Lincoln's Virtues: An Ethical Biography
By William Lee Miller
Alfred A. Knopf. $30
New York Times Book Review, February 10, 2002
More words have been written about Abraham Lincoln than any historical personage except Jesus Christ. There are scores of biographies of every size, shape, and description, as well as books on Lincoln's views on everything from cigarette smoking to Judaism. Is it possible to say something new about Lincoln? The somewhat surprising answer, William L. Miller demonstrates in “Lincoln's Virtues,” is “yes.”
A scholar in residence at the University of Virginia's Center for Public Affairs, Miller has long been interested in the intersections of practical politics and moral principle. In “Arguing About Slavery” (1996), he related how a small band of Congressmen led by John Quincy Adams fought to overturn the “gag rule” that prohibited discussion of antislavery petitions in the House of Representatives. He describes “Lincoln's Virtues” as an “ethical biography” not a conventional narrative of Lincoln's career but a study of his moral and intellectual development up to the Civil War.
Readers are apt to find the book rough going. “Lincoln's Virtues” is filled with digressions, irrelevancies, arguments with other historians, and annoying asides (“What? What? What is that young politician saying up there in front of that crowd of temperance advocates?”) Miller has yet to learn the lesson of Lincoln's greatest speeches, the Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural, which are testaments to the power of brevity.
Those who persevere, however, will emerge convinced of Miller's essential point: that Lincoln was not simply an astute politician but “an extraordinary thinker, on moral-political subjects,” who reached down to first principles to illuminate the essence of his era's controversies. Rarely have Lincoln's speeches and writings, both well-known and obscure, been subjected to such painstaking analysis.
Miller shows that from his youth, Lincoln thought for himself and trusted his own judgment. He notes how many elements of frontier culture the young Lincoln rejected. He did not hunt, drink, use tobacco, or gamble. In a region dominated by Jacksonian Democrats and swept by religious revivals, he adhered to the Whig party and never joined a church.
Having received almost no formal education, Lincoln embarked on a lifelong quest for learning and self-improvement. He read incessantly, beginning as a youth with the Bible and Shakespeare. During his single term in the House of Representatives his colleagues considered it humorous that Lincoln spent his spare time poring over books in the Library of Congress. The result of Lincoln's “stunning work of self-education” was the “intellectual power” revealed in his writings and speeches. He relied, Miller notes, on in-depth research and logical argument to persuade his listeners, rather than oratorical flights.
Before 1854, Lincoln had expressed antislavery views but was not a leader in antislavery politics. But in that year, having recently retired from political activity, he was swept back into the public arena by the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which opened the heartland of the trans-Mississippi West to the expansion of slavery. In the “first great speech of his life”, at Springfield, Illinois, he condemned the further spread of slavery because of “the monstrous injustice of slavery itself” and because it undermined the country's world-historical mission as a beacon of freedom for the world.
For the next six years, Lincoln hammered home his argument: slavery was a “vast moral evil” whose existence in the South was unfortunately guaranteed by the Constitution, but whose expansion must be resisted because it threatened the moral foundations of the republic. More and more eloquently, he identified how slavery threatened the core rights of all Americans personal liberty, self-government, and enjoyment of the fruits of one's labor.
Hovering over “Lincoln's Virtues” is the shadow of another recent study, Lerone Bennett's “Forced Into Glory” (1999), a full-scale assault on Lincoln's reputation that paints him as a supporter of slavery and inveterate racist. If Bennett's book is a somewhat intemperate prosecutor's brief, Miller offers the case for the defense.
Miller acknowledges that Lincoln opposed allowing blacks in Illinois to vote, hold office, or intermarry with whites, and that he never called for repeal of the state's draconian Black Laws that severely restricted the rights of the small black population. He points out in extenuation that most of Lincoln's racist statements were defensive responses to Democrats' far more overt and insidious appeals to racism. In the great 1858 senate campaign, Lincoln's rival Stephen A. Douglas repeatedly insisted that blacks were not entitled to share in the inalienable rights of Declaration of Independence. To this Lincoln responded that blacks might not merit political equality, but that the natural rights enumerated by Jefferson applied to all mankind.
