"In four [of the debates] I have expressly disclaimed all intention to bring about social and political equality between the white and black races, and, in all the rest, I have done the same thing by clear implication.
"I have made it equally plain that I think the negro is included in the word 'men' used in the Declaration of Independence."
To the modern eye, the statements don't look consistent. If you think all men are created equal, how could you not act to "bring about social and political equality" among the races? For many modern writers, statements like these prove Lincoln a racist. For critics on the left, they prove that he was never dedicated to racial equality and should not be revered as if he did everything necessary to achieve it. For critics on the right, the libertarians and paleoconservatives, they prove Lincoln insincere in his moral arguments against slavery. Authors like Thomas DiLorenzo take Lincoln's "racist" utterances as license to speculate that the "Great Emancipator" had ulterior motives for waging the Civil War, namely to impose "big government" and biased economic policies on the entire country.
In Vindicating Lincoln, Thomas Krannawitter attempts to prove Lincoln's unwavering commitment to the principles of the Declaration of Independence. Followers of Leo Strauss, like Krannawitter, use the Declaration as a key to interpret the true meaning of the Constitution. They appear to prefer the Declaration because it appears to assert a principle of natural right, i.e. "all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights." Krannawitter himself asserts that the Constitution actually does incorporate the Declaration's natural-right principles. Here's how he strains to prove it: "In its very first sentence, the Constitution points to the Declaration: the Constitution is established in order to 'secure the blessings of liberty,' and what is a blessing other than a gift from God?" (p.157)
Lest you assume that Krannawitter's is a faith-based reading of history, he goes out of his way to condemn preachers who attempted to prove that the Bible permitted slavery. No matter that the evidence was on the preachers' side; Krannawitter's view is that "reason is no less the voice of God than sacred scripture" (251). Straussians as a group attempt to strike a balance between reason and revelation, believing that one without the other "leads to tyrannical fanaticism."
This is all very nice, and no one is questioning Leo Strauss or Thomas Krannawitter's commitment to racial equality, but none of them said anything like Lincoln did at his first debate with Douglas: "I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and black races. There is a physical difference between the two, which in my judgment will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality." As in the letter to Brown, Lincoln followed immediately with this: "there is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence."
The problem Krannawitter sets up for himself is to show that, because Lincoln affirmed the "natural rights enumerated in the Declaration," he should not be considered a racist by modern standards. Never mind that Lincoln himself distinguished between natural rights and "political and social equality;" Krannawitter infers from Lincoln's affirmation of natural rights that he would not object today were he to discover the races in a state of social and political equality. Better yet, Krannawitter hints that social and political equality was probably what Lincoln really wanted back then.
One of the ideas most closely identified with Leo Strauss is the notion that philosophers and statesmen through history have practised a form of esoteric writing dictated by prudence. These men are supposed to be dedicated to the uncompromising pursuit of transcendent truths, which Krannawitter identifies time and again as true for all times and all places, but they're wise enough to know that stating those truths baldly might not be prudent at certain points in history. They learned to write carefully, to make their works unobjectionable to the mob or the powers that be, but also in a way that fellow philosophers would recognize, and in which they'd recognize the unchanging truth affirmed after all. Because "natural rights" are a timeless truth, the Declaration of Independence signifies that Thomas Jefferson and his co-writers would ultimately endorse racial equality, even if they compromised on "social and political equality" in their lifetimes. While prudence dictates compromise in practice, statements like the Declaration allows authors like Krannawitter to credit Thomas Jefferson and his co-authors, as well as successors like Lincoln, with endorsing true equality both in advance and, in a sense, retroactively. Believe it or not. Ask yourself whether the Founders' or Lincoln's commitment to equal natural rights extended to sexual equality and Krannawitter's position may become an even tougher sell.
In any event, Krannawitter claims that Lincoln was obliged by prudence to phrase his speeches carefully in order not to lose votes. The author offers very careful readings of Lincoln's most controversial utterances in an attempt to demonstrate that Lincoln never explicitly endorsed the idea that blacks were inferior to whites. Instead, when prudence required it, Lincoln would say that he did not support measures toward controversial ends, while signalling through his repeated invocations of the Declaration to right-minded people, and to posterity, that he didn't really oppose the ends.
I'm not exactly convinced by Krannawitter's argument, but then again, I don't have a lot vested in the question of whether Lincoln was a racist. At the heart of the current debate over Lincoln's legacy is the fact that several conflicting ideological groups want to use him as a symbol. Critics on the right complain that Lincoln is used to justify everything from income taxes to the invasion of Iraq, while Krannawitter himself complains that 20th century liberals invoke Lincoln to justify economic and social policies that the author opposes. The Lincoln debate involves people who want to debunk him, perhaps in order to replace him with new heroes, as some leftists would do in favor of the Abolitionists, as well as people who want to enlist him in support of policies he never contemplated, as Krannawitter accuses Mario Cuomo and Barack Obama of doing, and people who want to take Lincoln away from some people and keep him for others, like Krannawitter himself.
The more interesting issue that emerges from this aspect of the Lincoln question is one I'll discuss further in the next installment. Krannawitter repeatedly upholds Lincoln as a role model for prudential statesmanship. He suggests that Lincoln was engaged in such statesmanship when he disclaimed intentions to promote racial equality during the debates with Douglas. He compares Lincoln favorably with the Abolitionists, who demanded immediate, unconditional and uncompensated emancipation of slaves, and suggests that the Abolitionists' goal could only be reached by Lincoln's prudent means. Going about it in the radical fashion that the Abolitionists might have preferred, Krannawitter suggests, might have reduced the Union to a state or anarchy or rule by arbitrary force, since the radicals would have to toss the Constitution aside to get their way. The point you should notice is that Krannawitter believes that there were higher priorities than freeing the slaves immediately. You'll notice later, however, that he uses the suffering of slaves as an argument against Lincoln letting the Southern states secede. So why doesn't the suffering of slaves justify the most immediate, even the most ruthless action to end slavery? Once Krannawitter concedes that relieving the suffering of slaves is not the most immediate moral priority, he throws one of his own arguments against secession into question. I'll test his arguments, and those of DiLorenzo and others in favor of secession, in the next installment.