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By Michael Knox Beran:

Pathology of the Lies: How the Arrogant Classes Plan to Run Your Life

Eye on the News

Michael Knox Beran
Lincoln and the Moral Imagination
Our 16th president, neither a Bismarck nor a Darwin
11 February 2009

In September 1862, Otto von Bismarck, the new prime minister of Prussia, went to the Prussian Chamber of Deputies to confront the Budget Committee. His face still sunburned from a trip to the south of France, he urged the lawmakers not to waste time in political debate while Germany remained ununited. “It is not to Prussia’s liberalism that Germany looks,” he said, “but to its power. . . . It is not by means of speeches and majority resolutions that the great issues of the day will be decided—that was the great mistake of 1848 and 1849—but by Eisen und Blut” (iron and blood).

Across the Atlantic, Abraham Lincoln reached a similar conclusion—or so Edmund Wilson argued in his 1962 book Patriotic Gore. In Wilson’s reading, Lincoln, too, had used “iron and blood” to achieve his goals: both he and Bismarck had “established a strong central government over hitherto loosely coordinated peoples. Lincoln kept the Union together by subordinating the South to the North; Bismarck imposed on the German states the cohesive hegemony of Prussia.” Other scholars have made the same argument more recently.

Was Wilson right to find a similarity of method and purpose in the two greatest statesmen of their age? Bismarck carried out his policy by going to war with neighboring states and using fighting words to stimulate German nationalist sentiment, the chauvinism that enabled him to unite the German Reich in January 1871. He himself pronounced the definitive judgment on the morality of the first of these wars, against Denmark in 1864. A French diplomat called on him in the Wilhelmstrasse and struggled to express his disapproval of Prussia’s conduct without violating the canons of diplomatic politeness. “Don’t put yourself out,” Bismarck told the Frenchman. “Nobody but my king thinks that I acted honorably.”

No less devious were the Bismarckian machinations that led to the war with Austria in 1866 (a manufactured dispute over the administration of the conquered Danish duchies of Schleswig and Holstein) and the war with France in 1870 (which had its origin in the Hohenzollern candidature for the Spanish throne, which Bismarck himself secretly promoted). All of Bismarck’s victims shared the frustration of Austria’s Franz Josef. “How can one avoid war,” the Habsburg emperor asked, “when the other side wants it?”

Underlying Bismarck’s policy of blood and iron was the belief that a nation is a quasi-biological organism with a morally unconditional right “to live and to breathe,” and that in order to become a nation, a people may, on one spurious pretext or another, prey upon other peoples. The right of conquest, Bismarck said, was “sacred,” and never more so than when undertaken in order that Germany might “live.” Prussia’s actions, he declared in 1866, followed from the “right of the German nation to exist, to breathe, to be united; it is the right and the duty of Prussia to give the German nation the foundation necessary for its existence.”

The argument that Lincoln, like Bismarck, was a blood-and-iron statesman rests on the notion that his statecraft was a variation on the Bismarckian theme. Lincoln, in this interpretation, believed that in order to survive, or even to vindicate its founding ideals, a nation has a morally unconditional right to make war on those citizens who reject either the nation itself or its ideals. But this was not what Lincoln believed. The thinking that led him to wage the Civil War was quite different from Bismarck’s.

The question of Lincoln’s responsibility for the Civil War turns on his policy toward the seceding states. According to historians such as Lord Acton, if Lincoln had really been the freedom-loving statesman he claimed to be, he would have recognized the right of the secessionist populations to choose their own destinies. More recently, bloggers have taken up Acton’s argument and in breezy and inaccurate blog posts distorted what Lincoln did and the sequence in which he did it. The record needs to be set straight.

