In view of all the strange and yet predictable controversy over Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln”–a movie I’ll see this afternoon–I thought I’d post this meditation from 2006, when I was brooding about the implacable radicalism of Bush, Cheney, and the intellectual gangsters who justified their causes. I’ll revisit it tonight after seeing the movie, and perhaps revise it after Jim Oakes’s book comes out next week. Meanwhile, let’s stop acting as if radicalism and conservatism can’t be sutured by revolutionary theory and practice.
Since 1948, with the publication of Richard Hofstadter’s essay on Abraham Lincoln, the conventional wisdom has been that he was the conservative ballast in what could have been a successful radical movement against slavery—a movement that would have obliterated the slaveholders, made “40 Acres and a Mule” the right of every freedman, and thus finished the Second American Revolution.
He was, after all, the moderate Republican from the West who could carry Illinois, Indiana, and Pennsylvania by persuading white racist audiences in these states with a political pantomime of Stephen A. Douglas, the Democratic Senator from Illinois. He was, after all, the president-elect who, in his first inaugural address, offered the South a Constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right of property in slaves where slavery already existed.
He was, after all, the president who countermanded military field orders in 1861 which would have freed thousands of slaves in Missouri. He was, after all, the president who issued an Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 that applied only to territory still beyond the control of the Union Army. And he was, after all, the president who said that “colonization”—the export of the social question—was the solution to the problem of the freedmen as late as 1863, that is, after the Proclamation had consigned slavery to the dustbin of history.
This conservative and quite possibly racist Lincoln is no less the product of folklore than the Great Emancipator of high school textbooks. He was, in fact, a conservative. But he was also a radical. And this unstable isotope of conservatism and radicalism made him a revolutionary. But how he could be all three?
Conservatives typically revere the past because it is the repository of political wisdom collected over many years—it is the site of traditions from “time out of mind”—and because it functions as a constraint on political innovation in the present. Radicals typically revile the past for precisely the same reasons: their purpose is to challenge the received wisdom, to overturn traditions, and to escape the constraints imposed by institutionally sedimented political practices.
From the standpoint of conservatives, actually existing historical circumstances are the effective retort to the ethical principles brandished by radicals in their pursuit of perfection. Their earnest question is, Once you have repudiated the past, can you rely on reason alone in navigating the future? From the standpoint of radicals, these very historical circumstances are the problem. Their equally earnest answer to the question posed by conservatives is, Once we are free of the constraints imposed by the past, anything is possible.
So conceived, conservatism in the mid-19th century required and enabled a vigorous defense of the Constitution as the founding document that sanctioned slavery—a defense that culminated in the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision of 1857, which announced that neither Congress nor a territorial legislature had the right to exclude slavery from the federal territories. By the same token, radicalism required and enabled a vigorous critique of the Constitution as the deviant document that sanctioned slavery—a critique that culminated in the abolitionist fervor of the 1830s and 40s, when the Constitution began to look like a pact with the Devil (a.k.a. the “Slave Power”).
One side would exclude the Declaration from its narrative of the founding; the other would install it as the primary source of the nation, and exclude the Constitution accordingly. Both sides treated the Constitution as the embodiment of the historically necessary compromise with slavery—without that compromise, North and South would have gone their separate ways in 1787—and both sides treated the Declaration as the source of ethical principles whose scope was confined by that historical necessity.
In every anti-slavery speech of the 1850s, from the incendiary debut in Peoria of October 16, 1854, to the stump speeches for John C. Fremont in 1856 (almost 90 of them), through the debates with Douglas in 1858, and onto the Cooper Institute address of February 27, 1860, Lincoln claimed, on the moral grounds afforded by the Declaration, that there could be no compromise on the question of slavery’s expansion into the territories.
