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A CRB Discussion of Abraham Lincoln and Moral Conflict

By: John Burt, Diana Schaub
February 19, 2014

In the Fall 2103 CRB, Diana Schaub, a professor of political science at Loyola University, Maryland, reviews Lincoln's Tragic Pragmatism: Lincoln, Douglas, and Moral Conflict, by John Burt, the Prosswimmer Professor of American Literature at Brandeis University. Professors Burt and Schaub have kindly agreed to explore, in the first "Upon Further Review" feature of 2014, some questions raised by his book and her review.


John Burt: I'm very grateful for Diana Schaub's review of my book. One of the values my book describes (and seeks to advance) is persuasive engagement, by which people with different views mediate their conflicts with each other by argumentative resort to common values, and Schaub's review of my book, especially where it is critical of it, exemplifies that value. I am particularly grateful that she centered her analysis on what I saw as the key themes of my book, rather than on side issues, extensions, or contemporary applications. Her scrupulous, seriousness of reading of my book does it deep honor.

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. My argument is that respect for the implicitness of values is among the themes of Lincoln's thinking.

Now Lincoln was proud of his study of Euclid, and in making arguments in the courtroom or on the stump he always argued lucidly, and for the most part (though not always) fairly, in bright-line ways that don't seem to leave much room for implicitness. Some key ideas were deep, continuing, and explicit features of his thinking. He always felt that "if slavery is not wrong, then nothing is wrong." He always thought of the promises of the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence as the father of all moral principle in politics. Though he had to practice the art of the possible in giving those values reality, he knew he must never act in a way that would foreclose or betray them.

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. Schaub also has a point when she suggests that understanding the values of political agents as 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 Lincoln 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 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. During the first years of the Civil War he sought only to restore the old Union, slavery and all, first, because he understood that the Constitution forbade him from abolishing slavery merely because it is wrong, and second, because he understood that an immediate strike against slavery might have provoked Maryland and Kentucky to secede, making the restoration of the Union impossible. Once it became clear that emancipation was a necessary precondition for restoration of the Union, Lincoln at first sought black freedom without black citizenship, coming to an explicit call for black (male) suffrage only in the last weeks of the war, and even then very cautiously and hesitantly. When, however, one looks back at some of his wartime declarations, such as his 1862 Annual Message, the Gettysburg Address, the letter to James Conkling, and the 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 Lincoln's public policies on these issues, Schaub asks the central question: "is this a shift that demonstrates Lincoln's ability to grow and 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 convincing or unambiguous evidence for the second proposition, much as I wish it were true. But the first proposition merely names what it should explain, as the character in Molière does who explains that opium makes one sleepy because it has dormitive power. To see his embrace of racial equality emerging out of the tangle of mixed motives, qualifications, and strategic ambiguities that (I think) characterize most actual people's crucial moral decisions, enables one to provide an account of the stages of Lincoln's transformation as they occurred. When one grows or matures one usually comes to a deeper grasp of things one had dimly understood long before. My argument was 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 an ethos of racial equality. The maturation of this ethos was far from inevitable from the beginning, and the inner logic of its unfolding could only have become clear in retrospect. But it does indeed become clear in retrospect.

My argument about Lincoln resembles Lincoln's 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 ethos 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 Jefferson "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 Jefferson's life but his published and unpublished writings frequently contradict them. If we treat Jefferson's 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 Jefferson to promise 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."

Both views of Jefferson ask us to treat human willing as something other than what it is. The account Lincoln gives of Jefferson in the 1857 Dred Scott speech, which Schaub quotes the relevant passage in her review, sees Jefferson's convictions in roughly the way I see Lincoln's, as expressions of a value whose depth and power Jefferson appreciates but whose meaning is only partly shared with the community who bound themselves to it, whose consequences he does not fully understand, and whose realization he does not completely control.

Lincoln in the 1864 letter to Albert Hodges, defending measures which his interlocutors believed stretched the boundaries of the antebellum Constitution, described the evolution of his convictions in language that suggests (and indeed inspired) my sense of Lincoln's thinking:

In telling this tale I attempt no compliment to my own sagacity. I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me. Now, at the end of three years struggle the nation's condition is not what either party, or any man devised, or expected. God alone can claim it. Whither it is tending seems plain. If God now wills the removal of a great wrong, and wills also that we of the North as well as you of the South, shall pay fairly for our complicity in that wrong, impartial history will find therein new cause to attest and revere the justice and goodness of God.

Lincoln avows in the Second Inaugural that he did not understand the meaning of the war when it began, believing then that it was merely a war to restore the prewar Union, slavery and all, failing then to see that restoring the Union would require a new birth of freedom which would give a new practical expression to the conviction that all men are created equal. In the Gettysburg Address he had seen the promise of equality not as a self-evident truth, immediately obvious to everyone, but as a proposition, whose meaning, not just its truth, could not be fully understood until hard experience forced the nation to come to clarity about it.

Like Jefferson before him about 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, Lincoln 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 prewar Constitution. The new birth of freedom, ultimately embodied in the reconstruction amendments (but not limited to them) arose, in Harry V. Jaffa's elegant phrase about principle in democracy, from within the democratic ethos as perfections of that ethos.

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. Only trial by contraries taught us that the promise that all men are created equal did not mean mere emancipation but also social and political equality among the races, that the former slaves could not be maintained as a permanently subjected class but had a claim to full participation in American civil and political life.


Diana Schaub: I welcome what John Burt calls "argumentative resort to common values"; it sure beats the futility of arguing in the absence of common ground. I might, however, prefer to call what we are engaged in "argumentative resort to common texts," since we may be disputing a bit (but only a bit) about the values. Based on Burt's reply, two foci 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 repeatedly attaches the word "promise" to the Declaration's language about equality; five times he speaks of "the promise of equality" or something very similar. Burt's 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 expected. 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 everyone 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. Thus, Jefferson's policy suggestion was that emancipation be coupled with the expatriation of freed slaves (following a period of education to fit them for the rigors of self-government). Burt says that "the Declaration did not merely commit the nation to natural rights and limited government but to an ethos 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." I'm not so sure. My own view is that, in the fundamental but limited sense of equality spoken of in the Declaration, Jefferson is perfectly egalitarian and non-racist. Jefferson asserts, and indeed insists on, the moral equality of blacks and whites. Moral equality, however, does not require the political experiment of a bi-racial society, any more than the moral equality of Britons and colonists required them to get along; quite the reverse, the declaration of equality served as justification for the act of political separation.

Moreover, in 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. While the racist speculations in Jefferson's writings are profoundly disappointing and repellent to us today, they aren't necessarily incompatible with the meaning of the Declaration, since as Jefferson 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.

Here one might mention the black advocates of colonization, such as Martin Delany, Edward Blyden, and Alexander Crummell, who vehemently rejected Jefferson's racism, but fully agreed with his grim assessment of the likelihood of former masters and slaves living together in comity. Calling for a black Exodus, they hoped that the Afro-Americans would be the bearers of the self-evident truths of the Declaration, spreading the gospel of self-government to the African homeland. Had their vision come to pass (the enslaved Hebrews did, after all, leave Egypt in a body, and centuries later, diaspora Jews returned to Israel in goodly numbers), what Burt calls "the inner logic" of the Declaration—clear only in retrospect—might now look very different. In his Dred Scott speech, Lincoln speaks of the Declaration "constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere." The radiating hope expressed in this passage is compatible with a post-slavery "separatist" solution (and Lincoln, like Henry Clay, was an advocate of voluntary colonization).

