The Battle Before the War

Lincoln’s Tragic Pragmatismby John Burt

Harvard University Press. 814p $39.95

When Harry Jaffa sent a copy of his book Crisis of the House Divided to Roy F. Nichols, the eminent Civil War scholar, on the 100th anniversary of the Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1958, Nichols wrote back: “Congratulations, you are the first historian to have read these debates in their entirety.” John Burt, a literary scholar from Brandeis is now the second person who has analyzed in great detail the philosophical and political views of the two major politicians from Illinois in the mid-19th century. Before tackling Lincoln’s Tragic Pragmatism: Lincoln, Douglas and Moral Conflict, the readers of America will need to refresh their general knowledge of the issues of slavery and expansionism in American history.


In 1819, the United States was politically balanced between 11 free states and 11 slave states. A contentious debate took place in Congress between the pro-slavery and anti-slavery camps. What emerged was the Missouri Compromise. The pairing of the states continued. Maine came in as a free state and Missouri as a slave state. A line was drawn that prohibited slavery in the rest of the Louisiana Territory north of the southern boundary of Missouri at the 36˚30’ parallel.

In 1854 Senator Stephen A. Douglas threatened to upset the political equilibrium of the Missouri Compromise when he pushed through Congress the Kansas Nebraska Act. The “Little Giant” wanted to build a railroad from Chicago to the Pacific Coast. In order to secure southern votes, Douglas revived the principle of “popular sovereignty.” “Let the people decide whether they want a territory to be free or slave,” said Douglas. Unfortunately, the application of the doctrine of “popular sovereignty” led to a civil war in Kansas between pro-slavery and anti-slavery people.

Passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act jolted Lincoln back into politics. He believed that slavery was morally wrong and should not be allowed to spread to new territories. He disagreed with those abolitionists who wanted slavery to be abolished immediately. He also disagreed with the principle of “popular sovereignty” because it would nullify the Missouri Compromise, which forbade the spread of slavery north of the boundary line 36˚ 30 in land acquired under the Louisiana Purchase.

By the time Lincoln was nominated to run for the United States Senate against the two-term Senator Douglas on the Republican ticket in June of 1858, the political landscape had changed drastically. The Whig Party disintegrated over the slavery issue. Presi-dential support for the pro-slavery forces in Kansas and the Dred Scott decision by a Southern-dominated Supreme Court overthrew the Missouri Compromise and permitted slavery to expand into any territory.

John Burt’s Lincoln’s Tragic Pragmatism is a massive study of the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 with 100-plus pages that follow Lincoln’s speeches through his famous Second Inaugural Address. Like most modern Lincoln scholars, Burt sees Lincoln’s views on race evolving toward not only freedom but citizenship for the former slaves. Unlike Harry Jaffa, Burt is much more sympathetic to Douglas’s political views, though he acknowledges Douglas’s virulent racism.

Burt has two major theses drawnfrom his study of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. First, he argues that Lincoln favored citizenship for the former slaves as early as 1858, in his famous “House Divided” speech. Second, when Lincoln issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, Lincoln argued his case on moral rather than economic grounds. Furthermore, emancipation would clear the way for military service by the ex-slaves, who afterward could hardly be denied citizenship.

Though well-written for the most part, Lincoln’s Tragic Pragmatism is overwhelming for the average reader. It contains over 700 pages of text and 65 pages of detailed footnotes. The arguments of the debates are constantly interrupted by discussions like the one about the changing political parties of the 1850s, one of the most unsettling political periods of our history. The death of the Whig party and the rise and fall of the anti-Catholic American or Know-Nothing party may be of interest but seems out of place in a discussion of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Also, do we need to apply to the Lincoln-Douglas debates the views of the political theorists John Rawls and Michael Sandel?

If the reader wishes to find out why it was so difficult to get the 13th amendment, which freed the slaves, passed in 1865 (the subject of Spielberg’s excellent film on Lincoln), he should read some of the actual debates, which are available in several editions. The amount of racism is stark for the 21st century reader. Here is Douglas at Alton, Ill., on Oct. 15, 1858:

But the Abolition party really think that under the Declaration of Independence the negro is equal to the white man, and that negro equality is an inalienable right conferred by the Almighty, and hence, that all human laws in violation of it are null and void…. I hold that the signers of the Declaration of Independence had no reference to negroes at all when they declared all men to be created equal. They did not mean negro, nor the savage Indians, nor the Fejee Islanders, nor any other barbarous race. They were speaking of white men.

Lincoln started out his debate in Charleston, Ill., on Sept. 8, 1858. Located in an area supportive of slavery, the future president declared:

I will say then 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, 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 forever 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 other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.

These two passages sound like two segregationist candidates from Mississippi in 1958 trying to “outseg” each other.

Lincoln had made the point on several occasions that he had no intention of producing political or social equality for blacks and whites. Burt says, “He used rather stronger language in the Charleston debate.” Do these words represent Lincoln’s real views on race relations? Was there an evolution or growth in Lincoln’s views between the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 and his Second Inaugural Address in 1865? Would he have fought Congress in forcing the Southern states to accept the 14th Amendment, which made the ex-slaves citizens for admittance back to the union? Would Lincoln have avoided impeachment, unlike his successor Andrew Johnson, in his attempt to develop a viable reconstruction policy in the post-Civil War South? We will never know the answer. As Secretary of War Edwin Stanton said as he witnessed Lincoln’s last breath: “Now he belongs to the ages.”

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.


The latest from america

In her new memoir, The Truths We Hold: An American Journey, Senator Kamala D. Harris, Democrat of California, positions herself as an underdog, a savvy “top cop” and, most of all, Shyamala Gopalan’s daughter.
Brandon SanchezJanuary 18, 2019

The fascinating premise of Mary Gordon’s lovely little book On Thomas Merton is that, except for his extensive correspondence with Evelyn Waugh and Czeslaw Milosz, Thomas Merton was without literary peers who could perceptively judge, critique and improve his writing.

Ron HansenJanuary 18, 2019
Sagal knows what it is to run away from problems, to need to be needed, and how much can be achieved through stubborn persistence.
Emma Winters January 11, 2019
The simple lessons of Jean Vanier on humility and Christian love always bear repeating.
Colleen DulleJanuary 11, 2019