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The Eternal President

Sunday, April 1, 2001

John Patrick Diggins.
On Hallowed Ground: Abraham Lincoln and the Foundations of American History. Yale University Press.
330 pages. $27.95

John Patrick Diggins, Distinguished Professor of History at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, is one of America’s leading public intellectuals. His numerous works, which include The Lost Soul of American Politics (1986), The Rise and the Fall of the American Left (1992), and Max Weber: Politics and The Spirit of Tragedy (1996), use history and philosophy to diagnose what ails contemporary America. His latest book, On Hallowed Ground: Abraham Lincoln and the Foundations of American History, continues that diagnosis. There, Diggins argues that Abraham Lincoln is America’s greatest public philosopher and that the core of his political philosophy — equality, property rights and the transformative role of labor — offers the clearest, most unified vision of the principles that guide American history.

In the autobiographical preface to On Hallowed Ground, Diggins declares that as an undergraduate at the University of California at Berkeley in the 1950s, “I lost my faith and found my mind.” After coming to see the authority of the Catholic Church as ungrounded in reason, Diggins lost his religion and found solace instead in intellectual history, the “endless hunt for lost treasures” amid the great ideas of the past.

Today, however, Diggins believes that intellectual history has lost its way, having been transformed from a discipline seeking “what is true and real” to a field with an almost singular preoccupation: to demonstrate that “‘truth’ is simply a convention at the mercy of contingency.” Diggins laments the fact that intellectual history is increasingly dominated by antifoundationalists, historians who present themselves as shatterers of the myths embodied in venerable “dominant paradigms.”

These intellectual historians, particularly those championing identity politics, multiculturalism, and poststructuralism, have had a corrosive impact on America’s civic culture. The result, Diggins finds, is greater confusion today than at any time in our history about what it means to be an American citizen.

Diggins views himself as a “cold water historian.” For most of the three decades preceding On Hallowed Ground, he doused cold water on various neo-Marxist, pragmatist, and classical republican theories. The intellectual basis for each of these schools — Marx’s notion of human unity through communism, the pragmatist focus on reshaping society through intelligent cooperation, and the classical republican focus on duty — abstracts from the proper understanding of self-interest as the motor of liberal society.

Maintaining this focus on self-interest, Diggins turns his guns on two current trends dominating the fin-de-siècle academy: post-structuralism and multiculturalism. According to Diggins, post-structuralism (also known as deconstruction) denies us immediate knowledge of how things are. Instead of direct knowledge, we come to know people and societies only by the mediation of social constructions. Language, the great mediator, places things forever out of our reach. Denying the knowledge of reality outside of social construction, post-structuralists seek to expose, and undermine, the assumptions behind all systemic grounds for knowledge. Once the assumed center of a system of thought is revealed, such thinkers believe it will implode of its own account.

If post-structuralism gives us a picture of a world with no fixed epistemological categories and no knowable reality, multiculturalism, Diggins argues, goes just the opposite direction, in which ethnic and racial categories are absolutely determinative. Multiculturalism stresses the overriding force of ethnic traits. This focus on the determinative aspects of ethnic origin leads multiculturalists to focus on race and racial heritage to the exclusion of rational argument available to all, and to hypothesize about a politics of “difference” that society cannot overcome.

To combat these strains of thought, Diggins turns to Lincoln, whom he finds to be America’s most philosophical president. Lincoln reshaped America in the crucible of the great crisis over slavery, the crisis that tested the very meaning of liberty and equality. “In Abraham Lincoln,” Diggins writes, “liberal democracy found its educator.” Speaking in the Gettysburg Address of “a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” Lincoln offered the most striking example of the idea that America’s political ideals, voiced in the Declaration of Independence, transcend differences of race, gender and ancestry. In short, Lincoln taught that to know America is to know the meaning of the Declaration’s creed of the self-evident truth that all men are created equal.