Lest my own view be misconstrued, let me say that my sympathies have always been with Frederick Douglass who scorned colonization schemes, whether emanating from white or black leaders. He regarded colonization as a fantasy and a dangerous one, since it had the perverse effect of encouraging the prejudice (or, if not the prejudice, then the despair over the prejudice) that prompted it. With unshakable confidence, Douglass 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 heldas 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."

While it's predictable for us today to read "the new birth of freedom" as a foreshadowing of the perfected Constitution containing the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments (and it is true that the Emancipation Proclamation had been in effect for almost a year), I don't think that the main burden of the phrase had reference to the end of slavery. It is striking how similar the language of the Gettysburg Address is to the language of Lincoln's 1861 "Message to Congress in Special Session":

And this issue [immediate dissolution or blood] embraces more than the fate of these United States. It presents to the whole family of man the question, whether a constitutional republic, or democracy—a Government of the people by the same people—can or cannot maintain its territorial integrity against its own domestic foes. It presents the question, whether discontented individuals...can...break up their Government, and thus practically put an end to free government upon the earth. (Basler 598)

And again later in that address:

Our popular government has often been called an experiment. Two points in it our people have already settled—the successful establishing and the successful administering of it. One still remains—its successful maintenance against a formidable internal attempt to overthrow it. It is now for them to demonstrate to the world that those who can fairly carry an election can also suppress a rebellion; that ballots are the rightful and peaceful successors of bullets; and that when ballots have fairly and constitutionally decided, there can be no successful appeal back to bullets; that there can be no successful appeal except to ballots themselves, at succeeding elections. Such will be a great lesson of peace; teaching men that what they cannot take by an election, neither can they take by a war; teaching all the folly of being the beginners of a war.

These lengthier passages, addressed to Congress, help to explicate the more condensed, poetic rendering at Gettysburg, where Lincoln, speaking to a war-weary public, conveyed what was at stake in the war. The new birth of freedom—that great lesson of peace—must be midwifed by the war-power of the government. With a sublimity that may never be surpassed, Lincoln pleads for public support to "stay the course."

In part, I'm trying to show that there isn't as much "inner logic" with reference to race relations as Burt believes. But I also want to make another claim, one that cuts the other way and argues for the radicality of Lincoln's thought. 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.

Lincoln's 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 Lincoln 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.

Another piece of evidence from the Peoria Address relates to the overall movement of Lincoln's rhetoric. In the beginning of the address, Lincoln shows how questionable the feeling of race prejudice is, at the same time that he seems to defer to it. By the end of the address, Lincoln uses identical phrasing to describe a very different "feeling." Lincoln declares that "the great mass of mankind...consider slavery a great moral wrong; and their feeling against it, is not evanescent, but eternal. It lies at the very foundation of their sense of justice; and it cannot be trifled with.—It is a great and durable element of popular action, and I think, no statesman can safely disregard it."

Putting these passages side by side is eye-opening. We learn that while the "great mass of white people" don't like the idea of civic equality for blacks, "the great mass of mankind" regard slavery as wrong. We learn that the feeling against racial equality could disappear (Lincoln hypothesizes that it just might for him), whereas the feeling against slavery is eternal. We learn that the feeling against racial equality doesn't accord with "justice or sound judgment," whereas the feeling against slavery is at the very core of justice. Finally, we learn that both feelings (both the well and ill-founded) must be taken into account, but that it is "statesmen" in particular who must pay attention to the feeling against slavery. The Peoria Address begins by giving the fetid fears of whites a healthy airing, and then brilliantly redirects the moral attention of the audience so that by the end he can call upon their better selves.

At the risk of going overboard with the close reading, I'll just point out that the central paragraph of the Peoria address (no kidding, it's paragraph 60 out of 119) commands: "Allow all the governed an equal voice in the government, and that, and that only, is self-government." Although Lincoln immediately backpedals—"Let it not be said I am contending for the establishment of political and social equality between the whites and blacks"—his disavowal is not altogether persuasive since it contains an obvious loophole. Lincoln says, "I am not now [italics added] combating the argument of necessity," which is to say, not now, but maybe later there will come a time to challenge not only slavery but disfranchisement. Note also that in making the case for universal suffrage (and we shouldn't forget that Lincoln was an early supporter of female suffrage), Lincoln's focus was on the political principle of consent (he went so far as to format the text in small caps: "DERIVING THEIR JUST POWERS FROM THE CONSENT OF THE GOVERNED") rather than on equality (mankind's pre-political endowment).

While 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. Lincoln's cautious gradualism on the race question is attributable to preparing the public mind for that consummation.


Burt: Diana Schaub examines, fairly and carefully, two important points where she and I disagree: the evolution of Lincoln's ideas about racial equality, and the meaning of the Declaration of Independence.

About Lincoln's convictions about racial inequality, our views differ only slightly, particularly next to the widely influential interpretations recently advanced by Michael Lind, George Fredrickson, and Eric Foner. In their skeptical assessments, Lincoln shared the racism prevailing in the 1850s, changing his racial politics only in response to wartime realities. Like Schaub, I argue that the groundwork for his embrace of social and political equality among the races was laid quite a bit earlier. She and I also read Lincoln's concessions to racial inequality in the 1854 Peoria Speech, and his defense of racial inequality in the 1858 Charleston debate with Stephen Douglas, as qualified, evasive, and partial. They were, that is, exercises in strategic misdirection more than evidences of deep-seated racism. Even Lincoln's hesitant, grudging support for colonization never smacked of ethnic cleansing. Unlike Jefferson in the "fire bell in the night" letter, Lincoln always saw voluntary colonization as a way for former slaves to enjoy self-government uninhibited by the repressive effects of white racism, a perspective shared by Henry Clay and the black abolitionist Martin Delany.

How, then, do Schaub and I differ? My view is that we can see Lincoln's late racial politics foreshadowed in his earlier writings, as opposed to ascribing his views in the 1850s to mixed feelings, only because we know how Lincoln's thinking came out. His late views seem inevitable in retrospect, but if we did not have the retrospect we could not have predicted Lincoln's later course on the basis of the nuances, qualifications, and indirections Schaub and I both see in the Peoria Speech. I agree with Schaub that, as Frederick Douglass famously remarked, Lincoln never felt visceral distaste for the company of black people, something that could not have been said of many 19th-century whites, including some abolitionists. Schaub is also correct to note that as early as the Peoria speech Lincoln maintained racist feelings could not accord with justice or sound judgment, even while conceding he could not safely disregard a feeling so widespread and intense. I think he had a settled aim to challenge slavery from the beginning, but pursued it in deference to the limitations imposed upon him by the Constitution and by political realities, changing course only when wartime exigencies created new imperatives and possibilities. I do not think he had the same firm, clear commitment to making race in America politically and socially trivial that he did to putting slavery in the course of ultimate extinction. Prompted by historical contingencies, however, Lincoln came to support political equality among the races by fully grasping the implications of the values he had held earlier on.

