Better Angels

Tuesday, June 30, 2009
Abraham Lincoln

As a native son of Illinois, I grew up steeped in Lincoln lore. I remember boarding a bus on a dark winter morning with my sixth-grade classmates for a daylong field trip that would take us from our school just on the south side of Chicago all the way downstate to Springfield and New Salem, the small southern Illinois towns in which the great man had come of age. It was an excursion into Lincoln kitsch with nothing much to behold but a few unconvincing log cabins and a trinket shop with nothing much to buy. That we had come so far to see so little made me think that this must be an awfully great man.

Later, in my high school years, there was much emphasis on Abraham Lincoln the Great Emancipator. This was the civil rights era. And my parents, who had met as civil rights activists, appropriated Lincoln and all his presidential authority as an ally in their struggle. They were happy with all the Lincoln hagiography of the day. The fight against segregation was hard, and the iconic Great Emancipator corroborated the justice of their cause. There was no need to know the actual man.

But then in college I began to know the actual man. I learned that Lincoln had always been antislavery but had never been abolitionist. Worse, he saw abolitionists as extremists. He would have seen my parents as extremists and carefully distanced himself from them as he did from John Quincy Adams and other abolitionists of his day, even though he privately agreed with them.

I learned that in the Civil War his interest in black emancipation was almost entirely tactical. He made it clear that if he could win the war and preserve the Union without freeing a single slave, he would happily do so. When one of his generals, General Fremont in Missouri, issued an emancipation proclamation so that he could better fight the guerrilla warfare that was emerging there, Lincoln rescinded the proclamation and relieved Fremont of his command. He said the general “should never have dragged the Negro into the war. It was a war for great national object and the Negro has nothing to do with it.”

Lincoln’s first inaugural speech was an extravagant appeasement of both the South and slavery. Not only was he willing to preserve slavery in the South, but he was also willing to honor the Fugitive Slave Act, a draconian measure that meant runaway slaves could be hunted down even in the northern environs of New York City and Chicago by professional slave catchers and then sent back to their Southern slave owners and the lash. The majority of Northerners, many with no great love for the Negro, disliked this act for its obvious inhumanity. Lincoln supported it anyway.

On a personal level, every indication is that Lincoln subscribed to the racism common to his day. He did not believe in intermarriage, nor did he believe that blacks were fully the equal of whites. He took it as a given that blacks and whites could never live in harmony, and out of this conviction he supported colonization: shipping blacks back to Africa and the Caribbean so that they could live with their own kind.

You can imagine how all this sat with me, a newly minted black militant in the late 1960s. This was the era in which we young blacks first began to make a politics out of our identity—thereby inventing the identity politics that still plague America to this day. There was no positive theme to our militant identity beyond the iconography of huge Afros, ritualized handshakes, and glib “right on” phrases about the revolution soon to come. Our real theme was alienation. For us, black alienation within America was a kind of negative faith, a negative religion, so there was a perverse happiness in being able to catalog America’s betrayals of the black man. All this militancy was fomenting just as I was learning in history classes that the Great Emancipator had finally freed the slaves largely because he thought it would enable him to crush the Confederacy and decidedly not because he honored black freedom as an end in itself. Here was precisely the kind of irony that made us happy in our negative faith and licensed us to sarcasm. Lincoln might have been a reluctant emancipator or a pushed-to-the-wall emancipator, but he was no Great Emancipator.

Abraham Lincoln

For young blacks in the 1960s, black alienation within America was a kind of negative faith, so there was a perverse happiness in being able to catalog America’s betrayals of the black man.

In truth, we were hurt by Lincoln. We had all grown up in a segregated society that took us into account primarily as inferiors. We were always at war with the American social convention of black inferiority; the only whites we accepted as good were those who believed in human equality absolutely, whites who had wrestled themselves past even the secret suspicion of their own race’s superiority. How would we know such whites? Their faith in human equality would be absolute and generate a moral absolutism. In Lincoln’s era the abolitionists had the moral absolutism, even if they weren’t fully convinced of black equality.

Yet the great abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison would use the more-than-obvious human quality of Frederick Douglass to make his absolutism clear. At meetings he would often speak after Douglass, America’s first black abolitionist, even though Douglass was a far better speaker. As Douglass left the stage, having wowed the crowd, Garrison would come on stage and say simply, “Have we been listening to a thing, to a piece of property, or to a man?” John Brown took his moral absolutisms to the point of violent revolution and was hanged as a result.

In 1968, these were the kinds of whites we could trust. Their extremism was in a right moral proportion to American racism. But in Lincoln, there was only what Douglass once called a lack of “all moral feeling.”

And yet today I have no hesitation in joining that chorus of scholars that in survey after survey elects Abraham Lincoln our greatest president. Lincoln changed from the man who lacked “all moral feeling” to the man who said, after signing the Emancipation Proclamation, “If my name ever goes into history it will be for this act, and my whole soul is in it.”

But so much about race is emotional, and even that statement lacked the moral passion I was looking for back in 1968. Today I know that Lincoln is our greatest president because he saved the Union by expanding freedom beyond the barrier of race. Nothing like this had ever happened before in human history. It was a moment in human evolution and he shepherded us through it.

