Tyranny of Democracy

Tyranny of Democracy

In 1861 Abraham Lincoln, in his first inaugural address, gave a legalistic account of why he must leave slavery untouched. By 1865 he was an impassioned evangelist for freedom. What prompted his dramatic transformation?

Abraham Lincoln in August 1863, courtesy of the Library of Congress

Lincoln’s Political Thought
by George Kateb
Harvard University Press, 2015, 256 pp.


In 1861 Abraham Lincoln, in his first inaugural address, gave a legalistic account of why he must leave slavery untouched. By contrast in his second inaugural of 1865, Lincoln spoke as a god or a ghost, as George Kateb writes in his new book Lincoln’s Political Thought. Lincoln blames providence (or God) for the moral evil of slavery and conjures up an ongoing extermination of white Americans as the only possible recompense for the generations of oppression wrought by Southern slave-holders as well as by Northerners who were complicit in their crime. Kateb’s puzzle is how Lincoln moved from neutral broker to impassioned evangelist for freedom.

What evolution of thought could explain Lincoln’s radically different rhetorical positions? To answer this conundrum, other scholars have looked for shifts in how Lincoln thought about black people or about slavery. These topics, though, are red herrings. Kateb’s book brings to the fore a change in how Lincoln thought about democracy. Between 1861 and 1865 Lincoln’s assessment of the American democracy’s capacity to make moral progress changed. This insight makes Kateb’s book essential reading.

In 1861, upon his assumption of the presidency, Lincoln announced in the First Inaugural:

I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.

But in 1865, in the Second Inaugural, on the eve of both victory and death, in a passage whose shocking character comes out only if read in full, he said:

It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both [North and South] could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.

Lincoln here implicitly imagines, in Kateb’s turn of phrase, the “extermination” of white Northerners and Southerners as a reasonable price to pay for the evil of slavery. Hence the shocking character of the passage. Kateb writes: “In our minds [Lincoln] should be figured as speaking from the grave, an immaterial speaker whom we are able to look through, at last transparent. . . . He gave reason to hate God, the unforgiven father, or not to love him.”

Yet precisely by blaming providence or God “for ordaining moral evil in the form of slavery and bringing about moral evil in the form of atrocious war to end slavery,” Lincoln also exonerates both North and South. This exoneration of both parties—both guilty, both innocent, “both punished whether guilty or innocent”—removes the problem of blame from the human realm. It is an extra-political moment conjured up so that politics can begin again, “with malice toward none, with charity for all.” The Lincoln of 1861 chose the language of neutrality. He comments on neither sinner nor sin. By contrast, the Lincoln of 1865 embraces the language of condemnation. He does not suggest that it is for each American to judge right and wrong for him or herself but instead offers a clear moral judgment about slavery and the choices confronting the nation. And yet he more fully exonerates. He hates the sin and loves the sinner. Why?

Kateb’s question about the difference between 1861 and 1865 is not about Lincoln’s psychology. While Kateb speaks often about the “group ferocities” and “traumas” that characterized the Civil War period, what concerns him are the intellectual steps that explain Lincoln’s shift from the 1861 formulation to that of 1865.

Since the Second Inaugural relies so heavily on religious language, Kateb explores Lincoln’s relationship to religion. He describes him as respectful of conventional religiosity without himself being intellectually dependent on it or motivated by it. Indeed what mattered to Lincoln was not Christian doctrine or theology but his “political religion,” a phrase conventionally used to indicate reverence for political institutions. According to Kateb, Lincoln’s “political religion” consisted more specifically of a love for human equality. Consequently, he valued above all else the preservation of republican political institutions that make that equality real, by letting the people choose their government.

Kateb points out that Lincoln’s political religion was closely tethered to a love of constitutionalism, but he errs in thinking that the two are the same for Lincoln. The constitution is the people’s instrument, but “the people” precedes its tools. Even more than he loved the Constitution, Lincoln loved the people, “we, the people,” that is, a collective agent, capable of decision-making and made out of the egalitarian relationships among the individuals composing it. In other words, Lincoln carefully preserves the distinction of the Declaration of Independence where instituting government is divided (in the Declaration’s second sentence) into laying a foundation on a set of chosen principles and then organizing the powers of the government “in such a form” as will realize those principles. The people first makes itself by gathering around principles and then, having gathered, gives itself institutional form, via processes for making shared decisions. This distinction between people gathering around principles and thereby becoming “a people,” and then organizing to act on those principles permits Lincoln to bend the Constitution, to break it even, as he did, for instance, with the abridgment of the right of habeas corpus. The people, and their form, or their constitution, are separable. For Lincoln, the form failed. The country’s political institutions proved inadequate to resolve the intellectual and moral conundrums confronting the nation. Once that situation obtained—reflected in Lincoln’s language of political and military necessity—Lincoln felt himself in the right to re-make the people’s instrument in order to return it to them.

This helps us see the evolution in Lincoln’s thinking about democracy. Lincoln came to terms with bending the Constitution, breaking it to save it. But what justified this? Lincoln had expected that democratic institutions could solve the moral problem of slavery. When he found that he was wrong, he had to rethink the relationship between the institutions of democracy and moral progress.

