetheart, and two of his sons. Before he was born it murdered Abraham Lincoln, his grandfather and namesake. Probably that is why Lincoln invoked Providence less often than Washington did.
Morel also downplays Lincoln’s war-time experience. The depressive found himself in a world even more depressing than his worldview. Morel acknowledges the “body count” of the Civil War, “exceeding any sane American’s expectation.” But we should dwell on that body count. Friends, relatives, and strangers, disfigured, killed, or executed for breaches of discipline, all reported as a matter of routine to the commander-in-chief and doubled by the victims on the other side who, Lincoln believed, were also all Americans—it was his own multitudinous seas, incarnadined. For four years nothing he tried—not his First Inaugural’s appeal to “the better angels of our nature,” nor his restless search for commanders who could give him victory, nor his repeated offers to both loyal and rebel slave states of compensated emancipation—lessened or stanched the flow. Lincoln was finally driven to the explanation he offered in his Second Inaugural: God willed these horrors to punish the national sin of slavery.
I called the “moral calculus” of this eloquent paragraph “outrageous” because I cannot see why a youth from Vermont whose nearest brush with slavery was the cotton in his shirt should be sliced by grapeshot, or why a youth from Tennessee who never owned a slave should be snuffed by a Minié ball. (The Tennessean would be more culpable as a supporter of secession, but is even that grave mistake a capital crime in the Lord’s books? The Union did not summarily execute rebel POWs.) Lincoln was trying in his Second Inaugural to explain devastation that had already occurred. But what does an explanation that outrages sense and morality explain? “The Almighty has his own purposes,” said Lincoln. He might better have left it at that.
Thankfully, the Second Inaugural gave Americans a new thought and a new task, embodied in Lincoln’s list of what they must now do to heal their wounds. If I may add a footnote to prophecy, I will quote myself:
The end of the Second Inaugural marked one more stage in Lincoln’s thinking about fathers and sons. After letting go of the founding fathers he had faced God the Father directly. He wrestled with Him, as he and his father had wrestled with bullies; as Jacob had wrestled with the angel. Lincoln had a bad bout of it, being thrown again and again. After that painful turmoil, now he and the country had to address the tasks of peace. Now they would have to be men.
God figures in Lincoln’s manly vision as a guide (“as God gives us to see the right”) but the work is up to us. I find Lincoln’s religion deep, dark, frightening, partial, and (somewhat) hopeful.
New York, NY
Lucas Morel replies:
It’s a commonplace observation that Lincoln was a depressive. As I see no sign of its shaping his understanding of God’s way with His creation, I conclude that whatever affinity he had with Byron, at best it helped Lincoln abide the travails of mortal life with a humility that leavened an ambition his law partner, William Herndon, called “a little engine that knew no rest.”
I emphasized Shakespeare as a fellow traveler of Lincoln’s not for “consolation” so much as earnest engagement with fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith. Although Lincoln never joined a church, as he was not given to pledging fealty to doctrines of a particular denomination, the Bible intrigued him to the point of general assent by the time he took the oath of office. That assent led him to see his political role through the prism of Providence. In a note to himself during the war, Lincoln mused, “The will of God prevails…. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party—and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect His purpose.” Though a private reflection, it gives the impression of being written with the nation looking over his shoulder—a meditation designed to bear public scrutiny, which he revealed ultimately in his Second Inaugural Address. Just as Shakespeare wrote in a manner that shows the challenge that the Prince of Peace poses to the kings of earth (e.g., Hamlet and Henry V), Lincoln drew upon the Bible to depict what the Almighty might be doing in a war neither side truly wanted and with results that neither expected at the outset.
Lincoln ultimately rejected Paine’s deism not because Paine was too optimistic for the melancholic Lincoln but because he did not believe in an absentee, clockmaker God. The fact that he made frequent, explicit reference to the Christian Bible demonstrates that Lincoln came to some terms with the Christian God. Paine’s beneficent, albeit godless, universe was certainly of no help to Lincoln here.
