The Temple of Liberty

Review: George Kateb’s ‘Lincoln’s Political Thought’

Abe Lincoln
Artwork by Jeff Victor
• February 16, 2015 5:00 am


As Abraham Lincoln—newly elected but not yet inaugurated to the presidency—thought about his cabinet appointments, he realized that he had a problem: none of his potential candidates were from the south. For one of the positions, secretary of the navy, Lincoln knew a southerner named Alexander Stephens who would be well qualified. Lincoln and Stephens had served as congressmen together in the 1840s, and Lincoln liked Stephens’ quiet nationalism and polished oratory.

So, in December 1860, Lincoln wrote to Stephens to see if he still held to that nationalism, possibly to test the waters before offering the Navy appointment. Though Stephens responded cordially to his old colleague, his reply got defensive on the issue of slavery, and the idea came to naught. Stephens went on to accept a very different job: vice president of the Confederacy.

While this nugget of history might seem trivial, it is nevertheless useful in assessing whether Lincoln—who spent much of the 1850s proclaiming his national (not sectional) outlook and commitment to respect the "rights" of southern slaveholders—actually meant what he said. The potential Stephens appointment suggests that he did. It also indicates that he was still prepared to accept—not alter or destroy—the constitutional order as it existed in 1860, which permitted the continued existence of slavery in the states where it was already legal.

For the historian, then, the trivial can be significant, and serve as context that might lead to the truth. In Lincoln’s case, the truth is that the 16th president understood himself as, and was in fact, the Constitution’s savior—and not its destroyer, as George Kateb would have it in his new book Lincoln’s Political Thought.

Kateb falls into his error in part because his book sorely lacks an examination of historical context. In some ways this is defensible—Kateb is a political philosopher, and he didn’t intend the book to be a full dress biography. But Lincoln was a man of action, not a pure philosopher. To understand his political philosophy requires examining his political actions, something which Kateb does inadequately.

This is too bad, because the book’s argument is in many ways interesting. Kateb believes Lincoln followed a "political religion of human equality." This religion caused him to fight the expansion of the southern slave power in the antebellum years, refuse to accept secession in 1860 and 1861, and ultimately emancipate the slaves in 1863 and 1865. The sacred texts of Lincoln’s religion were the nation’s founding documents: the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Kateb believes Lincoln venerated the former over the latter, because the Declaration announced the principle that all men are created equal. The Constitution was merely the legal means of making this principle reality.

But the Constitution, Kateb says, didn’t make this principle reality. It held that one group of men—enslaved blacks—were not equal to other Americans. In fact, the Constitution was a pro-slavery document, "in word and practical effect, little different from the Confederate Constitution." Because it promoted slavery, the Constitution was in constant tension with the Declaration, which promised human equality. During the Civil War, Lincoln had to pick one document over the other. He chose the Declaration, and "destroy[ed]" the Constitution in the conflict, by suspending habeus corpus and unilaterally freeing the slaves.

There are two problems with this interpretation, and both are caused by a lack of historical context. Kateb is wrong to pit the Declaration against the Constitution. Doing so only makes sense if one assumes that the antebellum Constitution was pro-slavery. But it wasn’t. Kateb’s Lincoln, who has to choose between the documents, is thus presented with a false choice, a choice the real Lincoln never felt he had to make.

The unamended Constitution—Kateb, awkwardly, calls it "the frozen Constitution"—certainly permitted slavery. It included the fugitive slave clause, guaranteed the legality of the slave trade until 1808, and counted slaves as three-fifths of a person for purposes of congressional representation. These provisions, vile in their own right, also exerted a baleful influence on American politics, providing cover to laws like the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

But to call the Constitution "a constitution of slavery," as Kateb does, goes too far. The unamended Constitution never mentioned the word "slavery," and didn’t endorse the practice. Nor did it prevent Congress from curbing or limiting slavery. The early Congresses, which included many of the men who ratified the Constitution, did just that. In 1789, Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance, which banned slavery in the upper Midwest—with a broad, bisectional majority. In 1808, the first year it was permitted to do so, Congress outlawed the slave trade—again, with a broad, bisectional majority.