Our disagreement about Jefferson is deeper, and bears on the relationship between Lincoln's views and Jefferson's regarding equality and the consent of the governed. As I read Schaub, Lincoln's views were different from but compatible with Jefferson's. In my view, Lincoln did understand his ideas to be continuous with Jefferson's, rightly or wrongly, but transformed and resolved the ambivalences and hesitations in Jefferson's ideas by coming to a deeper understanding of the values Jefferson articulated.

First, by "the promises of the Declaration of Independence" I refer to the idea that declaring it self-evident that all men are created equal is "a promise of equality." I do so not because equality is the creature of a promise made by men to one another, but because the act of declaring it self-evident that all men are created equal amounts to a promise to create political institutions that would embody that truth. In calling human equality a "proposition" Lincoln did not mean to assert that for him the truth of that proposition was debatable—the fact that all men are created equal was as self-evident to Lincoln as to Jefferson—but rather to assert that whether any society could successfully create stable political institutions that secure equality was still unproven. In the Gettysburg Address Lincoln argued that the Civil War was a test of whether any nation dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal could long endure. Lincoln there developed a rather different view of the meaning of the war from the view he took in the 1861 "Message to Congress in Special Session" that Schaub cites. In the earlier statement Lincoln had taken war to be a test of the possibility of self-government, a test of whether any self-governing order would fracture whenever it faced serious disagreements. In the Gettysburg Address, equality, not just self-government, was the chief stake of the war, although self-government was also at stake.

Lincoln subtly but unmistakably tied equality and self-government together in his 1863 public letter to James Conkling. In one breath he noted the war will prove that "among free men, there can be no successful appeal from the ballot to the bullet." In the next, he contrasted the black soldiers who "with silent tongue, and clenched teeth, and steady eye, and well-poised bayonet" have helped mankind on to this great consummation, against the deceitful speeches and malignant hearts of the Union's nominal supporters whose patriotism flagged in response to the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln's argument for emancipation in the Conkling letter turned not on the soaring language of the Declaration but on concrete practical grounds—emancipation has yielded the Union army much-needed soldiers—but the argument implies more than it asserts. The disenfranchised black soldiers who vindicated the consent of the governed have a better moral claim to the vote than the enfranchised white Copperheads and Old Unionists who jeopardized the sanctity of the ballot by supporting the Confederacy and opposing emancipation, respectively. The Conkling letter was a defense of emancipation, not an argument for suffrage, but Lincoln managed the argument in such a way as to motivate an argument about suffrage later. The letter, in other words, raised the question whether any society that keeps some large fraction of its population disenfranchised and subjugated can properly be called one that derives its just powers from the consent of the governed.

The opening sentences of the Declaration raise questions about the self-evident status of the truth that all men are created equal, and about the scope of that truth. What does it mean to call something that is neither a tautology nor a commonplace self-evident? Minimally, it means that it is something whose truth doesn't depend on our choice about whether or not to believe it. We do not choose to make it true, but discover that its truth is prior to our choice, part of the ground of meaning upon which our choices are shaped. Normally we only get to call things axiomatically true that are commonplaces whose truth is obvious to everyone. But Jefferson knew that human moral equality was not obvious to everyone, else he would not have had to give a polemical edge to his words. Jefferson proclaimed that the proposition that all men are created equal ought to be taken as axiomatic, but he understood that claim would be received as a provocation, not a banality.

We expect everybody to be bound by a self-evident truth, even those who, with John C. Calhoun or Joseph de Maistre, deny it is self-evident or even true. We do not mean only that such a truth is self-evident to us, but that it ought to be self-evident to everyone, even to those who deny it. We do not merely say that it is foundational to our cultural identity, or fundamental to our political traditions. We say that it is something fundamental about being human. More than this, we say it's something morally fundamental, the father of all moral principle in us. (It is hard to see the difference between saying that such truths are God's gift to man and saying that they are self-evident. Perhaps the implications flow in both directions—I may believe natural rights are self-evident because they are God's gifts, but perhaps I am certain there is a God to give those gifts because I believe natural rights are self-evident.) Those who would deny self-evident moral truths deny something so important to our sense of what it means to be moral agents that we do not know what else we might expect from those deniers. We also don't know what they would not be capable of, and can reasonably fear they might be capable of just about anything. To claim something is self-evident although others dispute it draws a line in the sand, and prepares for a mortal struggle with those on the other side of that line.

Paradoxically, if a truth was in fact obviously self-evident we would never have to declare it so. To declare that all men are created equal cannot mean that the moral equality of all persons is obvious, but only that those who don't believe in that moral equality had better prepare themselves for a struggle with us. By declaring a self-evident truth I put myself into a particular kind of relationship with other human beings, to whom I acknowledge that I owe the duty of recognizing their equality in a practical way, and prepare myself for a conflict with those who do not acknowledge the same thing. To declare that something others dispute is self-evident is to make a commitment, against resistance, to see out the political consequences of that proposition, and to risk failing in that commitment.

When we say that all men are created equal, what do we mean? Minimally, the proposition means that we are equally endowed with natural rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Jefferson might be taken to have affirmed only this limited sense of equality. And Lincoln, in the 1857 Dred Scott speech both Schaub and I keep returning to, attributed that understanding of equality to Jefferson, explicitly endorsing little else. It is easy to see why. To have openly embraced social and political equality among the races would have been politically suicidal, harmful both to Lincoln's personal ambitions and the cause of securing greater equality. Later, in his formal arguments for emancipation (and oblique arguments for suffrage), as in the Conkling letter, Lincoln argued not on the basis of the Declaration's self-evident truths but from concrete political necessities. Behind those necessities, however, are moral imperatives of the kind Schaub describes in the closing paragraphs of her reply to me, which arise from Lincoln's sense that the Declaration is the father of all moral principle in man. But they transcend the impoverished conception of equality Lincoln develops in the Dred Scott speech and attributed to Jefferson there. They are both Jeffersonian and not Jeffersonian.

Traditionally one distinguishes among three different senses of the idea of rights. We distinguish natural rights, such as the right to life and liberty, from civil rights, such as the right to equality before the law. The practical meaning of the latter includes: the right to testify, the right to sue, the right to make and enforce contracts, the right not to be singled out for mistreatment by the state because of one's race or religion, the right to be treated the same way other people are treated in the social and economic world, and other related things. And we distinguish such civil rights, the right to fair treatment in the private world and in one's dealings with the government, from political rights, the right to a say in a public world whose doings turn on consent of the governed, such as the right to vote and serve on juries. Jefferson in the Declaration, on one reading, guaranteed only natural rights, not civil rights or political ones, and in promising civil rights and political rights to black people, to the extent that Lincoln made such a promise, he made a promise beyond Jefferson's. (I take this to be Schaub's view of the matter. She endorses Lincoln's promises, believes them consistent with Jefferson's, but not arising from Jefferson. But even Jefferson's view, for all his racist expressions elsewhere, concedes that black people ought to be free.)

It was a commonplace in the antebellum era that these three sorts of rights were completely separate. If natural rights are distinct from civil rights, then the right to liberty does not imply a right to citizenship, and a society that offered to black people nothing but the bare right not to be enslaved and the right to scrape by under repressive conditions and special restrictions would be a society that nevertheless embodied the values of the Declaration of Independence. While granting neither citizenship rights nor civil rights to black people, it would not violate their natural rights.