More to the point, I see Lincoln following Washington’s example in his consistent and substantive political appeals to the nation’s predominant religion. To some extent, this appeal found its roots in personal piety, but the key point is that Lincoln saw in Washington a political model for how religion could be a boon to the republic in a manner that respected religion’s primary aim, which is not political. By the end of Brookhiser’s rejoinder—arguing that “God figures in Lincoln’s manly vision as a guide…but the work is up to us”—Lincoln’s Providence sounds very much like his description of Washington’s Providence (akin to Ben Franklin’s deistic adage, “God helps those who help themselves”). I suppose I should content myself with that observation, but as I do not think Washington’s Providence was Franklin’s, I maintain that Lincoln eventually likened his God to Washington’s in referring and appealing to God as one who intervenes in the affairs of men.
What Brookhiser sees as a welcome non sequitur to “an explanation that outrages sense and morality,” I read as a logical exhortation set up by the preceding paragraph’s thought experiment about the war, emancipation, and the will of God. At bottom, although religion was not the main affinity Lincoln had with the founders, it proved an important enough connection that Lincoln saw no other way to bring the war to a viable conclusion but through an appeal to the God of the Bible.
I still believe that Lincoln wrestled with God. Yes, Lincoln said that there’s no resisting God’s will; even Job saw that. To wrestle in this vein is to struggle with an acknowledged Superior in hopes that with the inevitable loss, one comes away better for making the effort. The wisdom is in recognizing that the change in oneself is for the best.
Whatever my differences with Brookhiser on Lincoln's religious sensibilities, we both agree that, as the legitimate heir to the founders, Lincoln contradicts the claims of modern-day progressives. A great example is Brook-hiser’s interpretation of the Gettysburg Address, which distinguishes the speech’s “new birth of freedom” from the yearnings of progressives for a “birth of new freedoms.” Whereas the reigning wisdom views Lincoln as an evolving statesman, one who got better as he distanced himself from the slaveholding founders, Brookhiser sees Lincoln as fighting for “the old freedom, the freedom of ‘the fathers.’” What the war was to secure in the Year of Jubilee, with emancipation become a means of preserving the American union, was freedom for blacks as well as whites. This objective would fulfill the promise of the Declaration of Independence, and “complete their fathers’ unfulfilled intentions.”
And so there’s no need to discover new rights, new entitlements for a new age. This would require new powers for rulers to assume under a constitution alive to the potential that only a visionary few could realize for the benefit of the many. Instead, Lincoln spoke not of a new work but of “the unfinished work” to which the living could dedicate themselves. Brookhiser’s Lincoln learned from the Founding Fathers “that all men are created free and equal, and that all men (the people) must understand and defend those truths.” This was the lesson of the American Civil War, and Brookhiser’s Founders’ Son teaches that lesson like no other biography to date.
For more discussion with Danielle Allen and Diana Schaub, and with Richard Brookhiser, Lucas Morel, and Allen Guelzo, visit our online feature Upon Further Review at www.claremont.org/ufr.
Oath of Officers
In “General of the Lost Cause,” Mackubin T. Owens writes that “Lee and the other [former United States military] officers who fought for the Confederacy, however, did take and then violate th[eir] oath [to defend the United States Constitution]” (Spring 2015). Although it is true that some officers who had taken oaths to defend the Constitution later took Confederate commissions and Confederate oaths and fought for the Confederacy, they resigned first. The resignation discharged the previous oath. Many U.S. federal judges from rebel states became Confederate judges, but only one—West H. Humphreys—was impeached by the United States House of Representatives and convicted, removed, and disqualified by the United States Senate from holding future office. He had failed to formally resign from his U.S. post before taking the Confederate position.
Likewise, today, when a sitting congressman is reelected to his seat, he does not rely on the oath of office which he took at the start of his first term. Rather, a new oath must be taken at the start of each successive term. I agree with Owens that all U.S. military officers who fought for the Confederacy committed treason, but that is because they levied war against the rightful government of the United States, not because they violated any oath.
Seth Barrett Tillman
Department of Law
National University of Ireland Maynooth