Diggins finds a precursor to today’s academic debates in the debate over slavery, in which advocates of slavery and their allies denied moral universalism and stressed the inalienability of racial characteristics. Like today’s multiculturalists who deny a common American culture, Sen. John C. Calhoun demanded the recognition of the Southern cultural “difference.” Stephen Douglas championed the “politics of difference” by denying that America required a unified moral foundation. Calhoun even went so far, Diggins notes, as to “deconstruct” the Declaration’s claim that all men are born free and equal. For Calhoun, as for the postmodernists, there is no higher truth in politics than the presence of power and the conflict of opposing interests. On these grounds, no liberal politics respecting the natural rights of autonomous and equal citizens can be built.

Rejecting this cultural relativism and the politics of domination, Lincoln offers a clear vision of national unity through the “moral emblem” of the Declaration of Independence and its philosophical underpinnings in Lockean liberalism. Diggins, following his intellectual mentor, the late Louis Hartz, author of The Liberal Tradition in America (1955), argues that America’s unique social conditions — in particular, the absence of any residue of a feudal class structure — provided the basis for the “natural equality” of American society.

According to Diggins, Lincoln’s great faith, built on the cornerstone of the Declaration of Independence, was in the “life of labor and industry.” This common life was, for Lincoln, the great unifying and leveling force in American society. Lincoln recognized the genius of the capitalist system, especially the dynamism of production that private property generates. He marveled particularly at America’s capacity for invention, a direct consequence of her strict system of patent law, and reverence for intellectual and physical property. These, he noted, added “the fuel of interest to the fire of genius.” Lincoln rejected slavery, in part, because it denied men the fruits of their labor, and thereby the incentive to improve their condition. In Lincoln’s synthesis, the labor theory of value based on equal opportunity was the great engine of self-improvement:

I want everyman to have a chance — and I believe the black man is entitled to it — when he may look forward and hope to be a hired laborer this year, and next, work for himself afterwards, and finally to hire men to work for him. This is the true system.

Lincoln’s “true system” — “America’s redeeming synthesis,” according to Diggins — transcends differences of gender, race, and ethnicity. And it is this “redeeming synthesis,” first articulated by John Locke, that defended everyone’s right to own property, regardless of race, because it was the fruit of one’s own labor. Despite the claims of the postmoderns, Lockean liberalism shatters race and gender-based exclusion. Moreover, Diggins notes, the major political efforts of blacks and women have been undertaken, in fact, in the name of Lockean, not radical, principles.

Diggins has written a remarkable book, one acutely aware of the contemporary academy and its shortcomings. His blistering attack on the 1994 National History Standards, a document produced by a National Endowment for the Humanities-funded center at the University of California at Los Angeles, is telling. The impetus for the document came originally from the Reagan administration’s concern that American students were ignorant of American history. But rather than focusing on Washington, Jefferson, or Lincoln, the report offered instead a litany of multicultural platitudes. Diggins notes:

Not since the Nazi propaganda has a document like the National History Standards so minimized the importance of the western Enlightenment and replaced political knowledge about human nature with cultural mystiques about races and racial heritages.

Such comments are all the more remarkable since On Hallowed Ground is not written from a conservative perspective. Diggins does not consider himself a conservative; conservatives, he believes, misunderstand American history, its tensions and the rejection of authority at the heart of Lockean political philosophy.

Impressive and worthwhile as it is, not all of On Hallowed Ground’s ambitions are met. The book covers too much ground too rapidly — and some of it, unfortunately, repetitively — from Calhoun to post-structuralism, from Hartz to the 1994 National History Standards, from the Port Huron Statement to the Gettysburg Address. But Lincoln’s own words, largely overlooked in the second and third parts of the book, provide a rich enough antidote to the excesses of the contemporary academy. Diggins’ interest in Lincoln is far narrower, and ultimately far less illuminating than the textual analyses offered by Harry Jaffa in his 1959 Crisis of the House Divided, which still remains the authoritative gloss. Nonetheless, Diggins demonstrates what an astute critic of academic trends can learn from the wisdom of our greatest president.