That natural rights, civil rights, and political rights are completely independent of each other was not so obvious in the postwar period as it was in the antebellum period. Indeed, that they strongly imply each other or all amount to the same thing is not completely clear even now. It is, after all, the reconstruction amendments, restored to political effect by the Warren Court and by the Voting Rights Act after 80 years of practical suppression, that guaranteed the civil and political rights of black people, not any appeal to the principles of the Declaration, although most people, perhaps uncritically, would think the reconstruction amendments as now interpreted embody the principles of the Declaration better than the legal order of the Jim Crow era did.

Frederick Douglass did ground his argument for the vote for black men not on the self-evident truths proclaimed in the Declaration but on the concrete basis of black men's service to the republic as soldiers during the Civil War. But he did not argue that only black men who had served as soldiers should have the vote. The movement for black suffrage and the movement for women's suffrage fought each other on the basis of these concrete arguments for nearly a century, and for most of that century the adherents of each movement believed that the other sought to foreclose their progress. And they each used concrete arguments that sharpened their differences: black men, unlike white women, risked their lives on the battlefield for the republic; white women, unlike black men, have widely had access to the elite culture which stabilizes self-rule. But both ultimately depended upon a similar deeper conviction: a government of, by, and for the people cannot turn on invidious distinctions among the people, a principle that transcended the concrete arguments each side brought to the table. These deeper arguments do not in so many words identify natural rights and civil rights, but they do argue that any government deriving its just power from the consent of the governed must grant both civil and political rights across the lines of race and gender. And the arguments certainly are Jeffersonian in flavor, even if Jefferson himself would not have made them.

Jefferson's conception of self-government may well have been impoverished, one where an enfranchised few enjoy the fruits of the subjection of a nominally free but systematically disenfranchised and disadvantaged class. (Or perhaps forced emigration would have saved him from having to tolerate such a society.) But that such a society would not be one that derived its just powers from the consent of the governed would seem as self-evident as the truth that all people are equally endowed with the right to life.

Lincoln pushed beyond Jefferson's narrow conception of equality—the equal right not to be killed or enslaved—in ways that, as Schaub argues, turn on a robust concept of moral equality, including social and political equality among the races. If by moral equality Jefferson meant only the right not to be killed or enslaved, then it is hard to see why Lincoln felt the Declaration of Independence to be the father of all moral principle in man. Indeed, in the very paragraph in the Dred Scott speech where Lincoln embraced a limited conception of the Declaration, he embraced a more expansive one as well: "a standard maxim for free society, which should 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." When Lincoln speaks of moral equality, he does not mean that hawks and chickadees are equally birds, but that blacks and whites are equally human, as Saint Paul meant it when he said that there is neither Greek nor Jew in Christ.

Antebellum society did not respect the moral equality of all kinds of people and did not concede that people of all kinds, because they are people, have a right to a say over their destinies. Antebellum society did not concede that a share in the deliberative institutions of citizenship was a necessary consequence of respecting the dignity of human as humans. Rather, it saw citizenship chiefly as a privilege of a political class who controlled access to citizenship in the way one might control membership in a private club. Antebellum society did not object to the idea that the freedom of a group of insiders with power might depend upon the subjugation of outsiders who had no say about that society. Antebellum society not only felt comfortable with using racial distinctions to neutralize the power of class distinctions among whites, but felt that maintaining such racial distinctions was a foundational part of its political culture and a condition of its stability.

None of these things are spelled out in so many words in the Constitution, but they were deep features of antebellum political culture that profoundly affected how politicians of that era interpreted the Constitution. Many members of antebellum society, including Lincoln, felt differently, but all these convictions are broadly characteristic of the society that the Civil War transformed, and when slaveholders in particular felt that the constitutional order was under threat from Lincoln it is these things they felt were threatened. To change them did not abrogate the Constitution, but did transform the moral order of the society the Constitution governs, forcing a deeper rethinking of the values that Constitution embodies.

Lincoln presided over a profound reassessment of the meaning of the Constitution, and conceded as much in the 1864 Hodges letter and in his 1862 Annual Message. As profound as the changes in political culture over which Lincoln presided were, he did not overthrow the constitutional order, nor did he suspend it under emergency conditions. Indeed, he exercised scrupulous care to make sure that whatever measures and means he adopted (from ceasing to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act, to emancipation, to printing greenbacks, to conscription) remained within formal constitutional bounds. The legal order of the antebellum Constitution starkly contradicted, in Lincoln's view, the values of the Declaration of Independence. But he never—despite arguments to the contrary by Stephen Douglas and, later, some Copperheads—treated the Declaration as a higher law that licensed him to suspend the Constitution. Instead, to the impatience of some, he always limited what he did in the name of the Declaration to what he knew the Constitution would allow.

Was Lincoln's reading of the Declaration of Independence faithful to its meaning? He certainly went beyond the limitations of the impoverished conception of natural rights I have been describing, although certainly nothing he did or proposed abrogates any of those rights in their impoverished version. But Lincoln saw himself to have been fulfilling, or even restoring, Jefferson's ideas, rather than transcending or extending them. As Schaub argues, Lincoln did see (perhaps unlike Jefferson) the democratic requirement for full political equality, but he attributed his ability to see it to Jefferson, because he felt that Jefferson had also asserted that it is a self-evident truth that when governments are instituted among men, they derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.

Is what Lincoln idealized in the Declaration something Jefferson would have rejected as part of its meaning? Did Lincoln revolutionize the meaning of the Declaration, as Stephen Douglas accused him of doing, or did he fulfill it, as he himself claimed? Strong arguments can be made either way, and those arguments turn on what it means to keep faith with the founders. To argue as Lincoln did is to extend some of Jefferson's views beyond where Jefferson left them and repudiate some practices he endorsed, but not to repudiate Jefferson's values. It is not merely to argue that a society with political equality among the races is a better society than an unequal society is; it is also to argue that such a society is more in Jefferson's spirit. Indeed, it is to treat the principles of the Declaration as the father of all principle in man.


Schaub: On Lincoln on race, John Burt and I are valiantly trying to delineate the precise degree and kind of our disagreement (amidst our admittedly very large areas of agreement). Burt summarizes his own view nicely when he says that "we can see Lincoln's late racial politics foreshadowed in his earlier writings...only because we know how Lincoln's thinking came out.... [I]f we did not have the retrospect we could not have predicted Lincoln's later course." My view is that Lincoln's thoughts on race are not just discernable in retrospect. My conviction arises from what I perceive to be Lincoln's extraordinary care in composing his words—a care that enables him to defer to popular prejudice to the extent necessary while at the same time eroding and undercutting that prejudice to a remarkable extent.

In hopes of persuading Professor Burt, let me give one more example (one I haven't seen anyone else focus on): Lincoln's analysis of miscegenation in his 1857 Dred Scott speech. Lincoln begins to pointing to Douglas's horror of intermarriage. Douglas, of course, tried to deploy this "horror" against Lincoln, branding him a "Black Republican," referring regularly to Fred Douglass and the "Congo odor"; female supporters of Douglas even embroidered the slogan "White Men or None" on their dresses. (See Allen C. Guelzo's Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates that Defined Americap. 186 and 219.) Lincoln's first response to such racial chauvinism: "agreed for once—a thousand times agreed. There are white men enough to marry all the white women, and black men enough to marry all the black women; and so let them be married." Lincoln cheerfully, even humorously, acknowledges that folks tend to stick to their own when it comes to marriage; his ready agreement has the effect of taking the steam out of Douglas's attempt to fan racial fears.

