Book Review: Lincoln’s Political Thought

Lincoln’s Political Thought, by George Kateb

Given the wide variety of material about Abraham Lincoln, much of it highly variable in terms of its approaches and points of view, often what someone writes about Abraham Lincoln tells one more about the writer than about Lincoln himself. As this author says wisely, Lincoln was hard to pin down in terms of what he actually thought and felt in his largely political writings, largely because he did not want to be pinned down. His political speeches, many of which have endured because they make for thoughtful and deeply reflective writings worthy of careful textual analysis, are full of layers and complications and can be at times difficult to understand in their full contexts. Perhaps surprisingly, given the critical attitude the author takes towards Lincoln’s behavior as a president in terms of the precedents he set for later presidents like Wilson and others, and in his belief that Lincoln should have been an abolitionist, despite the fact that no thorough abolitionist politician could have been elected President of the United States, and therefore rid our republic of the stain of slavery, the author believes that Abraham Lincoln is the only man who could have been elected president who would have freed the slaves as early as he did. This leads to an ironic conclusion that even though the author is apparently a thoroughgoing secularist without any sort of religious beliefs, his argument reinforces Lincoln’s own occasional beliefs in the providential nature of his life and work, and even his martyrdom on behalf of freedom.

In terms of its structure, this book is organized in a thematic fashion, taking various speeches and private fragments as the relevant Lincoln canon for his political philosophy, and then using these texts to discuss a few related matters over the course of just over 200 pages of thoughtful material. The book contains seven chapters roughly equal in length, starting with the period of Lincoln, between 1854 and 1865 (the second act of his political career, although it does look back to earlier speeches like his Lyceum address and Sub-Treasury speech from his early political career). The author then examines Lincoln as a writer, Lincoln’s political religion of human equality, with which the author largely approves, even with the accusation of mild racism, and Lincoln’s views on race and human equality. The book then shifts gears and looks at Lincoln and the Constitution, as well as Lincoln’s doctrine of military necessity in the Civil War, and Lincoln’s world outlook. As a whole, the author appears to lament the suspension of various rights and privileges during the Civil War even if he agrees that Lincoln suspended those rights as mildly as possible given his fierce commitment to the Union, with the benefit of hindsight in our own erosion of freedom over the course of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Despite the fact that the book praises Lincoln in sometimes glowing terms, it often has what may be considered a strongly ambivalent approach towards Abraham Lincoln, and also it tends to overstate the level of color blindness in the Declaration of Independence while it simultaneously understates the genuine, if feeble, feeling against slavery that was present during the revolutionary period. This tendency to misrepresent American history, it should be noted, was largely due to what appears to be a hostility to the views of Jaffa (and also Fahrenbacher) that the crisis of the early American republic was due to the fact that a slaveholding people based their republic on the universal principle of the equality of all mankind with regards to the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (which may be seen as property, if one reads Locke and other related political philosophers), and this misrepresentation of the ethical standing of the American founding is done largely through taking Taney’s comments about the American view of blacks during the time of the Revolution and in 1857 at face value, which is unwise to do given the fact that Taney was not an honest historian in his Dred Scott decision. The abolitionism of the author tends to give much of this book’s content a certain strong feeling of self-righteousness that does not properly square with our own contemporary and widespread denial of the right to life for the innocent unborn that is at least as hypocritical as the denial of liberty to blacks during the antebellum period. Let him without sin cast the first stone. Overall, this book still manages to tell a lot about Abraham Lincoln, and also a lot about the author as well, including the fact that all generations are caught in the grip of deep tensions and contradictions that are not recognized at the time, and the fact that practical statesmanship, no matter how enlightened, often requires misdirection and even outright deception. Such is the price of attempting to lead virtuously as imperfect people in a fallen world.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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