Meanwhile he freely acknowledged and indeed affirmed that the Constitution protected slavery in the Southern states, even announcing in his First Inaugural that he would support a Constitutional Amendment guaranteeing the rights of slaveholders to their property in states where slavery already legally existed. In effect he endorsed the ethical principles inscribed in the Declaration and, at the same time—sometimes even in the same breath—acknowledged the historical circumstances represented by the Constitution. He appeared to split the difference between the radical and conservative positions of his day.
But Lincoln always insisted that the Declaration of Independence precluded Douglas’s popular sovereignty—the notion that whoever settled the territories should be able to vote slavery up or down—because a “handful of men” with only a “temporary interest” had no right to decide the issue in territories owned by all Americans, and more important, because no man had the right to do what was wrong.
Here he spoke the language of radicalism: “Equal justice to the south, it is said, requires us to consent to the extending of slavery to new countries. That is to say, inasmuch as you do not object to my taking my hog to Nebraska, therefore, I must not object to you taking your slave. Now, I admit this is perfectly logical, if there is no difference between hogs and negroes. . . .But if the negro is a man, is it not to that extent, a total destruction of self-government, to say that he too shall not govern himself? If the negro is a man, why then my ancient faith teaches me that ‘all men are created equal,’ and that there can be no moral right in connection with one man’s making a slave of another.” [Peoria, Collected Works 2: 264-66]
Lincoln was astonishingly ruthless in his refusal to compromise with the extension of slavery on these moral grounds, and perfectly consistent in his validation of the slaveholders’ rights on Constitutional grounds. As well as anyone, North or South, he knew that slavery had to expand to survive. To limit its geographical scope by excluding it from all the federal territories was to “place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in course of ultimate extinction,” as he put it in the House Divided speech of 1858.
So when he swore to protect it where it already existed but also swore to prevent its growth, he was not conceding the legitimacy of either slavery or white supremacy—he was pronouncing a death sentence on both. And everyone, North and South, understood the gesture. That is why seven Southern states seceded in the month following Lincoln’s election.
Lincoln’s refusal to compromise on the moral grounds afforded by the Declaration had two profound effects on the politics of his time, and therefore of ours. The first effect was the radical redefinition of the Republican Party’s core principles from 1858 to 1860. In 1856, Fremont lost to James Buchanan, a pro-slavery Democrat, because he could not carry Pennsylvania, Illinois, or Indiana. Party leaders and ideologues knew that a western moderate—as opposed to, say, an Eastern radical such as William Seward (who said in debate on the Compromise of 1850 that “there is a higher law than the Constitution”)—might carry the day in 1860.
In 1858, that ideal candidate materialized in the form of Stephen A. Douglas, who publicly broke with the Buchanan administration when it tried to admit Kansas to the Union on the basis of the Lecompton Constitution, which everyone knew was a fraud perpetrated by pro-slavery “border ruffians” from Missouri.
Douglas was the architect of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820, opened the Louisiana Purchase to slavery, and became the occasion for the founding of the Republican Party. He repeatedly declared thereafter that he didn’t care whether slavery “was voted up or down” in the territories, so long as popular sovereignty was the guiding principle of settlement, and he endorsed the Dred Scott decision. He was by no means an anti-slavery spokesman—he denounced Buchanan and the “Southern Directory” that dominated the cabinet because he was trying to retain his credibility as a political leader in Illinois and a presidential candidate in 1860.
But Republican Party leaders and ideologues, most notably Salmon P. Chase, the governor of Ohio, and Horace Greeley, the editor of the New York Tribune, seized on this rift in the Democratic Party to promote Douglas as their perfect presidential nominee in 1860: he was the Western moderate who would carry Illinois and Indiana and maybe even Buchanan’s home state of Pennsylvania.
Chase and Greeley were the mainstream of the Republican Party in 1858. They weren’t interested in questions of equality between black and white folk, and they avoided the moral issues that slavery presented because they knew that the sanctimony of the abolitionists got them nowhere with voters. Like most adherents of the Republican Party, they were ideological descendants of the Free Soil Party of 1848, which proposed to limit the spread of slavery and to limit the influence of Southern Democrats in the Congress. In their view, the prospect of Douglas as the Republican nominee had no drawbacks.
