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Lincoln's Ethics.

Lincoln's Ethics. By Thomas L. Carson. (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2015. Pp. xxvii, 427. $32.99.)

Abraham Lincoln's morality has been a disputed question at least since the publication of James G. Randall's biography and the debunking treatment of Lincoln by Richard Hofstadter. More recent criticism includes the description of Lincoln as an unrepentant white supremacist who was indifferent to slavery and interested only in the preservation of the Union and the depiction of Lincoln as a statist tyrant by Thomas DiLorenzo. Works by Allen Guelzo, George Fredrickson, Eric Foner, Mark Neely, and Mark Grimsley are more nuanced and have given detailed and largely sympathetic treatment to controversial uses of power by Lincoln, such as the suspension of habeas corpus and the suppression of newspapers. Two recent studies by William Lee Miller have provided a comprehensive and discriminating narrative of the major incidents and themes of Lincoln's moral life.

In the book under review, Thomas L. Carson makes a distinguished addition to the tradition of Lincoln scholarship best represented by William Lee Miller's two recent volumes Lincoln's Virtues [2003] and Abraham Lincoln: The Duty of a Statesman [2008]. What is special about Carson's book is the intellectual precision and nuanced discrimination he brought to the book as a trained philosopher.

This new study covers a wide range of disputed topics concerning Lincoln both as a statesman and as a man. Concerning Lincoln as a politician and commander in chief, Carson provides a cogent and historically literate defense of Lincoln's prewar compromises with slavery (his choice, despite his opposition to slavery, which sought to limit the expansion of slavery into the western territories rather than to achieve the destruction of slavery where it already existed) and a careful reconciliation of Lincoln's dual roles as savior of the Union and emancipator of the slaves. The author provides a thoughtful vindication of the Emancipation Proclamation, with all its limitations, as the only realistic blow against slavery that Lincoln was in a direct position to strike, and one he could not have struck much earlier than when he did. And Carson provides reasoned and thoughtful accounts of Lincoln's courses of action about habeas corpus, colonization, the treatment of civilians, and the treatment of prisoners.

Carson's treatment of the necessity and morality of the Civil War itself and of the detailed conduct of the war by Lincoln is telling and persuasive. In both areas, he notes that the philosophical defenses of Lincoln's course are different at different stages of the war. The defensibility of the war itself, for example, is weaker at the beginning of the war than at the end of it, but the defenses of specific war measures become weaker as the outcome of the war becomes more certain.

The author notes also that different philosophical traditions might weigh the evidence differently. He endorses a utilitarian interpretation of Lincoln's conduct (or more specifically, he adopts foreseeable-outcomes utilitarianism, which weighs the cost of benefits that Lincoln could have foreseen, rather than weighing the actual outcomes). Here Carson discriminates between what strikes him as Lincoln's rather weak argument that the dissolution of the Union would portend ill for the future of democracy generally and the rather stronger argument that the secession of the Confederacy would have strengthened the position of slavery throughout the hemisphere.

Slightly different cases on the political issues, with different weaknesses and strengths, Carson notes, could have been built on the basis of just-war theory, particularly as articulated by Michael Walzer, with its emphasis on the moral necessity of the ends, the proportionality of the means, and the discrimination between legitimate and illegitimate targets of force. That tradition of argument does not treat weighing outcomes as the only consideration, as utilitarianism does, and gives greater deference to such things as fulfilling one's duty to God and the keeping of promises than utilitarianism does. Although the arguments Carson most strongly endorses derive from the utilitarian tradition, he argues that Lincoln himself could only be seen as a utilitarian in a rather qualified sense, since Lincoln often made arguments on the basis of deontic theories as well as on a utilitarian basis. But utilitarian and nonutilitarian lines of argument converge on most of the same conclusions.

Carson also provides a careful account of Lincoln's private morality as well, including his behavior as a suitor, as a husband, and as a parent; his relationships with his friends; his personal contempt for political opponents early in his career (and his striking magnanimity later on); his mercy and honesty; and, what is most important, his striking absence of self-righteousness.

Of particular interest is Carson's treatment of arguments that Lincoln's racial views evolved over his life and that his occasional racist pronouncements (such as during the Charleston debate during the 1858 campaign against Stephen Douglas) are often seen as carefully hedged strategic concessions rather than positive statements of racist conviction. Carson concedes this but adds considerable nuance to the argument by using the current philosophical literature to distinguish nine different species of racism (each of slightly different moral gravity from the others). He provides detailed and discriminating arguments, on the basis of the historical evidence, about which kinds of racism of which Lincoln was definitely free, which kinds he probably did suffer from (but differently at different points in his career), and which kinds of racism the evidence does not enable us to decide about one way or the other.

Carson's ability to see Lincoln's policies in the light of different philosophical traditions and his ability to make fine but telling distinctions between different developments of the key themes mark his book as the work of a historically literate philosopher and bring to the discussion the precision and intellectual discipline that only a philosopher could provide.

John Burt

Brandeis University
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Author:Burt, John
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2017
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