06 August 2013

Neo-Lincolnism and necessary lies

Andrew Delbanco gets the obligatory mention of President Obama out of the way in the first paragraph of his long review article in the August 19 New Republic -- the magazine's latest meditation on the legacy of Abraham Lincoln. Unlike other writers, Delbanco seems less interested in how Lincoln may serve as a role model for the current President. He contemplates Obama only to question how the President, or anyone, can praise Lincoln yet also idealize what Obama once called "the painstaking work of building consensus." The Civil War, after all, was the ultimate failure of consensus. Delbanco finds it strange that "A president temperamentally inclined to seek middle ground was invoking the central instance in our history of a political and moral impasse out of which no middle way could be found -- and a savage war succeeded where compromise had failed."

Delbanco is well aware, as his essay shows, that the waging of the Civil War itself required a painstakingly built consensus which is itself the subject of the school of thought I call Neo-Lincolnism. The relevance of Neo-Lincolnism, whether propounded in The New Republic by Sean Wilentz or rendered on film by Tony Kushner and Steven Spielberg, applies less to the struggle of ideological opposites than to the bickering on any one side between pragmatists and radicals. Delbanco, a professor of American Studies, complicates the idea by emphasizing how much "moderation" is a matter of subjective perception. He cites William Seward as an example from Lincoln's time: a political rival and eventual ally who was accused by radicals of being an unprincipled trimmer and by Southern extremists of extremist abolitionism. Seward's words and deeds gave ammunition to both sets of antagonists. This poses what Delbanco calls the "Seward problem...a microcosm of the larger challenge of coming to terms with anti-slavery politicians who demurred at the abolitionist demand for radical action, and tried instead to undermine slavery without frontally assaulting it." Delbanco's own answer to the problem is to insist that men like Seward (and Lincoln) were irreconcilably opposed to slavery and wanted to see it end, but "nevertheless respected constitutional constraints on federal power as [they] understood them." In terms of ends -- the end of slavery that is -- Delbanco argues that "there really was no such thing as a moderate Republican" in Lincoln's time. In terms of means, there was another story.

No end can justify all means in a constitutional democratic republic. In simplest terms, Lincoln couldn't simply command the South to free its slaves on pain of death. He was constrained by accountability as well as constitutional law. Delbanco quotes the Frederick Douglass address that has become the definitive eulogy of Lincoln to remind us that the President had to "have the earnest sympathy and the powerful cooperation of his loyal fellow-countrymen" to accomplish either of his great tasks: restoring the union or ending slavery.  Douglass's speech, or at least the paragraph quoted, is a masterpiece of objectivity, acknowledging that Lincoln "seemed tardy, cold, dull and indifferent" from an abolitionist perspective while admitting that he was "swift, zealous, radical and determined" from the perspective of the Northern mainstream. The key phrase is: "measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult,..."  What Douglass meant, in our terms, is that Lincoln had to sell his ultimate antislavery agenda to a potentially balky public. Neo-Lincolnism emphasizes the inescapable necessity of such salesmanship and the occasional need to use some salesmen's tricks. Turning to the Spielberg biopic, Delbanco highlights the scene in which Thaddeus Stevens must deny his desire to push for complete racial equality in order to make it safe for some congressmen to vote for the Thirteenth Amendment. In film and in fact, Stevens's speech was a "prevaricating lie" in Delbanco's words, but also a "necessary lie, a tactical retreat in the face of the recalcitrant reality of race hatred in North and West." The haters needed reassurance that abolition would not mean the sort of equality they feared, and such is democracy in America that the sort of "dissembling" Stevens practiced was essential to ending slavery. To be more specific, it was essential to ending slavery while remaining a constitutional republic. Delbanco himself may not count as a Neo-Lincolnite, but he touches on its core premise: you can't get your way in politics simply by insisting or even proving that you are right. Instead, you always have to think in terms of what people will accept today, and you may have to be prepared to pay some price to seal the deal.

Instead of being a Neo-Lincolnite himself, Delbanco might unintentionally undermine the Neo-Lincolnite argument, insofar as it is meant as instruction for 21st century Democrats. Isn't he saying, after all, that any declaration of moderation by a Neo-Lincolnian Democrat should be taken as a lie like Thaddeus Stevens's? How could any equivalent statement today by any alleged "extreme" Democrat on any hot-button subject be taken at face value by a Republican? It depends on the duration of the lie, I suppose. After Lincoln died, Stevens reverted to radicalism and strove to destroy Lincoln's successor for betraying the radical agenda. His lie seemed to be good only for the one speech. How long would a liberal today have to live up to any necessary lie? How long would a Republican trust her to do so? Is the sort of prevarication upon which Lincoln's ultimate agenda depended even possible in our ever-more-skeptical age, when prevarication is practically expected? The Neo-Lincolnites still have horse-trading and deal-making to fall back on, but if anyone out there actually fits the description, they may wonder whether Delbanco has given the game away.

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