In Lincoln’s view, that prospect signified the moral death of the party he had only reluctantly, and only recently, joined, when it was clear that the Whigs had collapsed. He challenged Douglas on the ethical principles contained in the Declaration, and in doing so made sure that the Little Giant would not remain the darling of the Eastern establishment and could not be the Republican nominee in 1860.
In this sense, he reintroduced the questions and issues that Free Soil had tabled for a decade, thus transforming mainstream political discourse in ways that revived the spirit and the idiom of abolition. He also moved his own party toward a position that would be less susceptible to compromise with slavery in the territories.
But not far enough. During the secession crisis, between his election in November 1860 and his inauguration in March 1861, leaders of Lincoln’s own party—including the radical Seward—begged him to agree to a compromise on the extension of slavery. Indeed a majority of Republicans in Congress seemed bent on restoring the Missouri Compromise as a means of persuading the slave states to stay in the Union, and not incidentally, as a means of preventing insurrection and civil war. Lincoln’s second profound effect on the politics of his time was the immediate result of his adamant refusal to compromise in any way on the principles that elected him (albeit with only 39.8% of Northern voters).
That refusal, even in the face of mounting evidence that a majority of his fellow Republicans wanted to compromise, caused a new set of secession ordinances in the upper South, and so, at another remove, the Civil War itself. But Lincoln had no qualms about the bloody consequences of his nearly unique rigidity. “Hold firm, as with a chain of steel,” he kept writing to wavering comrades, “the tug [of war] has to come, and better now than at any time hereafter.” Or in a variation on the theme: “Let there be no compromise on the question of extending slavery. If there be, all our labor is lost, and ere long, must be done again. The dangerous ground—that into which some of our friends have a hankering to run—is Pop Sov. Have none of it. Stand firm. The tug has to come, and better now than at any time hereafter.”
Lincoln did “stand firm.” For unlike the Free Soil mainstream of his party, which always insisted that the “negro question” was irrelevant to its anti-slavery program, he knew that this struggle was about a new nation already in the making. As he explained to Congressman J. T. Hale in a confidential letter of January 11, 1861: “What is our present condition? We have just carried an election on principles fairly stated to the people. Now we are told in advance the government shall be broken up unless we surrender to those we have beaten, before we take the offices. In this they are attempting to ply upon us or they are in dead earnest. Either way, if we surrender, it is the end of us and of the government. They will repeat the experiment on us ad libitum. A year will not pass till we shall have to take Cuba as a condition upon which they will stay in the Union. They now have the Constitution under which we have lived over seventy years, and acts of Congress of their own framing, with no prospect of their being changed; and they can never have a more shallow pretext for breaking up the government, or extorting a compromise, than now.”
Lincoln’s ironclad devotion to the impending new nation was predicated on the rhetorical suture of the Declaration and the Constitution he accomplished in the Cooper Institute speech of February 27, 1860. Here he retold the story of the founding in a way that made these documents moments on a political continuum rather than the objects of an either/or choice. Here he showed that the ethical principles inscribed in the Declaration were embodied in the historical circumstances recognized by the Constitution. Here he showed that radicalism and conservatism were complementary political temperaments.
Many jurists had claimed that the Declaration created “the people” invoked in the preamble of the Constitution, so that the latter could not be construed, in Congress or at the law, as a kind of diplomatic compact between sovereign states. These original states had not severally declared independence from Great Britain in 1776, not any more than the delegates in Philadelphia had written the Constitution in 1787 merely to protect the rights of their respective states—“the people” were prior to the Constitution, and the nation was greater than the sum of its parts, its states.