In deciding where his moral duty lay, Lincoln had first to determine the criteria by which he was to judge the morality of secession. Was it a matter of numbers, and if so, how large did the numbers have to be? I, a lone citizen of the United States, may announce that I am seceding from the Union and attempt to make off with such federal property in my neighborhood as I fancy. If I do this, I will almost certainly be seized, tried, and jailed. No president would judge my act of secession legitimate. But does secession become legitimate if, say, 51 percent of a particular population approves it? Sixty-seven percent? One hundred percent? May particular segments of the population—blacks, for example, or slaves—be excluded from the calculus of legitimacy? By what procedure is popular approval of secession to be manifested? Must its expression take the form of a plebiscite, or is it sufficient that conventions composed of notable citizens decide?

Lincoln could have pronounced a purely personal judgment on the moral legitimacy of secession, but that was not his job. He had his station and knew its duties: when he became president, he swore to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. The only criterion, he supposed, that he could reasonably use in judging the legitimacy of secession was that of the Constitution itself. James Buchanan, Lincoln’s predecessor, had concluded that the Constitution forbade secession; Lincoln reached the same conclusion. Yale constitutional scholar Akhil Amar argues persuasively, in America’s Constitution: A Biography, that Lincoln’s interpretation was correct and that the Constitution prevents “subunits from unilaterally bolting whenever they became dissatisfied.” When the war came, it came not because of Lincoln’s predilection for blood and iron, but because of his interpretation of the law of the land—a fundamental expression of its mores—and his application of it to a particular case.

One can, as in a law-school exercise, split hairs ad infinitum. Was the Constitution itself a legitimate law, given that it was a by-product of treason and rebellion? Can a charter that recognizes, as the Constitution does, a right of withdrawal from an older instrument (the Articles of Confederation), foreclose the same right of exit from the compact that it has established in its place? And even if Lincoln was right about the letter of the Constitution, was he not, in prosecuting the Civil War, violating the spirit of freedom that gave birth to it? Did a point not come, after quantities of blood had been spilled and the Confederacy had given so many proofs of devotion to its Cause, when Lincoln ought to have concluded, as William Gladstone did, that the Southern people had “made a nation,” and to heck with the Constitution?

Here was the larger moral problem. Lincoln believed that if the United States were broken up by internal dissension, the result would be a setback for the cause of free democratic government from which it might not soon recover. The question, he said, was

whether a constitutional republic, or a democracy—a government of the people, by the same people—can, or cannot, maintain its territorial integrity, . . . whether discontented individuals, too few in numbers to control administration, according to organic law, . . . [can] break up their Government, and thus practically put an end to free government upon earth. . . . When ballots have fairly, and constitutionally, decided, there can be no successful appeal, back to bullets; . . . there can be no successful appeal, except to ballots themselves, at succeeding elections.

Lincoln’s point was that if you can opt out of a democracy whenever you lose an election, democracy will never work. The moral case for the Union was even stronger, he believed, given that those who were trying to break out were doing so not because their liberties had been violated, but because they insisted on a perpetual right to take slaves out of their own states and into the national territory.

It’s true that Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus. It’s true that under his leadership, his secretary of state arrested persons obnoxious to the regime. But if there were Bismarckian touches in Lincoln’s statecraft, he was not, on the whole, a Bismarckian statesman. Bismarck himself sensed this; he disliked Lincoln. The two men were on different sides of the struggle between liberty and coercion. An earlier generation had a better sense of this than ours does. “We have been at war with Metternich and Bismarck,” the British historian George Macaulay Trevelyan wrote after World War I. “Cavour and Garibaldi gave us Italy for an ally, while Washington and Lincoln gave us America.”

Trevelyan, like his great-uncle Macaulay, America’s founders, and Lincoln himself, was Whiggish in his approach to history: he focused on the moral choices statesmen made and how those choices enlarged or restricted individual liberty. By contrast, our contemporary approach to history is almost Darwinian. Edmund Wilson anticipated this trend in Patriotic Gore, in which he urged historians to

interest themselves in biological and zoological phenomena. In a recent Walt Disney film showing life at the bottom of the sea, a primitive organism called a sea slug is seen gobbling up smaller organisms through a large orifice at one end of its body; confronted with another sea slug of an only slightly lesser size, it ingurgitates that, too. Now, the wars fought by human beings are stimulated as a rule primarily by the same instincts as the voracity of the sea slug.

