Lincoln's Tragic Pragmatism: Lincoln, Douglas, and Moral Conflict.
When Thomas Jefferson prefaced a long list of grievances with an exposition on natural right, enhanced by Benjamin Franklin's enlightened phrase "self-evident," the American experiment in self-government attested to the axiom that ideas have consequences; this was a nation founded on principle, and dedicated, it would later be noted, to a proposition. For all the political philosophy that inspired the Founders, however, they labored in political pragmatism: Jefferson, after all, hesitated to acknowledge the implications of his soaring rhetoric, and Franklin's speech urging passage of the Constitution in 1787 is notable not for any praise of the document's philosophical foundations but for his recognition that even the wisest men are flawed, leaving him to doubt "whether any other Convention we can obtain, may be able to make a better Constitution." Self-government in the United States would continue long thereafter to be a mix, sometimes combustible, of principle and pragmatism.
In Lincoln's Tragic Pragmatism, John Burt examines that mix at its most incendiary moment and persuasively explains how the Lincoln-Douglas debates contributed to "a tradition in which immediate political concerns shed philosophical light" on the central ideals of American democracy (2). Through the lens of contemporary liberal political theory, particularly as expounded by John Rawls in A Theory Of Justice, Burt examines the problem of moral compromise at the center of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. While Douglas advocated a notion of popular sovereignty through which elections and the will of the majority would determine the westward spread of legal slavery, Lincoln condemned slavery as a moral evil outside the scope of consensual politics. This is not to say that Lincoln refused to negotiate about the institution to resolve political conflict; what he actually refused to negotiate was the principle of slavery as a moral aberration. Thus he articulated what Burt calls a "tragic pragmatism," in which principled imperatives are necessarily compromised to the exigencies of unfolding history, with the hope that such compromises do not wholly undermine the principles at issue.
At the heart of this study is the question of how democratic politics resolve conflict when confronted with unbendable principles. Burt's exegesis of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, combined with rhetorical analyses of additional speeches and writings, grapples with the expectations of liberalism itself: Are citizens in a democracy bound only by shared interests, which can be negotiated, or are there central binding principles that cannot be compromised? The politics of slavery during the 1850s brought this philosophical question to the fore, and these two principled politicians did history a service by addressing matters at the core of self-government as they each attempted to navigate a political maelstrom.
Burt reluctantly finds that "democracy both made it possible for slavery to resist destruction (to the point of civil war) and made it inevitable that a fight to the death over slavery would occur" (xiv). The journey to this conclusion is richly elucidated and highly compelling, making this volume an essential addition to our understanding of Lincoln, the causes of the Civil War, and the philosophical principles that animate our pragmatic experiment in democracy.