Lincoln clearly invoked this constitutional continuity at Gettysburg. But earlier, at Cooper Institute, he had demonstrated that the Declaration and the Constitution were commensurable documents in terms of their attitudes toward slavery. That is how he both preserved and annulled the claims of slaveholders to a constitutional right in slave property, and in doing so, made the extension of slavery unthinkable.
Lincoln used the Dred Scott decision to hoist Douglas by his own petard. The central question was, “Does the proper division of local from federal authority, or anything in the Constitution, forbid our Federal Government to control slavery in our Federal Territories,” as Douglas, the leading sponsor of Popular Sovereignty, held, in agreement with the majority of the Supreme Court? It was a question that could have been answered legalistically, by reference to the decisions of the federal courts. Lincoln chose instead to make the question practical and historical. First he quoted Douglas on what we now call original intent: “Our fathers, when they framed the government under which we live, understood this question [of slavery’s disposition in the territories] just as well, and even better, than we do now.”
Then, having adopted this utterance as his own text, he asked, what was the understanding of those fathers on this very question? He answered by equating their understanding with their actions on the question.
Lincoln painstakingly showed that of the 39 men who had approved or signed the document (over 60 attended the convention), 23 had previously or subsequently acted in some official capacity on the question of slavery in the territories, from the Congress that adopted the Northwest Ordinance in 1784 under the Articles of Confederation to the sixteenth Congress that fashioned the Missouri Compromise in the terms provided by the Constitution. Of these, 21, a clear majority, had demonstrated by their actions that they believed the federal government in some form had the proper authority to prohibit slavery in the territories. So the original intent of the framers undermined the constitutional logic of both Chief Justice Roger B. Taney and Senator Stephen A. Douglas.
More to the point, the Constitution was itself an anti-slavery mechanism. It was fully consistent, both in its language and its operation, with the Declaration. For nowhere did the men who wrote it use the word race or negro or even slave—the 3/5 clause referred to “persons,” which at least implied the slaves’ humanity—and rarely did they act as if it was a device by which slavery could, or should, be perpetuated. The ethical principles of anti-slavery found in the Declaration were not abstractions removed from the historical circumstances and compromises of the practical politics enabled by the Constitution. Instead, they were residents of the same edifice.
Again, radicalism and conservatism were complementary political temperaments, and purposes. The “old policy on the point in controversy”—the original intent of the framers—was sufficient to the cause of anti-slavery, which would, if not enfeebled by compromise, now forge a new nation.
This blending of radicalism and conservatism made Lincoln a revolutionary, perhaps even a revolutionary despot on the order of Cromwell, Robespierre, Lenin, and Mao. He did carefully observe constitutional scruple in defining the Emancipation Proclamation as a necessary war measure in his capacity as “Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States” (notice: not of the people as such). But that proclamation made the end of slavery the condition of Southern re-entry into the Union and revoked the possibility that, short of Confederate victory, slavery could be restored or salvaged by some compromise between North and South. It also enabled total war against the South—that is, war against the civilian population—and begged the slaves to enlarge their “General Strike” by fleeing to Union lines.
Moreover, before the war commenced, Lincoln had dispersed the pro-secessionist Missouri state legislature at gunpoint; had placed Baltimore and Maryland under martial law; and had guaranteed an anti-secessionist vote in Kentucky by smuggling guns to pro-Union forces and stationing Union troops at the polls. By the time the war closed, Lincoln had suspended the writ of habeus corpus throughout the North.
He had also used the Union Army to suspend the publication of 60 anti-war periodicals; to jail at least 80 pro-Democrat editors on the eve of elections; to keep a Republican majority in the House in 1862 by suppressing Democratic turnout in the border states, including Delaware; and to prevent the election of an anti-war “Copperhead,” Clement Vallandigham, in the Ohio gubernatorial race of 1863, by court-martialing him.
A revolutionary, perhaps, but wasn’t he a racist, too? The evidence for this charge is slim at best, consisting as it does of his comic references to “niggers” in the 1850s, his impromptu remarks at the outset of the fourth debate with Douglas on September 18, 1858, and of his apparent endorsement of colonization as the solution to the impending problem of the freedmen under conditions of free labor. It is nevertheless powerful evidence, for it keeps surfacing, even metastasizing, in our imaginations.