He then proceeds to demonstrate that the real cause of amalgamation is slavery—which is to say, the rape of black women. Lincoln is well aware that slavery violates not only the right to the fruits of one's labor, but the right to the integrity of one's body. Lincoln argues that where freedom prevails, and especially where civic equality prevails, there is little intermarriage. New Hampshire, "the State which goes the farthest toward equality between the races," has the fewest mulattoes. This is a classic instance of Lincoln's brilliant redirection. He has taken the white fear of race mixing and shown how it ought to lead one to endorse not only black freedom but civic equality (or at least a greater degree of civic equality). Lincoln's sang froid is an essential element in his rhetorical success. That sang froid is a result both of his own internal freedom from race prejudice and his ability not to show himself as morally outraged by race prejudice. This latter quality, of course, is what harms his reputation among us today, since we demand ostentatious anti-racism.

After Lincoln's cool, numerical analysis of race mixing turns Douglas's racism against itself, the tone shifts. Having prepared the audience for a higher appeal, Lincoln makes the lesson more pointed and personal. He reminds us that the Dred Scottcase involved not just a black man, but "his wife and two daughters." With respect to this family, Lincoln says, "We desired the court to have held that they were citizens so far at least as to entitle them to a hearing as to whether they were free or not; and then, also, that they were in fact and in law really free." Why did Lincoln care about Dred Scott, his wife, and two daughters? What was at stake? "Could we have had our way, the chances of these black girls ever mixing their blood with that of white people, would have been diminished at least to the extent that it could not have been without their consent." In other words, Lincoln's way is not to have one's way with young girls or other men's wives. He enshrines the notion of consent, not only in the public, political realm, but in the private, sexual realm. He is not outraged by race mixing, but by the violent and non-consensual aspect of such mixing as occurs, inevitably, under slavery. As I read it, Lincoln hints here at a policy favoring affectional freedom, although he is certainly not about to speak explicitly in favor of abandoning anti-miscegenation laws. [I am aware that Lincoln in fact swears to stand by them in the Charleston debate. Once again, though, he plays that endorsement for a joke, vowing to uphold the miscegenation statutes for the sake of "Judge Douglas and his friends" who "seem to be in great apprehension that they might [marry negroes], if there were no law to keep them from it," suggesting further that Douglas be kept in the Illinois State Legislature (and out of the U.S. Senate) so that he can fight any attempt to repeal the restraining order against his runaway desires.]

Lincoln contrasts his policy with the effects of Douglas's endorsement of the Dred Scott decision: "But Judge Douglas is delighted to have them decided to be slaves, and not human enough to have a hearing, even if they were free, and thus left subject to the forced concubinage of their masters, and liable to become the mothers of mulattoes in spite of themselves." I find this to be a profoundly empathetic statement. In the course of three paragraphs, Lincoln has moved the listener from Douglas's horror at the thought of "the mixing of blood by the white and black races" to sympathy for the daughters of Dred Scott now exposed to the real horrors of slavery.

Interestingly, the status of women is a theme throughout the Dred Scott speech. Lincoln begins with remarks about Mormon polygamy—perhaps another form of "forced concubinage"—wondering whether Douglas will apply "popular sovereignty" to that issue as well. The middle section contains the famous passage about the equality of "a black woman" whose "natural right to eat the bread she earns with her own hands without asking leave of any one else" makes her Lincoln's equal "and the equal of all others." The speech concludes with his concern for the sexual fate of the daughters of Dred Scott. We know that Lincoln endorsed the vote for white women as early as 1836 (see his "Announcement of Political Views"). Putting that document together with his generous and heartfelt remarks about black women in the Dred Scott speech, I honestly don't feel I need the letter to Michael Hahn in 1864 or the Last Public Address in April 1965 to array Lincoln on the side of the angels, or at least "the better angels of our nature."

Nonetheless, I agree with Burt that Lincoln did not have "the same firm, clear commitment to making race in America political and socially trivial that he did to putting slavery in the course of ultimate extinction." First things first.

So, we are swept back to the Declaration and disputes about equality, rights (natural and civil/political), consent, and their complex articulation in the project of self-government. Burt believes that Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address put equality uppermost. However, to make this claim, he must quote selectively, and incompletely, from the speech. Lincoln does not say that "the Civil War was a test of whether any nation dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal could long endure." He says it was a test of whether a nation "so conceived [that is, conceived in liberty] and so dedicated [that is, dedicated to the proposition of equality]" could long endure. The focus is not simply on equality, but on liberty as well. After all, the "new birth" of the final sentence is a birth "of freedom." My point is that Lincoln understands the truths of the Declaration as interrelated; they form a set. When Burt says that "equality, not just self-government, was the chief stake of the war," he seems to be depreciating self-government, or separating it in some way from its principled foundation in the fact of human equality. Lincoln, by contrast, understood that there was a perverse logic that led from the theoretical denial of equality, as expressed in the South's heretical view that slavery was just, to the denial of majority rule, as expressed in the South's attempted secession. Because the Declaration's truths are intertwined, when you deny one, the others crumble too. The rejection of first principles led inexorably to an assault on constitutional rights, as the defenders of slavery sought to undermine the rights of speech, press, assembly, and petition (whenever they were exercised by slavery's opponents, that is). When Lincoln talks of free government in the 1861 Message to Congress in Special Session or talks of government of, by, and for the people in the Gettysburg Address, or talks of ballots vs. bullets in the Conkling letter, he is saying the same thing each time. Lincoln is forever finding fresh formulations by which to convey the linked truths of the Declaration.

Often, small word choices encapsulate the difference between Burt's reading and mine. I'd like to point out a few of these, not to nit-pick, but because I think they open up the larger issues. In explaining the Declaration, Burt says repeatedly that it "declares" that all men are created equal, and further that such a declaration amounts almost to a declaration of war against those who don’t agree (the claim of self-evidence “draws a line in the sand, and prepares for a mortal struggle with those on the other side of that line”). I agree that the Declaration is a revolutionary document, but what it declares is independence from Britain and a willingness to fight for American liberty. While it premises that assertion on universal claims, it does not go so far as to declare war on all who disagree. After all, publishing our political creed was meant to inform and rally international opinion, not warn the wider world that they “had better prepare themselves for a struggle with us.” One sign of the founders’ moderation is that they are careful to say “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” They draw attention to the element of belief. These truths are uniquely held to be true by us. Lincoln picks up this insight when he speaks of the truths of the Declaration as “my ancient faith” and “our national axioms, or dogmas.” Note the element there of particularism, not universalism. Lincoln’s formulations are always complex and multilayered. Sometimes they get simplified in the retelling. We should remember that Lincoln doesn’t quite call equality “the father of all moral principle”; what he says is that immigrants, arriving late to American shores, “feel” that the “moral sentiment” of equality is “the father of all moral principle in them.” In response to the brutalization of moral sentiment and feeling that followed from the long continuance of slavery, Lincoln struggles to revive this salutary sentiment—and the nation’s cherishing of it.

I suspect our most fundamental difference turns on the relation of natural and political rights—especially the question of whether these are separate categories or not. Burt favors blending them (or requiring a progression from one to the other). Thus, he says, “a government of, by, and for the people cannot turn on invidious distinctions among the people”—but that formulation begs the question. One must first determine who gets to count as part of the people. Like it or not, those who already belong do get to decide—to say otherwise would be to make a mockery of the notions of liberty and consent. The definite article really matters. “The people” is not the same as people or persons generally; “the people” is not even the same as all who reside in a given area. All human beings are persons, but not all human beings are part of a particular people, a national entity, who join together in a body politic to better secure their own individual rights.

