Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Krannawitter on Lincoln & Slavery

Much of American political rhetoric turns on the assessment of Abraham Lincoln. Although many consider Lincoln the greatest American president who is the model for American statesmanship, the many critics of Lincoln say this elevated reputation arises from a falsification of history. Some leftists condemn Lincoln as a racist. But Barack Obama and other liberals praise Lincoln and argue that liberal progressivism follows in the tradition of Lincoln. Many libertarians and paleoconservatives denounce Lincoln as a Machiavellian tyrant who destroyed the American tradition of limited government. But some conservatives--particularly, those influenced by Harry Jaffa--insist that Lincoln's statesmanship was founded on the natural right principles of the American founding and provides a model for political reasoning today. The followers of Jaffa say that Lincoln's natural right statesmanship was subverted by the historicism and relativism of modern Darwinian science. But, as I have argued on this blog, this shows an ignorance of the fundamental agreement between Lincoln and Darwin and of how evolutionary science supports "Darwinian natural right."

Thomas Krannawitter's Vindicating Lincoln: Defending the Politics of Our Greatest President has just been published by Rowman & Littlefield, and it helps us to think about this debate. Recently, Allen Guelzo's favorable review of the book appeared in The Claremont Review of Books.

This is a good book, perhaps even the best single book for those who want to understand the philosophic character of Lincoln's statesmanship. Although most of the main ideas in the book can be found in the writings of Jaffa, the clarity and precision of Krannawitter's presentation helps the reader to think through the reasoning for Jaffa's account of Lincoln.

I have found this book so intellectually stimulating that I want to offer my comments on the book in a series of posts. I generally am persuaded by most of what Krannawitter says. But I do find some points in his writing either obscure or weak, which I will explain. And yet, even where I disagree with him, I find that he forces me to deepen my thinking.

Of course, what one thinks about Lincoln depends ultimately on one's assessment of his handling of the slavery issue. Krannawitter defends Lincoln's stance on slavery as philosophically and politically correct. To do this, he must respond to many objections. Some critics say Lincoln was a racist. And certainly there are many passages in Lincoln's writings that sound racist--for example, when he says (in his debates with Stephen Douglas) that "there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality." Krannawitter's response is to argue that although Lincoln believed in the moral and political equality of whites and blacks, he had to employ "an esoteric manner" and "rhetorical strategies" in expressing his beliefs, because as a politician he could not directly challenge the racist opinions of many Americans in his day (18-21).

Although I agree with this, I would like to have seen Krannawitter go more deeply into this. He rightly makes the point that "physical difference" could just mean the obvious difference in skin color, so that Lincoln could be saying that as a matter of sociological observation, blacks and whites will find it hard to live together as equals because of the prejudices of color. But did Lincoln ever use the phrase "physical inferiority" or "inferior races," as Douglas said Lincoln did? The newspaper transcripts of the Lincoln-Douglas debates sometimes use slightly different language for the same speeches. According to the Chicago Tribune, Lincoln in the fifth debate at Galesburg used the phrase "inferior races." According to the Chicago Daily Times, he spoke of "physical inequality." But as far as I can tell, Lincoln uses "physical difference" as his phrase in all the other passages.

Lincoln's "esoteric manner" is perhaps conveyed by what he says in the sixth debate in Quincy: "I am altogether unconscious of having attempted any double dealing anywhere--that upon one occasion I may say one thing and leave other things unsaid, and vice versa; but that I have said anything on one occasion that is inconsistent with what I have said elsewhere, I deny."

In deciding whether Lincoln was a racist or not, the testimony of Frederick Douglass--the eloquent ex-slave abolitionist--would seem to be decisive, because he knew Lincoln and engaged in a continuing debate with him about emancipation. In his Freedmen's Memorial speech of 1876, Douglass spoke of Lincoln as "preeminently the white man's President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men." Unfortunately, Krannawitter does not quote this part of Douglass's speech. In his vehement attack on Lincoln as a racist, Lerone Bennett does quote this passage. But then Bennett never quotes the passage praising Lincoln's statesmanship: "measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined." Douglass also declared: "Measuring the tremendous magnitude of the work before him, considering the necessary means to ends, and surveying the end from the beginning, infinite wisdom has seldom sent any man into the world better fitted for his mission than was Abraham Lincoln." Although Bennett refers to the Freedmen's Memorial speech as "one of the greatest orations on Lincoln by any African-American," he never quotes any of these passages where Douglass praises Lincoln's statesmanship, because this would subvert Bennett's intemperate denunciation of Lincoln.

Krannawitter rightly emphasizes that Lincoln consistently adhered to the principle that while protecting slavery in the Southern states was a constitutional obligation, prohibiting the expansion of slavery into the Western territories was within the constitutional powers of Congress. I do wish, however, that Krannawitter had noted the one big problem with Lincoln's argument that this was the intent of the Founders--both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison thought that it was unconstitutional for Congress to restrict the Western movement of slavery. It has always been baffling to me that Stephen Douglas didn't bring this up as evidence against Lincoln's position. Krannawitter ignores this point. He refers to Jefferson's remark about the debate over the Missouri Compromise of 1820 being a "fire bell in the night." But he doesn't notice that Jefferson used this phrase in a letter criticizing the Missouri Compromise as unconstitutional.

The libertarian and paleoconservative critics of Lincoln often assert that the Civil War was not about slavery at all but about the economic policies of the North in imposing unfair protective tariffs and other economic measures that punished the South. Kannawitter is good in surveying all the evidence showing the falsity of this assertion by showing that the leaders of the secessionist South repeatedly affirmed that protecting slavery was their primary motivation in breaking away. He is especially effective in raising one powerful question, "Why did Southern Democrats oppose Stephen Douglas for the presidential nomination in 1860?" The answer, of course, is that the Southern Democrats split away from the party because Douglas would not guarantee federal protection for slavery in the Western territories even where the majority of the citizens wanted to prohibit slavery.

There's more to come in future posts.

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