I leave aside the jokes and the colonization issue, on the assumption that the former does not distinguish him from either 19th or 20th century political standards, and that the latter is moot in view of his support for recruitment of black troops and of black nationalist support for colonization (for example, from Martin Delaney and Alexander Crummell).
In his June 26, 1857 speech on the occasion of the Dred Scott decision, Lincoln noted that in five of the original thirteen states, free blacks were voters, and so were constituent elements of the people that ratified the Constitution—thus invalidating Taney’s claim that negroes were no part of the nation so conceived. He also ridiculed Douglas’s fears of “amalgamation” of the races in these words: “Now I protest that counterfeit logic which concludes that, because I do not want a black woman for a slave, I must necessarily want her for a wife. I need not have her for either, I can just leave her alone. In some respects she certainly is not my equal; but in her natural right to eat the breads she earns with her own hands without asking leave of anyone else, she is my equal, and the equal of all others.”
In his July 10, 1858 speech in Chicago, on the eve of the debates with Douglas, Lincoln concluded this way: “My friends, I have detained you about as long as I desired to do, and I have only to say, let us discard all this quibbling about this man and the other man—this race and that race and the other race being inferior, and therefore they must be placed in an inferior position. . . Let us discard all these things, and unite as one people throughout this land, until we shall once more stand up declaring that all men are created equal.”
And yet six weeks later, in the very first debate with Douglas in Ottawa, on August 21, 1858, Lincoln quoted his own Peoria speech of October, 1854: “My first impulse would be to free all the slaves, and send them to Liberia—to their own native land. But a moment’s reflection would convince me, that . . .its sudden execution is impossible. . . What then? Free them all, and keep them among us as underlings? Is it quite certain that this betters their condition? . . .Free them, and make them politically and socially, our equals? My own feelings will not admit of this; and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of white people will not. Whether this feeling accords with justice and sound judgement, is not the sole question, if indeed, it is any part of it. A universal feeling, whether well or ill-founded, can not be safely disregarded. We can not, then, make them equals.”
A month later, at the opening of the fourth debate in Charleston, Lincoln qualified and clarified these remarks: “While I was at the hotel to-day an elderly gentleman called upon me to know whether I was really in favor of producing a perfect equality between the negroes and white people [Great laughter.] While I had not proposed to myself on this occasion to say much on that subject, yet as the question was asked me I thought I would occupy perhaps five minutes in saying something in regard to it. I will then say that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, [applause]—that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will for ever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. . . .I will add to this that I have never seen to my knowledge a man, woman, or child who was in favor of producing a perfect equality between negroes and white men. . . .I will add one further word, which is this, that I do not understand there is any place where an alteration of the social and political relations of the negro and the white man can be made except in the State Legislature—not in the Congress of the United States. . . .”
How do we read these statements? There are three choices. First, Lincoln was trimming—saying one thing in southern, rural Illinois and quite another in the big city up north. This is Hofstadter’s reading. It doesn’t make much sense in view of the Peoria speech, which Lincoln was careful to edit before it was printed statewide, and proud to quote from in 1858 and after, wherever he happened to be. Besides, Chicago was no less racist than Charleston. What was the point of changing his tune according to latitude?
Second, he was merely another racist. This reading amplifies the first by suggesting that political ambition rather than anti-slavery principle animated his career. But it doesn’t make much sense, either, in view of the differences between Lincoln and his Free Soil constituents among Republicans, who were, for the most part, uninterested in the “negro question.” He always insisted that the Declaration applied to all people, everywhere. He always insisted that slavery as such was immoral and that slavery based on race was illogical—if skin color was the divisor, he asked, on what grounds could the swarthy Caucasian defend his right to self-government?