Before the war, slaves were not included in the body politic, and the status of free blacks was “iffy” at best. After the war, the question—“the Negro question” as it was often called—had to be more squarely faced. In the previous exchange, I had pointed out that Frederick Douglass emphasized the contributions of black soldiers in order to establish proof of belonging (since political belonging doesn’t follow directly from human equality). As Burt rightly responded, Douglass did not limit the suffrage to those who actually bore arms; his argument encompassed their brothers and descendants as well. That is a most helpful correction, and I would amend my statement to say that Douglass dwelled on the soldiers because they offered not just proof of their belonging, but proof of the possibility of belonging—a “proof of concept” that blacks could be part of the polity. By demonstrating the moral attributes necessary for citizenship (courage and patriotism foremost), the black soldiers performed a lasting service—for the nation, for their race, and for the cause of interracial accord. Burt’s gloss on the Conkling letter shows how Lincoln appreciated this service and felt its political ramifications.    

That did not mean, though, that Lincoln or Douglass (any more than Jefferson) departed from the traditional view that natural rights and the rights of citizenship were distinct. The universal right to liberty does not imply a right to American citizenship, since there is no natural right to belong to whatever political community one would like. Politics is like a fraternity; there is no guaranteed right to be included or admitted to all the privileges of full members. Burt doesn’t like this idea of a gated community (another phrase for which might be national sovereignty) and it leads him to describe natural rights as “minimal,” “limited,” even “impoverished.” I must disagree. Burt redefines the inalienable rights to life and liberty in negative terms: he speaks of the right to life as the “right not to be killed” and the right to liberty as the “right not to be enslaved.” (He doesn’t mention the capacious right to the pursuit of happiness at all.) This redefinition strikes me as unfair. Natural rights are much broader than Burt allows, as can be glimpsed in many of Lincoln’s lovely formulations, such as when he speaks of the black woman’s right “to eat the bread she earns with her own hands” or the right of the young black women to choose for themselves who shall share their beds, and in general, the right to be let alone, unmolested and unimpeded in one’s quest for the goods (material, moral, and spiritual) that bring happiness. In his speech at the Wisconsin State Fair, Lincoln describes free labor as “the just and generous and prosperous system which opens the way for all, gives hope to all, and energy and progress and improvement of condition to all.” Moreover, he links free labor to education and “the emancipation of thought” (for this phrase, see the Lecture on Discoveries and Inventions).

We form governments to secure these pre-political rights. The right to vote is contributory to such protection, sometimes crucially so, but we don’t desire the vote for its own sake as we do the truly fundamental rights of life, liberty, labor, property, and conscience. In a decent political order, fundamental rights are protected for all. In other words, natural rights are translated into civil rights (especially prominent in the Bill of Rights are the rights of free thought and the rights of the accused). In consequence, resident aliens and temporary visitors, for instance, are not limited to “the right to scrape by under repressive conditions” or granted “nothing but the bare right not to be enslaved.” Before women secured the vote, they were not quite full citizens in the Aristotelian sense, but they were not without the protection of law. The Constitution is explicit in specifying those rights that are secured for all persons and those that apply to citizens. One might also mention the large number of persons who are partially disenfranchised because they reside in the District of Columbia; although they vote for local officials and the president, they have no representation in Congress. We once considered taxation without representation to be grounds for revolution, but apparently tolerate it now because this political dependence on their fellow citizens does not cause them harm (or no more harm than the rest of us already suffer).

It seems to me that Burt is misled by his universalistic humanitarianism. He’s at once too political (undervaluing natural rights vis-à-vis participatory rights) and not sufficiently political (since it is only through particular, and exclusionary, acts of political choice—separating one people from other people and peoples—that any rights of any kind are secured for anyone).

As to what all this political theory meant for the freedmen of post-bellum America, let me now say that, having insisted on the category distinction between natural and political rights, I do think that both Lincoln and Douglass (and Jefferson, too) saw the terrible peril of permanent second-class caste for a sizable, racially distinct, and long-oppressed group. In other words, America’s black population could not, if we cared about justice, be treated as resident aliens (or residents of D.C.) are or as white women once were. The bonds of affection between husbands and wives and fathers and daughters meant that women’s interests were often tended to despite female political disfranchisement. Such would not be the case with blacks. As a result, Douglass emphatically and Lincoln cautiously saw the needfulness of the vote on grounds of self-protection. As Lincoln euphemistically phrased it in his March 1864 letter to Michael Hahn (the new free-state governor of Louisiana), black voters in “some trying time to come” will help “to keep the jewel of liberty within the family of freedom.” Translation: black Americans will vote for the Republican Party (the family of freedom) so as to retain their liberty (the jewel they gained through the Emancipation Proclamation) in the face of those who would wrest it from them.

As Lincoln said of the maxim of human equality in the Declaration, the vote (especially when fixed in the Constitution) would constitute “a stumbling block to those who in after times might seek to turn a free people back into the hateful paths of despotism.” As we know, however, the texts alone are never a sufficient barrier. To become invincible, they require the vivifying element of shared belief. Accordingly, I do think John Burt and I agree that these old texts and their timeless principles can and must be revivified in each generation, and that the study of Lincoln contributes to that rebirth.


Burt: Diana Schaub and I have three disagreements, and all of them turn on common premises. We disagree, somewhat, on the nature of the development of Lincoln’s views of racial equality. I had expected readers to take exception to my argument that Lincoln’s prewar racial views were considerably less racist than they have appeared to be to the last generation of scholars, but Schaub actually goes rather farther in that direction than I do. We also disagree, again rather less than it might have at first appeared, about the relationship between freedom and equality. And we disagree, or I should say appear to disagree, about the relationship between civil and political rights.

Schaub’s reading of how Lincoln treats the theme of “racial amalgamation” in the Dred Scott speech is so subtle and persuasive that I wish I had thought of it myself—it’s certainly a reading I’ll cite whenever I teach that text. She notices, as many readers have, that Lincoln argued that the real cause of amalgamation was the sexual coercion of enslaved black women by white masters, pointing out that there was comparatively little racial intermarriage or interracial rape in the free states. But Schaub also notices that the key determinant was not mere freedom, but civic equality: Lincoln argued that the state that went farthest toward equality between the races, New Hampshire, also had the least intermarriage. Not only did Lincoln, with admirable cool-headedness, turn racist hysteria about amalgamation against slavery, he even deployed that same hysteria against civil inequality. In both cases, he used racism against itself.

Schaub also shows, quite rightly, that Lincoln’s revulsion against “amalgamation” was really a revulsion against sexual force. And I think she’s also right that phrasing the argument in these terms cleared the way for affectional freedom later, even if the argument itself relied upon the assumption that Lincoln shared his interlocutors’ horror about racial mixing. For one thing, he affirmed that the key fact about sexual relations is that they must be consensual. He left unstated the implication (which might seem to be inescapable) that if black and white people are free, some white and black people will freely come to love each other. No amount of loud proclamations about amalgamation quite suffices to shout down that fact about freedom. Schaub’s argument is closely parallel to the argument both of us make about Lincoln’s views about civic equality more generally: while denying that he sought civic or political equality for black people, Lincoln nevertheless kept advancing arguments that only make sense if both things were in the penumbra of his intentions.