If Bismarck offered a sea-slug apology for his statesmanship, others have attributed a sea-slug vision to Lincoln himself, who (in their view) differed from Bismarck only in the way that he veiled the Darwinian Machtkampf with a spare but poetically appealing rhetoric of idealism. Paraphrasing the thesis of a recent study of Lincoln and Darwin, the critic Richard Eder pointed to the “larger tragedy at the root” of Darwin’s and Lincoln’s work: “Universal death as the necessary agent of natural selection; vast death as the agent of emancipation.”

Nature has rarely shown a greater sense of humor than when she arranged for the assembly of the genetic material that became Abraham Lincoln at roughly the same time the fertilized egg that was Charles Darwin first leaped into the womb. Both men were born on February 12, 1809. But attempts to find correspondences between the very different, in some ways antithetical, types of evolution in which each man specialized—biological evolution in Darwin’s case, historical evolution in Lincoln’s—are problematic.

The difficulty lies in comparing the actions of organisms that have developed a conscience and a moral imagination to the actions of organisms that lack such conscientious power. It is one thing if your cat playfully torments a wounded animal, another if you do. Conscience enables its possessor to sit in judgment on the characteristics that have won him a spot in the race for genetic victory: it enables its possessor, at times, to reject naturally selected traits that have helped pay for the winning ticket he holds in the lottery of life. History is the record of the moral acts of morally conscientious organisms; biology is the record of the biological acts of morally unconscious organisms. The confusion of the two realms is a symptom of our time.

From the perspective of history and morality, Bismarck’s attempt to formulate a crude form of social Darwinism, a Prussia-as-sea-slug style of statesmanship, was a step backward. A selected trait—finesse, for example, in preying on the weak—is not necessarily one worthy of moral approval. It might, for example, be some day proved that the capacity for crime is a selected trait, that the deviousness, the bold badness, of the criminal intellect has resulted in genetic mutations that have contributed to the evolutionary fitness of the human organism. Stupidity, too, might prove to be such a trait. If intelligence has at times served an evolutionary turn, so undoubtedly has the stupidity that is, after all, far more common—the stupidity that shields the mind from life’s horrors and so enables the unintelligent person to thrive and reproduce, in contrast to the too-sensitive perceptiveness, the acute nervous delicacy, of his intelligent brother, who often makes a hash of things. “Yes, nature is ironical,” Hippolite says in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. “Why does she create her very best human beings only to make fools of them later?”

A Darwinian can, of course, argue that our conscientious morality is itself an evolutionary artifact, and that our moral imagination is simply a higher expression of the natural imagination. Thus Shakespeare’s Polixenes, in The Winter’s Tale, tells Perdita:

Yet nature is made better by no mean
But nature makes that mean: so, over that art,
Which you say adds to nature, is an art
That nature makes. You see, sweet maid, we marry
A gentler scion to the wildest stock,
And make conceive a bark of baser kind
By bud of nobler race: this is an art
Which does mend nature, change it rather, but
The art itself is nature.

The moral art that “mends” our merely instinctual, biological, genetically striving nature may itself, paradoxically, be a natural one. But if so, it only proves that the law of evolution can transcend the motives in which it began, and develop, in its highest evolutionary forms, an ethos of moral purpose that at times turns its back on the primitive methods that midwifed it.

“Let us have faith that right makes might,” Lincoln said in February 1860. We cannot Darwinize Lincoln, who insisted that biological might is not necessarily the same as moral right. Still less can we Bismarckize him. Yet it may be that once an organism has developed a moral imagination, what is Darwinian and Bismarckian in its mental organization can be Lincolnized. Such, at any rate, is a thought that gives comfort on the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth.

Michael Knox Beran is a contributing editor of City Journal. His most recent book is Forge of Empires: Three Revolutionary Statesmen and the World They Made, 1861–1871.

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