Third, Lincoln knew that if he endorsed “the perfect equality” of black and white folk, and thus violated that “universal feeling” among “the great mass of white people,” he would have no standing with voters—that is, he would have no leverage, whether ideological or electoral, in the project of ending slavery. So he didn’t make that suicidal endorsement. He chose instead to have an ideological and electoral effect on the world as it existed rather than to leave it intact by remaining innocent of its corruptions and compromises. This is Harry Jaffa’s response to Hofstadter’s reading, and I agree with it as far as it goes.
To get beyond Jaffa, we must notice how Lincoln framed his very specific abstention from the question of “perfect equality.” Under the U.S. Constitution as it stood in 1858, the states decided on who would vote, serve on juries, etc.; a member of the national legislature, the Congress, had no standing in these decisions. Thus the political equality of the races was not for him to pronounce on as a candidate for the U.S. Senate. And, then as now, everyone knew that the social equality of the races was beyond the law or the reach of state regulation.
So to deny any intention to establish “the perfect political and social equality of the negroes and white people” was to deny any intention to accomplish the impossible. It was something like saying, “I have no intention to go to Mars, and I have no jurisdiction on that planet, but if I could get there I would want Martians to be subordinate to me.” This analogy is not merely fanciful. In an unpublished fragment, Lincoln wrote: “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy.”
My reading of Lincoln’s statements does not point us away from his stance on slavery and race. It does, however, point us backward, toward his adamant opposition to slavery, and forward, toward his remarkably consistent efforts to preserve the Union by destroying slavery—and vice versa. In the Peoria speech, Lincoln proposed that the re-adoption of the Declaration would “turn slavery from its claims of ‘moral right,’ back upon its existing legal rights, and its arguments of ‘necessity.’” The end of slavery, by this account, would make the Union something worth saving: “If we do this, we shall not only have saved the Union; but we shall have so saved it, as to make, and to keep it, worth saving.”
Lincoln understood his purpose to be the revival of original intent with respect to the disposition of slavery; its “existing legal rights” as specified in the Constitution were therefore inviolable. In this respect, he was a conservative who wanted to recuperate, not repudiate, the past. He also understood his purpose to be the rehabilitation of American political discourse, which had devolved in the 1840s and 50s toward a position that increasingly restricted the intellectual scope and the practical application of the Declaration’s enumeration of natural rights, particularly its insistence on equality; he consistently claimed that the issue of slavery could not be compromised because it was, above all, a moral problem that necessarily involved the “negro question.” In this respect, he was a radical intent on changing public opinion, challenging the received wisdom, and escaping the constraints imposed by institutionally sedimented political practices. As he said in the House Divided speech, “unless the power of the present political dynasty shall be met and overthrown,” slavery would become not just normal but national.
Does Lincoln the revolutionary have anything to teach us in these troubled times? I think so. I have emphasized his intransigence on the issue of slavery, but I would now like to propose that his ambiguities—his alchemic mixture of radicalism and conservatism—are the source of his certainty in enunciating both the reach and the limits of his purposes, first as self-conscious ideologue in the 1850s, then as Commander in Chief in the 1860s.
One way to put this proposition is to say that his steadfast commitment to the old republic inscribed in the Constitution allowed, and perhaps even animated, his steadfast commitment to the new republic promised in the Declaration. Acknowledging the definite limits determined by the Constitution (historical circumstances) let him avoid, in theory and practice, the state of nature in which the past is obliterated and anything is possible—in which radical political innovation finally becomes The Terror. Affirming the infinite reach of the Declaration (ethical principles) let him avoid, in theory and practice, compromise with the political reality and the moral issue of slavery, through which the past obtruded on present choices in the imposing, imprisoning, form of “historical necessity.” He could be a radical because he was a conservative, and vice versa.
