Friday, March 11, 2011

Lincoln, Darwin, and the Progressives: Jason Jividen's Book

Northern Illinois University Press has just published Jason Jividen's book--Claiming Lincoln: Progressivism, Equality, and the Battle for Lincoln's Legacy in Presidential Rhetoric. Jason is presently an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.

I take some special pride in this book, because it originated as a dissertation in political theory that I supervised at NIU. This is the latest addition to a distinguished list of books that were originally political theory dissertations at NIU.

This book is a study of how American presidents in the progressive tradition--Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, and Barack Obama--have invoked Abraham Lincoln in their rhetoric as supporting progressivism. Jason's argument is that in doing this, they had to distort Lincoln's political thought. Jason writes:

Lincoln sought to secure individuals' equal liberty to exercise diverse and necessarily unequal talents and abilities in the pursuit of happiness, under rule of law. This dedication to equal liberty expects an inequality of results or outcomes among individuals in pursuit of their interests. Lincoln showed in both word and deed that this pursuit of equality ought to recognize the necessity of various political and constitutional goods in moderating democracy and the pursuit of equality itself. Lincoln's pursuit of equality recognized the worth of the constitutional forms and institutions that help to structure and shape a measured and sober popular government. A large measure of the duty of democratic statesmanship is to foster a moderate love of equality rather than to allow the passion for equality to prompt us to pursue equality at all costs, destroying the institutions that help to make free government possible.

Beginning in the Progressive Era, many who invoked Lincoln's name in the pursuit of modern egalitarian principles nevertheless rejected this Lincolnian understanding of equality. The progressives and their heirs argued consistently that the pursuit of new and expanded notions of egalitarianism necessitated an overcoming of the institutions that Lincoln believed fostered a healthy republican government. This pursuit was guided, above all, by a self-conscious and deliberate turning away from the natural rights principles and constitutionalism that lay beneath the Lincolnian notion of equality in favor of a push for equality under the rubric of progressive history. Appealing to the Lincoln image in their writings and speeches, the progressives and their heirs must reject, revise, or reinterpret Lincoln in order to incorporate the Lincoln image into the rhetoric of progress and modern egalitarianism.

. . .

Progressivism and modern liberalism's rejection of modern natural right thinking leads to an indifference to constitutionalism, separation of powers, and limited government. Again, the choice-worthiness of such institutional arrangements follows from the assumption that there is an enduring and necessarily imperfect human nature that we can comprehend through human reason. Our reason tells us that all men are born with inalienable rights, which by definition place limits upon government. Moreover, given the imperfections of human nature, our reason suggests that political power ought to be constitutionally balanced and limited. Insofar as these principles are rejected in light of historical progress, it is probable that limited constitutional government would be deemed obsolete. The modern pursuit of equality is necessarily limited and tempered by these principles. The denial of an enduring and imperfect human nature, the rejection of the principle that all human beings are equally endowed with natural and inalienable rights, the radicalization of the pursuit of equality, and the willingness to alter constitutional forms and structures in this pursuit, are all intimately related. (175, 178)

As I have argued in Darwinian Natural Right and Darwinian Conservatism, I believe that a Darwinian view of "enduring and necessarily imperfect human nature" supports Lincoln's principles of equal liberty and limited government.

Against this claim, however, many of the defenders of Lincoln against the distortions of the progressives--particularly, the students of Harry Jaffa--have insisted that the mistake of the progressives was in viewing Lincoln through the lens of Darwinian historicism. It certainly is true, as Jason indicates in his book, that the progressives commonly linked Lincoln and Darwin as manifesting the new organic science of historical progress that transcended the mechanical, Newtonian science of the American founders.

But if the progressives were bad interpreters of Lincoln, they were equally bad interpreters of Darwin. They failed to see how Darwin's science sustained Lincoln's opposition to slavery and his affirmation of equal liberty and limited government.

This historicism of the progessives came not from Lincoln or from Darwin but from the biblical historicism of Hegel--the idea that history can be understood as the unfolding of the intelligent design of a cosmic mind directed to absolute freedom.

Some of my previous posts on these points can be found here, here, here, and here.

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