Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation: Prudent Statesmanship or a Big Mistake?

I have argued that a Darwinian view of morality explains the moral sense as expressed at three levels of human experience: moral sentiments, moral traditions, and moral judgments. To illustrate this, I have offered a Darwinian assessment of Abraham Lincoln's handling of the moral debate over slavery. Lincoln appealed to those natural moral sentiments that recognize the evil of slavery. He also appealed to the moral traditions of the United States--particularly, as expressed in the Declaration of Independence--as denying the moral claims of slavery, even as he recognized that the legal traditions of the Constitution would not sanction the immediate abolition of slavery in the South. As constrained by these moral sentiments and moral traditions, Lincoln had to exercise practical moral judgment in deciding how best to handle the slavery issue in the particular circumstances he faced.

He judged that he had no constitutional power to abolish slavery in the South, and he reassured the proslavery Southerners that he would abide by the constitutional compromises protecting slavery in the South. But he never wavered in his affirmation of the wrongness of slavery and his commitment to promoting the ultimate extinction of slavery as quickly as circumstances permitted. By the summer of 1862, he concluded that he could constitutionally emancipate slaves in those regions of the nation in rebellion, although this could be justified only as an act of military necessity exercised by the Commander in Chief in time of war. He believed that the permanent and complete abolition of slavery would require the passage of the 13th Amendment, which he supported.

The problem with such a practical moral judgment, however, is that it is always contestable and uncertain. A prudential judgment about practical circumstances can never be proven by pure logical demonstration from abstract principles. So there will often be deep controversy as to whether a judgment in complex, contingent circumstances is correct or not.

That is true for Lincoln's judgments about the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation. We still debate the wisdom of what he did. This continuing debate is clear in two recent books--Michael Knox Beran's Forge of Empires, 1861-1871: Three Revolutionary Statesmen and the World They Made and Jim Powell's Great Emancipations: How the West Abolished Slavery. Comparing the statesmanship of Lincoln, Tsar Alexander II, and Otto von Bismarck, Beran argues that Lincoln's leadership in the Civil War to defeat the Southern rebellion and abolish slavery saved free government against the threat of a new philosophy of authoritarian coercion. Powell argues, on the contrary, that the Civil War was a big mistake, because slavery could have been peacefully abolished in the United States, which would have avoided the Southern resentment that slowed the progress toward racial equality. Powell's criticisms of Lincoln are made by many paleoconservatives and libertarians who scorn Lincoln and show their sympathy for the "lost cause" of the South. Beran and Powell have briefly summarized their arguments in essays found here and here.

In this debate, I am on the side of Beran. The major weakness in Powell's book is that he never shows any understanding of Lincoln's reasoning about slavery, and therefore he never really responds to Lincoln's position.

Powell insists that abolishing slavery peacefully--as was done in much of South America and the Caribbean--is much better than trying to abolish it through war. But he doesn't realize that Lincoln agrees! Throughout his career up to the end of 1862, Lincoln argued for peaceful, gradual emancipation of slaves with compensation for slaveholders and voluntary colonization in Africa for freed slaves who would consent to this. But the proslavery leaders of the South repeatedly rejected this. In fact, as early as 1833, the Virginia legislation rejected a plan for the gradual emancipation of slaves, the same kind of plan that Powell thinks worked so well elsewhere.

Powell notes that although compensation for Southern slaveholders would have been expensive, the Civil War was much more expensive. But this is exactly what Lincoln argued in his 1862 Annual Message to Congress! And yet the Southerners rebuffed his proposals.

Powell speculates that if the Southern states had been permitted to leave the Union in 1861, they eventually would have abolished slavery on their own. This shows one of the fundamental problems with moral judgment: we can never know for sure how history might have turned out if some judgments had been made differently. In 1861, Lincoln could have yielded to the demands of many to allow the Southern states leave without war. We don't know what would have happened. But Lincoln judged that this would have jeopardized the cause of freedom in the world, because he saw a powerful move in the South towards authoritarian coercion and away from the libertarian principles of the Declaration of Independence. Beran sees this as well, and he suggests that if Lincoln had not done what he did, the American South would have joined the forces of authoritarian paternalism in other parts of the world, and history might have shifted in that direction. Proslavery Southerners had dreamed of joining with slaveholders in the Caribbean to promote a growing empire of slave societies to challenge the free societies based on free labor. Powell does not explain why this would not have been a realistic possibility.