Go back to Peoria in 1854, or forward to the Second Inaugural in Washington ten years later, and you will find a speaker who wants everyone to know that he doesn’t blame the slaveholders for the unspeakable horrors of slavery (“Slavery is founded in the selfishness of man’s nature,” as he put it in 1854). You will also find a man who claims that God is not on his side, and who, therefore, preaches anything but arrogance. “Neither [side] anticipated that the cause of the conflict [“These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war.”] might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible, and each prays to the same God; and each invokes his aid against the other. . . .The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been fully answered. The Almighty has his own purposes.”
That excerpt is from the Second Inaugural of March 1865, after Lincoln had won re-election against the pro-slavery Democrat George McClellan, who also happened to be the former commander of the U.S. Army of the Potomac, and when the war was almost won. These words, these sentiments, are anything but messianic—they are almost contrite. So they might help us just now in putting aside our “passion for omnipotence,” as Richard Hofstadter characterized the source of the debacle in Vietnam for the New York Times Magazine on May 18, 1968.
Lincoln’s conservatism—the enabling condition of his radicalism—might also help us sort out three other issues that trouble us these days. First, his adherence to “original intent” on the question of slavery did not preclude a radical resolution of that or any other constitutional problem. His reading of the Constitution from the standpoint of the framers opened up several lines of jurisprudential innovation through which previous truth and novel fact could be creatively and productively juxtaposed. We can do the same, even in the name of original intent. Second, his constitutionally and thus severely limited notion of his powers as Commander in Chief might help us calibrate the proper scope of executive authority in a time of war—and might even help us define the state of war as such.
Third, and most important, Lincoln’s conservatism—again, the enabling condition of his radicalism—might teach us something about the function of public opinion in a democracy. We are by now used to contemptuous references to public opinion, as either a source of or a constraint on public policy. But public opinion is the practical embodiment of consent, the only principle of political obligation that can work in the modern world. That principle works as follows: I will abide by this law, this exercise of state power, because I elected the person who made it, or at any rate I legitimated the electoral process through which that person became a lawmaker by participating in it. Those who ignore or disdain public opinion—those who “do the right thing” regardless of what their constituents want—are thus ignorant or disdainful of democracy.
For Lincoln, public opinion was everything: “Our government rests in public opinion,” he told himself in unpublished notes: “Whoever can change public opinion, can change the government, practically just so much.” At the first debate in Ottawa, he was more formal but no less forceful in describing his own purpose: “In this and like communities, public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed. Consequently, he who molds public sentiment, goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions. He makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible to be executed.”
When the radicals in Congress, Charles Sumner and others, visited the White House to protest Lincoln’s apparent lethargy with regard to emancipation—even though he had submitted a plan for gradual emancipation to the Congress in March of 1862, and had already drafted emancipation measures for Delaware in 1861—he always said, “The difference between you and me is four to six weeks. Go out and make me some public opinion.”
That respect for public opinion didn’t make Lincoln a miniature replica of his constituency—otherwise he would have followed Seward’s lead in the secession crisis—but it did slow him down, it did force him to address individuals and movements who cited authorities foreign to his own intellectual and political genealogy. It did make him think about how to get a majority to vote for revolution.
For if you want to change public opinion, you have to assume that the people are capable of rationality, and that you don’t necessarily know better than they do. But you can’t change their minds if you assume that they’re mindless. And you won’t try to persuade them if you assume that they suffer from false consciousness; you will instead take the law into your own hands, and you will do it in their name, in the name of the people.
Lincoln’s remarkable respect for public opinion guided his ideological efforts in the 1850s, and determined his political agenda in the 1860s, even when everything was at issue, in question, even after the tug of war had pulled everything apart. He tried to separate the enduring political consequences of civil war from the momentary political consequences of his exercise of power as Commander in Chief, even where these intersected on the site of slavery, because he knew that his party and his ideas could not rule forever.
He was, in sum, a revolutionary—a radical and a conservative, all at once—who understood the limits of his political power because he recognized public opinion as a legitimate constraint on his political utterance.