Miller makes clear Lincoln's deep hatred of slavery. Regarding race, however, his defense is not entirely successful. Having earlier praised Lincoln for moral independence, he explains that when it came to blacks, Lincoln “acquiesced in the racial prejudice by which he was surrounded.” He insists, however, that Lincoln's inclusion of blacks within the Declaration of Independence was meant surreptitiously to subvert the philosophical underpinning not simply of slavery but of racism as well. The problem with this argument was pointed out half a century ago by Richard Hofstadter in his brilliant essay on Lincoln in “The American Political Tradition.” How could blacks exercise and defend their natural rights while denied the vote, the right to testify in court, and access to education, as they were in Illinois?
Nor does Miller deal except in passing with Lincoln's nearly lifelong support for colonization. In his great Springfield speech of 1854, Lincoln asserted that he would prefer to send the slaves, if freed, “to Liberia to their own native land” (a phrase he used even though some blacks' ancestors had been in North America longer than Lincoln's). Lincoln's support of a policy that might be called the ethnic cleansing of America was no passing fancy. He promoted it in numerous prewar speeches, two State of the Union addresses, several cabinet meetings, and a notorious interchange with black leaders at the White House in 1862. Lincoln's bias should not blind us to his many virtues, yet it cannot be denied that like many of his contemporaries, he believed that slavery was a crime yet simultaneously held prejudiced views regarding blacks.
Miller's discussion of race is the linchpin of a broader argument about politics and the possibilities of moral action. Among his purposes is to restore readers' respect for politicians, a profession whose reputation has been tarnished by Vietnam, Watergate, Iran-Contra, and numerous other examples of malfeasance in office. Lincoln was a lifelong politician. As a Republican leader, he worked to have the party focus on its most popular position opposition to the expansion of slavery and put aside divisive questions like repeal of the fugitive slave law, hostility to immigrants, demands for immediate abolition, and, of course, the rights of blacks that would endanger its success. Yet he never compromised his core belief in the wrongness of slavery. As a politician, Miller claims, Lincoln realized “that role's fullest moral possibilities.”
Miller's conception of political leadership is informed by Max Weber's famous essay, “Politics as a Vocation,” originally an address to students at Munich University during the proto-revolutionary year 1918. A believer in constitutional reform, not radical overturn, Weber insisted that the politician must be devoted to a cause yet attentive to the practical consequences of his actions. This “responsible realism” a combination of moral clarity and prudent responsibility -- Miller insists, marks Lincoln and all great political leaders.
Accounts of Lincoln always seem to require some kind of antithesis to set his greatness in sharper relief. Often, this is provided by his wife Mary Todd Lincoln, unfairly depicted as a shrew who made his life miserable. For Miller, Lincoln's foils are the era's “utopians, perfectionists, moralizers, fanatics, and absolutists,” chief among them the abolitionists, who, heedless of political consequences, demanded immediate emancipation and equal rights for blacks.
In “Arguing About Slavery,” Miller gave abolitionists full credit for helping to bring the moral issue of slavery to the forefront of national life. Here, however, he repeatedly indicts the movement for “haughty superiority”, “self-righteousness”, and “moral oversimplification.” His argument not only caricatures a complex, multifaceted movement but betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the road to emancipation. Drawing on Weber, Miller insists that the politician has no choice but to act “within fairly narrow limits of the possible.” He seems not to have noticed Weber's observation at the end of his long essay: “what is possible would never have been achieved if, in this world, people had not repeatedly reached for the impossible.”
“Lincoln's Virtues” ends as Lincoln assumes the presidency during the nation's greatest crisis. The reader can only regret that Miller does not take his story down to 1865. Stopping in 1861 ignores Lincoln's real claim to greatness -- the moral and intellectual growth that was the hallmark of his presidency. By the time of his death, Lincoln had embraced emancipation, abandoned colonization, enrolled black soldiers into the Union army, and favored enfranchising at least some blacks. Miller notes that only at the very end of his life did Lincoln come to deem a “biracial society” possible in the United States. How and why this happened, how Lincoln drew on principles forged before the war while responding to the pressure of military events, the actions of slaves demanding freedom, and, yes, the pressure of those moralistic abolitionists, forms an essential part of Lincoln's “ethical biography.”