Schaub has a good answer to the most obvious argument against her position: Lincoln not only didn’t call for the repeal of anti-amalgamation laws, but endorsed those laws in the Charleston Debate with Stephen Douglas. She responds, correctly, that calling for repeal of anti-amalgamation laws would have been both suicidal and futile, and notices that Lincoln blunted his endorsement of those laws by playing it for laughs at Douglas’ expense, rather than using it as an occasion to show that he too could whip up a racist hullaballoo just as well as Douglas.

If we agree about this, then where do we disagree? I concede that Schaub’s reading of the Dred Scott speech is right, but I don’t concede that it shows Lincoln had a settled aim to overturn racial inequality from the beginning, an aim he used years of deception and indirection to advance. If Lincoln had such an agenda, even his friendliest audiences didn’t discern that establishing racial equality was a settled intention on his part. Nor did his enemies who, like Douglas, had every reason to find the smoking gun proving Lincoln favored racial equality. Rather, they blew smoke on the subject but were never able to make such a charge stick with anyone not already on their side, because Lincoln gave them no real opening. The case Schaub makes is as compatible with my view of Lincoln as it is with hers, but mine requires less in the way of assumptions about Lincoln than hers does. To me, Schaub’s reading of the Dred Scott speech shows that Lincoln had, from early on, embraced values incompatible with racial inequality, ones that had political and civil rights for black people among their implications, but he only gradually came to an understanding of what those commitments demanded from him. About himself in the Hodges letter, and about America in the Second Inaugural, Lincoln says that both discovered they had come to a place they did not know that they had been aiming for all along. His embrace of racial equality is not the fulfillment of a settled plan, but neither is it a road-to-Damascus reversal of an earlier, racist conception. Instead, it is best understood as the consequence of a developing recognition about which values, needs, and desires spoke most deeply to and for his nature.

It is possible that Schaub is actually making a more modest case than I attributed to her. I have taken her as arguing that Lincoln had a focal intention about racial equality that prudence demanded that he keep secret, apart from some very indirect avowals no contemporary understood. But perhaps what she was arguing was that Lincoln had an intuitive sympathy for racial equality but, seeing no political possibility of endorsing or achieving it, held the idea mostly in abeyance until wartime contingencies rendered it attainable. If that is her argument, we don’t differ at all.

Schaub and I have a second disagreement about the relationship between freedom and equality but, again, I think we agree more than it first appears. When I maintained that the key argument of the Gettysburg Address concerned equality, I did not propose that equality trumps freedom as a value, only that the speech was advancing not only emancipation but also social and political equality across racial lines, which I took to be an advance into more controversial territory on Lincoln’s part. Rather than deprecating self-government as an aim, I argued that by 1863 the salient issue for Lincoln was no longer only whether democracies could establish stable self-rule—that is, whether bullets must ultimately subvert ballots, as when a group of slave states attempted to break up the union because they could not tolerate Republican victory in the presidential election of 1860. Nor was the central question whether a democracy could tolerate slaveholding and remain a democracy. It was, instead, what kind of multiracial society would emerge after the Civil War.

I agree with Schaub that equality, majority rule, and rights of speech, press, assembly, and petition are all closely intertwined. Lincoln correctly argued in the House Divided Speech that slaveholders cannot share a republic with non-slaveholders: slaveholders must completely dominate that society or risk losing slavery, so inevitably suppress the freedom of non-slaveholders. One of the central arguments of my book was that slavery presented an existential threat to democracy, a claim I had thought would be controversial, but which she takes at least as far as I do.

The connection between equality and freedom is not merely the practical one that those who deny human equality must subvert freedom in order to safeguard the power inequality has given them. Equality and freedom have inner connections as well. (Here I am about to take a step with which Schaub may disagree.) If freedom in general is self-determination, the ability to act according to standards embraced through reflection, public freedom in particular is the right to an equal say in the deliberations of the public world. The equality of citizens, before each other and the law, follows from the idea that freedom is the agreement to abide by a law a political society has given to itself through public deliberation. We can enter a public space of deliberation only if we agree to treat each other as moral equals. Public equality is ultimately the mutual recognition human beings owe each other as agents who are necessarily engaged with each other in a public world they share. The promise of equality is the promise citizens make to each other to treat each other as ends in themselves, not simply as means. Private freedom might be seen to arise from the same source, the promise to treat individuals as ends in themselves rather than as means, but this Kantian account might have somewhat different consequences from the more traditional Lockean account.

If I deny others a say in that public world—especially if I do so because I desire to exploit those others, to use them as means rather than to recognize them as ends in themselves—to that extent I have left the world of freedom and entered, and become subject to, the world of force , which diminishes my own freedom as an agent. If I engage in relationships of fairness and reciprocal obligation with some, but exploit others, then even those relationships of fairness and reciprocity are no longer instances of a general moral commitment to recognizing the agency of others, but only a kind of honor among thieves. We haven’t, in such a case, established a polity as a way to realize a vision of human flourishing, but have only entered into an agreement with each other in order to exploit third parties more efficiently. This, I think, is what Lincoln means when he says that those who deny freedom to others are preparing to lose it for themselves.

The connection between equality and freedom is not merely a formal one—a version of that magnificent impartiality that forbids the rich and the poor equally from sleeping under bridges—because it demands that the public order not deprive others of the practical means to make significant use of their freedom. I submit further that even in a society with formal legal equality, freedom is in both practical and moral danger when one group can drive another economically or socially to the wall, although what Lincoln may have thought about this is not completely clear to me. I may be reading this passage a little more strongly than Lincoln intended it, but what he said in his Address at the Sanitary Fair in April 1864, captures what I mean:

The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep was a black one. Plainly the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word liberty; and precisely the same difference prevails to-day among us human creatures, even in the North, and all professing to love liberty.

Schaub and I have a third disagreement about the relationship between human and civil rights, on the one hand, and political rights, on the other. But I think we disagree less sharply than it might appear. She is right that I dislike—very intensely—conceiving of a political society as a kind of gated community. But I concede she’s right that, whether I like it or not, those who already belong do get to decide who counts as a member of that political society, and to say otherwise would make a mockery of the notions of liberty and consent. She in turn concedes that in a decent political order natural rights are translated into civil rights. It is possible for a society that denies political rights to some people to secure those people’s human rights but also in some measure their civil rights as well. Her examples—legal resident aliens, women before the Nineteenth Amendment—are cases in which the political establishment provides some measure of assurance of decent treatment, because there are cultural forces which assure more protection than a bare regime of human rights would assure. But for black people, I think we both agree that a bare regime of human rights would indeed have only guaranteed the mere right not to be enslaved and the right to scrape by under repressive conditions, because that is what the states of the former Confederacy in fact offered the freed slaves, both under Presidential Reconstruction, and after the Compromise of 1877.