Two grand and often conflicting imperatives have often been at work in American life: freedom and the good. We want to be a free society but we also want to be a good society. These two imperatives, however, are often oil and water. Freedom is sustained primarily through a discipline of principles. Fairness, for example, is best achieved when the principle of merit is applied with a rigorous uniformity to all comers. When discipline fails and different standards of merit are applied to different groups, we have unfairness and freedom is breached. So freedom thrives or wanes by the mettle of our discipline.

After signing the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln said, “If my name ever goes into history it will be for this act, and my whole soul is in it.”

But we also want to be good, if only imperfectly, and we want to think that we live in a good society. The problem is that the ideas of the good often tempt us into breaking with the discipline that freedom requires. For example, once we say that racial integration is a desirable social good, we feel justified in demanding school busing, a policy that violates the discipline of freedom in countless ways.

Ideas of the good are almost inherently at odds with freedom, and this tension between freedom and the good seems to have lived within Abraham Lincoln for most of his career. His natural leaning was toward the discipline of principles that undergirds freedom. He was, after all, a conservative Republican. This is why, although he believed slavery to be evil, he was willing to let it continue in the South if such a concession would preserve the Union. In his famous meditation on the divide, he wrestled with this problem of the good versus freedom. Both the North and the South, he realized, claimed that God authorized their cause. So he resolved not to argue good and evil but to preserve the Union.

The South, he felt, must answer to its own God and in its own time. His job was that of disciplinarian. And like Thomas Jefferson before him, he looked to colonization, sending blacks back to Africa, as a way to export the moral angst that must have shadowed him in his role as a disciplinarian.

Then, somehow, the tide turned within this great man. It’s impossible to know how or why. He had spoken at great length with Frederick Douglass, the nineteenth century’s foremost black leader, a self-made man much like himself. But no doubt his own inner wrestling gave him to understand that he would have to free the slaves, not look away from Southern slavery, to preserve the Union. And within this insight was another more profound one: that real freedom always has a moral component, that it can never be reached through discipline alone, that the discipline of freedom is in fact a morality.

We want to be a free society but we also want to be a good society. However, these two imperatives are often oil and water.

One hundred years later, Martin Luther King Jr. reinforced Lincoln’s insight. The civil rights movement was not an idea of the good; it was, like the Civil War, a disciplinary action that served the good. It enforced the hard constitutional principle of equality under the law to serve the moral principle that all men are created equal. Lincoln freed the slaves under the war-powers clause of the Constitution. This was mere ingenuity, but he wanted even this obvious idea of the good—freeing people from slavery—to have constitutional authority. He wanted what was in his day an extravagant idealism, black freedom, to be grounded in principle.

Thus Lincoln’s Civil War and King’s civil rights movement were great human advances because within them principles served the good, and the good gave purpose to principle.

But in the era of the ’60s, America admitted that democratic principles had not prevented slavery, segregation, the denial of suffrage to women, or a vast array of other discriminations. The ’60s made one overriding point: hard principles amount to cynicism. They make hypocrites of all who identify with them. Worse, they are repressions that cut people off from their own innate goodness. The ’60s gave us a new liberalism in which we could pursue the good honorably without being bothered with demanding principles. In fact, relativism became the new liberal virtue that would redeem the nation of its many shames.

So today, American institutions jerry-build ideas of the good such as diversity and then pursue them precisely by breaking with and bending principles. To have 8 percent of your freshman class be black, as most elite universities now insist, you have to neutralize principles like competition by merit and equality under the law. We call this social engineering, which literally means social activism unburdened by principles.

The point is that neither the good nor freedom is fully realizable without the other. They are interdependent with each other, not independent. If, for example, you achieve a diverse workplace through an open competition of merit, then diversity—an idea of the good—becomes principled and authentic.

Lincoln’s Civil War and Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement were great human advances because within them principles served the good, and the good gave purpose to principle.

Interestingly, Barack Obama, our new and first black president, has made responsibility a theme of his administration. His inaugural address called for a new era of responsibility. And from time to time on the campaign trail, and always to great applause, he called for black fathers to take more responsibility for their children. This from a president with countless ideas of the good: everything from universal health care and less economic inequality to global-warming initiatives and more green jobs. Clearly, Obama’s natural bent is toward the ideas of the good, just as Lincoln’s natural bent was toward freedom and the principles that supported it.

But has Obama already had a Lincolnesque moment in which he realizes that all his good intentions will be diaphanous and ineffective unless they are defined by freedom’s discipline and principles? Is this why he talks about responsibility so much? I’m not sure. But the test for Obama will be the same as it was for Lincoln. Lincoln finally had to make his war first a war against evil to preserve the Union. He had to do exactly the opposite of what he had committed himself to doing; he had to accept the moral component of freedom. If Obama wants to achieve the good that is authentic and enduring, he will have to make his desires of the good secondary to that discipline of principles that ensures freedom for all. He will support diversity through merit; equality through education, initiative, hard work, and achievement; and, dare I say, economic recovery through respect for rather than contempt for free markets. Like Lincoln, he will have to do exactly what he has committed himself not to do. He will have to accept that there is no true good or change, as he calls it, outside a framework of unchanging principles.

But this is the year of President Lincoln’s 200th birthday—and we celebrate it because his example of greatness is so extraordinary. A part of his genius was that he could think things through in a lawyerly way. In his bones, he was a true politic president. Always disciplining himself away from idealisms, in the end he put all the government’s resources on the line for the rather far-fetched ideal that all men are created equal. Lincoln was great because, against all his better judgment, he could still listen to his better angels.