In fact, Powell never confronts the growing intellectual movement in the South toward a proslavery paternalist philosophy of coercion. In his book, Powell devotes one paragraph to the philosophical defense of slave society coming from John Randolph and John C. Calhoun (124). But he never says anything more about the pervasive Southern philosophy of paternalism based on the claim that all great civilizations required the rule of a few over the forced labor of a subordinated class--John Henry Hammond's "mud-sill" society. Lincoln saw this as a fundamental challenge to principles of a free society. Powell does not see this because he never really examines it. Beran shows how this kind of thinking was part of a world-wide counterrevolutionary movement of grandees to preserve their dominance against the revolutionary challenge of modern liberty.

At the end of his 1862 Annual Message to Congress, Lincoln claimed that the American Civil War would be a turning point in world history:

"Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save it. We--even we here--hold the power and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free--honoring alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth."

Similarly, of course, at the end of the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln hoped that the Civil War would bring a "new birth of freedom" so that popular government "shall not perish from the earth."

To many readers today, this sounds like rhetorical exaggeration. But the whole point of Lincoln's view of the debate over slavery and Union was that this really was a critical historical moment in which the modern principles of the free society were being challenged by the ancient principles of authoritarian paternalism. Beran's book brings this out very well by putting Lincoln's statesmanship into the world-wide historical setting of 1861-1871.

For Lincoln, this great historical debate would turn on whether the principles of the Declaration of Independence would be taken seriously or not. In his speech of July 10, 1858, Lincoln warned that the arguments of Douglas for denying the equal liberty of all human beings would tend "to rub out the sentiment of liberty in the country, and to transform this government into a government of some other form."

"They are the arguments that kings have made for enslaving the people in all ages of the world. You will find that all the arguments in favor of kingcraft were of this class; they always bestrode the necks of the people, not that they wanted to do it, but because the people were better off for being ridden. That is their argument, and this argument of the Judge is the same old serpent that says you work and I eat, you toil and I will enjoy the fruits of it. Turn it whatever way you will--whether it come from the mouth of a King, an excuse for enslaving the people of his country, or from the mouth of men of one race as a reason for enslaving the men of another race, it is all the same old serpent."

Similarly, in his letter of April 6, 1859, Lincoln affirmed that the principles of Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence are "the definitions and axioms of a free society."

"And yet they are denied and evaded, with no small show of success.

"One dashingly calls them 'glittering generalities'; another bluntly calls them 'self-evident lies'; and still others insidiously argue that they apply only to 'superior races.'

"These expressions, differing in form, are identical in object and effect--the supplanting of the principles of free government, and restoring those of classification, caste, and legitimacy. They would delight a convocation of crowned heads, plotting against the people. They are the vanguard--the miners and sappers--of returning despotism."

David Christian's book The Maps of Time--the subject of a recent post--allows us to see that Lincoln understood that the modern commercial republic was a radical break with five thousand years of human history dominated by agrarian, tributary states in which a ruling few lived by exploiting the labor of the many. The Southern "mud-sill" theory of government, based on the idea that human civilization required a ruling elite exploiting the labor of a subordinate class, was a restatement of the argument for the agrarian state based on class privilege.

Beran's book shows that the various modern expressions of authoritarian paternalism--in the proslavery South, in Bismarck's welfare state, in Russian autocracy, or in Marxist socialism--were all extensions of the premodern agrarian state tradition.

In resisting this tendency to return to the ancient tradition of statist authoritarianism, Lincoln's statesmanship in the Civil War really did preserve the principles of a free society as the "last best hope of earth."


ad said...

It was quite normal in the tropical Americas both to recruit slaves into ones own army, and offer freedom to slaves owned by enemies. It is tempting to study the emancipation proclamation from that standpoint.

Similarly, emancipation damaged the Confederacy's support among abolitionists inside and outside the US. In London, for example, whose support was desired by the Confederacy.

So I think you have to consider things in terms of practical politics, if you want to critique Lincolns decisions.

Larry Arnhart said...

I agree.

"To consider things in terms of practical politics" is part of Lincoln's prudence.