I see both of us as responding to contradictory imperatives. A political society must, of course, choose whom to include among its citizens. But at the same time no free political society should tolerate or can long survive a situation in which a sizable group is subjugated. And a group long oppressed, especially in ways that define the majority culture, cannot be protected by anything short of inclusion into the political society through enfranchisement. There is a reason why it was more urgent during Reconstruction to secure the vote for black men than for white women. Night-riders were not lynching white women by the dozens in 1870, nor were they shooting male judges who sought to protect white women. Rich men were not mollifying poor men by claiming that gender somehow made all males equal. Poor men were not extorting acknowledgment from rich men by demanding to be recognized as males. Political parties were not competing with each other to find better ways of keeping women in their place, and were not accusing each other of secretly being woman-lovers. Schaub is right that the ugliness and depth of racial hatred made giving the vote to black men a matter of the highest urgency, trumping other very good claims for political rights by other groups. Despite this, I think both of us agree there are good reasons, integral to the meaning of democracy, why women were given not only the protection of law but a share in making it.

I agree with Schaub that political rights don’t run together with human rights and civil rights as if they were aspects of the same thing, and that the definition of who is to be included in a political community is something the political order must decide for itself. But if it defines that community too narrowly it puts its own freedom at risk. The “nothing but freedom” legal order the states of the defeated Confederacy first sought to offer, with their sternly repressive black codes, was rightly overturned during Congressional Reconstruction as undemocratic. The Jim Crow societies that arose after the subversion of Reconstruction by the Bourbon South also represented not merely an unjust social order but also a standing threat to American freedom, since it enforced its rule by violence and, largely but not completely, repressing criticism. I agree that political rights are a separate category from natural rights. But I think Schaub also agrees that there are stern, practical necessities that blend them together, and that no society, in the 19th or in the 21st century, can afford to hold some large population, one perhaps upon whom its economy depends, in a state of political limbo. This is particularly so for societies for which, as Count Adam Gurowski wrote of America during the Civil War, national identity is not a matter of blood culture but of an idea.

Schaub’s argument about Lincoln and amalgamation and her argument about Lincoln and political rights have a similar structure. Lincoln did not call for an end to laws against intermarriage, and in fact endorsed them. But he did recognize that the key element of marriage is mutual consent among sexual partners. That principle didn’t suffice to legalize intermarriage until the well-named 1967 Loving decision, but set the argument for the winning case, with consequences still being felt. His explicit denial notwithstanding, Lincoln did lay the groundwork for affectional freedom. In a similar way, Schaub denies that societies have an absolute duty to include in their political community everyone who plays a key role in their functioning. But she also recognizes the risk to democracy of having a sizable, permanent, second-class caste under the thumb. Her argument about political rights, like Lincoln’s argument about affectional freedom, affirms indirectly what it appears to have set out to deny. And that’s a good thing.

As our third exchange draws to a close, I express my gratitude in having in Diana Schaub such a thoughtful and fair-minded interlocutor. On many issues I doubt we will ever completely agree. But I am glad to say that by disagreeing with me she has helped me sort out and clarify what matters most about both the convictions we share and the ones we don’t. I have very much enjoyed our exchanges.


Schaub: In discussing the surprising evolution of the party system (Letter to Pierce, April 6, 1859), Lincoln told one of his funny stories: “I remember once being much amused at seeing two partially intoxicated men engage in a fight with their great-coats on, which fight, after a long, and rather harmless contest, ended in each having fought himself out of his own coat, and into that of the other.” I don’t know that John Burt and I have quite managed that feat, but we may have discussed ourselves very cozily into the same coat, or at least an arm of that coat.

Just to clarify my own sense of Lincoln’s views on race, let me say that I’m not asserting that he had a “settled aim to overturn racial inequality,” but I do think he had a penetrating understanding, from very early on, of the injustice (and intractability) of race prejudice. So, to use Burt’s terms, I would say that Lincoln had something more than “intuitive sympathy for racial equality” but something less than “a focal intention” (at least prior to the emancipatory shift in circumstances that forced the issue of race relations, post-slavery, to the fore).

About the relationship between freedom and equality, I don’t think I object to Burt’s account of the “inner connections” between the concepts (although since he warns me I might, perhaps I should reconsider that endorsement). Scholars are drawn to explore the differences between the Lockean insistence of the reciprocity of rights and the more high-toned Kantian version, but since I don’t know that Lincoln read either Locke or Kant, I would say that Lincoln’s philosophy of human nature and our mutual obligations comes from his own deep reflection on the human scene, aided by some well-known guides, like the Bible and Shakespeare. I would shy from calling Lincoln “Kantian,” while agreeing with Burt’s account of what it means to say that “he who would be no slave, must consent to have no slave” (letter to Pierce).

Where we part ways is more likely to be when Burt claims that the connection between equality and freedom “demands that the public order not deprive others of the practical means to make significant use of their freedom.” Certainly, the government should not deprive individuals of their rights, but it seems that Burt is referring to more than that. What are these “practical means”? Does he imply that the public must guarantee or provide those practical means—education? health care? a guaranteed income? Why include the word “significant”? Is the use of one’s freedom only “significant” if one is sufficiently endowed with “practical means”? Does Burt believe that the existence of income inequality, if sufficiently wide, constitutes a situation in which “one group can drive another economically or socially to the wall”? These questions are the stuff of partisan division.

Sticking to Lincoln, let me say that I read the wolf/sheep passage as a denunciation of slavery and other equally wolf-like assaults on the human person—to give a contemporary example: just as there is no liberty to enslave a human being, there is no liberty to abort a human being. Lincoln wants to overturn “the wolf’s dictionary” which defines liberty as the right for “some men to do as they please with other men.” Certainly, there can be economic practices (like sharecropping) that embody wolfishness, but I don’t think that Lincoln understood rich and poor as automatically suspect categories. As he told a Workingmen’s Association, “That some should be rich, shows that others may become rich, and hence is just encouragement to industry and enterprize. Let not him who is houseless pull down the house of another; but let him labor diligently and build one for himself, thus by example assuring that his own shall be safe from violence when built.”

For this advice to be acceptable there must be social mobility; Lincoln always celebrated the mobility offered by a system of free labor. Witness this passage (which I gave a shorter version of in round two) from his 1859 Address to the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society:

There is not, of necessity, any such thing as the free hired laborer being fixed to that condition for life…. The prudent, penniless beginner in the world labors for wages awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land for himself; then labors on his own account another while, and at length hires another new beginner to help him. This, say its advocates, is free labor — the just and generous and prosperous system which opens the way for all, gives hope to all, and energy, and progress, and improvement of condition to all. If any continue through life in the condition of the hired laborer, it is not the fault of the system, but because of either a dependent nature which prefers it, or improvidence, folly, or singular misfortune.

In his book, Lincoln’s Tragic Pragmatism, Burt is rather dismissive of Lincoln’s economic thinking, called it “particularly antiquated” in light of the already occurring shift from a nation of farmers and shopkeepers to the land of big business. Despite those structural shifts (and others since), I don’t find Lincoln’s emphasis on opportunity, initiative, and advancement to be misplaced or outdated. Our current debates about social justice might be more productive if they focused less on income inequality and more on the restoration of social mobility under contemporary economic conditions. Lincoln himself was aware of one important new necessity, and a new social responsibility: “free labor insists on universal education.” Education is a desideratum—a “practical means” if you like—of substantive freedom.

With respect to the distinction and relationship between natural rights and political rights, I think we have, by our respective concessions and clarifications, worked through our apparent disagreement. Maybe Lincoln was right to have put so much faith in reasoned argument.

I too have enjoyed our exchanges; maybe next time we can talk about Henry James.