Kateb doesn’t say much about these legislative acts. By contrast, Lincoln invoked them constantly, to show that the Constitution (and its Framers) did not favor slavery, and intended the institution to wither away in its southern redoubt. Far from being in conflict, Lincoln saw the Constitution as a complement to the Declaration, a document that, far from needing destruction, required a strong defense. He didn’t have to make any choice between it and the Declaration, and emphasized the need to uphold both.

Lincoln’s interpretation of the Constitution wasn’t the only interpretation, however. In the late 1810s, southern politicians—typified by John Calhoun—began to advance their own vision of the founding document, one that permitted an aggressive expansion of slavery on a national scale. They demanded Congress pass laws explicitly protecting their "right" to human property. They also asked the courts to deny legal rights to black Americans, and expand slavery to free locales. This quest culminated in the Dred Scott decision, authored by Marylander Roger Taney, which barred Congress from banning slavery in the territories.

Kateb acknowledges these historical events, but he doesn’t explore them in depth. His failure to do so is the root of his banal claim that Lincoln destroyed the Constitution by suspending habeus corpus and emancipating the slaves. It’s debatable whether either of these actions was constitutional, but Kateb’s focus on them slights the men who actually wanted to destroy the Constitution: Calhoun and his rebel disciples. This oversight causes Lincoln’s Political Thought to ineffectively convey the central tenet of Lincoln’s political thought.

The main theme of Lincoln’s thinking was that the expansionist slave power was new and radical—something the Framers wouldn’t have recognized, and certainly didn’t intend to abet. With this insight, Lincoln grasped the fundamental truth of the years before the Civil War: the south wasn’t reacting against a modern, industrial north to defend its old, agrarian prerogatives. Instead, the sectional crisis—and ultimately, the south’s rebellion—was a revolution against the freedom the Union ultimately stood for. Enshrining white supremacy, the south and its apologists actively sought to deny freedom to two groups: blacks, and any whites who dared question "the peculiar institution."

Lincoln and his fellow Republicans responded to this evil in two ways. They denounced fanaticism of all stripes (Lincoln attacked secessionists by stating "it will be our duty to deal with [them] as old John Brown has been dealt with"), and stressed adherence to the rule of law. And they countered southern expansionism by seeking a return to the America of the Framers, where slavery was largely confined to the south.

Initially, Lincoln did not seek to impose his will on southerners—he sought to prevent them from imposing their will on him. When the south sought to impose its will on the Union by dissolving it, Lincoln answered with force. And when that force was victorious, Lincoln abolished slavery, by the perfectly legal means of a constitutional amendment.

Kateb seems to understand all of this, but he doesn’t state it very clearly. Instead, he sprinkles bits of it haphazardly throughout the book, in sections ostensibly on other issues. This isn’t to say that Lincoln’s Political Thought isn’t worth reading. Kateb is an engaging, if sometimes dense, writer. One of his detours, a six-page essay on how the Civil War can’t be considered a tragedy (in a literary sense), is unexpected and compelling. And, from references to Whitman, Melville, and Conrad, Kateb understands that literature can sometimes explain human nature as well as history.

Lincoln, who never received much formal education, would have appreciated such an approach. Even his political rhetoric was infused with a flair for metaphor that most novelists would envy. At the age of 28, he had famously described the Founding generation as "pillars of the temple of liberty" that had "crumbled away." In their place, Americans would have to put "other pillars, hewn from the solid quarry of sober reason." "Passion" for the Founders and their deeds would not be enough to preserve freedom. At the end of his speech he invoked, with passion, the man whom he considered to be the greatest pillar of them all: George Washington.

Today, from an unadorned throne, Lincoln overlooks the city that bears his equal’s name, himself a pillar of a temple of liberty that still stands.

Published under: Book reviews