Consider again the First Inaugural Address:

One section of our country believes slavery is right and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong and ought not to be extended. This is the only substantial dispute. . . . Why should there not be a patient confidence in the ultimate justice of the people? Is there any better or equal hope in the world? In our present differences, is either party without faith of being in the right? If the Almighty Ruler of Nations, with His eternal truth and justice, be on your side of the North, or on yours of the South, that truth and that justice will surely prevail by the judgment of this great tribunal of the American people.

In 1861, Lincoln’s faith in the power of democracy and republican institutions was so great that he believed they could resolve disputes about justice. This is what would change by 1865. In the Second Inaugural, there is no longer an expectation that the great tribunal of the American people will see that justice prevails. Instead, divinity decides: “The prayers of both [North and South] could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. . . . [A]s was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’” There is a “good” that is described in religious language and it is invoked to make a political argument. What is Lincoln’s theory of how democracy works at this point?

In 1861 Lincoln did see, Kateb argues, that the basic principle of human equality applied just as much to the enslaved as to the so-called free, but he deceived himself into believing that the political institutions of the citizenry were intellectually and morally powerful enough to resolve the problem of slavery and to dissolve the powerful investment of both Southern slaveholders and Northern consumers in the slave system. In Kateb’s words, Lincoln “fought the truth he knew and usually triumphed over it, but could not obliterate it.”

The truth Lincoln wanted to uphold was his fervent belief in the capacity of democratic institutions. The truth that Kateb sees bursting forth in the Second Inaugural is about the insufficiency of democratic institutions when presented with the need to make moral progress.

The political institutions that Lincoln so revered were never the institutions of a free people. Because the South enslaved Africans and their descendants, and because the North was complicit in it and benefited from the Southern economy, the U.S. had never actually built institutions based on the principle of equality. Instead, they had built institutions of racial privilege.

By 1861, Americans had been miseducating themselves for generations. By labeling a set of social relations “equality” when in fact they were rooted in racial privilege, the Americans had been mistaking the psychological experience of racial privilege for the psychological experience of equality. The problem of the political institutions in which Lincoln lodged so much faith stemmed from this miseducation. They were not in fact the institutions of a free people, because they were not the institutions of a people that knew what equality amounts to in lived experience. If democratic institutions must be grounded in equality, and if the American institutions were not truly grounded in equality, then the institutions had to fail.

Whereas in 1861 Lincoln thought that he could use democratic institutions to govern toward legal and moral progress, in 1865 he had to accept that no genuine democracy was yet in place. The regime that existed—call it a “kuriocracy” or rule of slave-holders—could not successfully do democracy’s work because it wasn’t one. When Lincoln found that he was not the president of a true democracy, he had no choice but to govern toward a new founding, genuinely grounded in a principle of equality.

His efforts to stay true to his political religion were replenished by religion itself. By railing against God for the failure of American political institutions, for the existence of a “kuriocracy,” Lincoln could hold out the hope of a new human beginning that might make good on the ideal of equality.

Thus, for Kateb, when Lincoln dramatically turns the focus to God in the Second Inaugural, he is doing that in part to reclaim the potential that his political religion had ascribed to the realm of the human. If “offenses must need come,” because of the Will of God, but will pass away too, thanks to that same Will—then there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the proposition that republican political institutions, grounded in equality, can enable a people to govern themselves freely in perpetuity. As long, that is, as people can find their way back to the principle of equality.

Kateb thus shows us the hardest intellectual problem with which Lincoln wrestled. It was a problem that was fundamentally about neither race nor slavery, but about democracy. The problem was this:

If a people that thinks of itself as free and equal can use its political institutions to choose a world that does not in fact protect freedom and equality, and then shows that once it has made that choice it will not be able to dislodge itself from it by means of its own institutions, why should we think republican institutions are a “high hope for the future?

Lincoln’s answer was in the trying again. The Gettysburg address makes the case for doing so. Not only chronologically but also intellectually, that battlefield funeral oration is the halfway point between 1861 and 1865. In it, Lincoln wrote: “we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.” Under God’s punitive hand, paying back for racial privilege, learning that equality feels different from privilege, the nation might, just might, have a new birth.

To show us that Lincoln faced—and answered, for himself at least—the problem of how to think about democracies that choose injustice and can’t relinquish it is Kateb’s great achievement.

Recent years have brought us several great new books about Lincoln, including Eric Foner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery and John Witt’s Lincoln’s Code: The Laws of War in American History. Both books probe Lincoln’s thinking about slavery, law, and emancipation with great subtlety. Yet Kateb’s book is necessary because he asks some unfamiliar and important questions about the evolution of Lincoln’s thought, especially about democracy, between 1861 and 1865.

Even more important, Kateb’s book implicitly offers a stunning and stark warning. The lesson gleaned from Lincoln’s war-time trial is this: We should expect the institutions of so-called democracies to fail again and again if their citizens cannot learn what it actually means to live as free equals.

Danielle Allen is a political philosopher at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and the author, most recently, of Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality (Norton/Liveright 2014).

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