Abraham Lincoln Philosopher Statesman, Joseph R. Fornieri (Southern Illinois University Press, 2014)
The twin goals of this book are so closely intertwined that it would be easy to see them as a unity. To do so would be unfortunate, however, because it would blind the reader to the important lessons Prof. Fornieri has to offer, as well as to certain all-too-common, problematic assumptions regarding the nature and purpose of our constitutional tradition. The first goal is to put forward a coherent set of criteria for judging whether a political figure is worthy of the title “statesman,” meaning an important contributor to the public weal operating under and fulfilling the duties of public office. The second goal is that of showing Abraham Lincoln to be a great, if not the greatest, example of a statesman in the American context.
It would be easy to conflate these two goals for the simple reason that Mr. Fornieri has crafted his book as a commentary on how Lincoln exemplified all the necessary virtues of the statesman. This assumption of greatness is the book’s great flaw, of course. But those of us who do not share it would do well to take seriously the criteria Mr. Fornieri sets forth as a means of evaluating statesmanship and as a means of evaluating President Lincoln himself. Indeed, by the end of the book it becomes clear that there is another issue of importance to any nation, namely, whether “greatness” itself is a good or bad quality in a statesman.
Prof. Fornieri’s book is well written, well crafted, and exhibits a welcome absence of the invective so often marring such hagiographies. Nevertheless, Mr. Fornieri’s book remains comfortably within the line of works represented by Allen Guelzo, Harry Jaffa, and others of Lincoln’s partisans. Mr. Fornieri has gone beyond his brethren in successfully synthesizing a portrait of President Lincoln as embodying characteristics—wisdom, prudence, duty, magnanimity, rhetoric, and patriotism—grounded in an impressive understanding of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, and constituting a level of virtue only truly great servants of a people could achieve. The Aristotelian roots are clear in his choice of magnanimity (sadly absent from contemporary power politics), as well as a proper understanding of rhetoric and its role in conveying truth, as central aspects of statesmanship. Aquinas’ role in Mr. Fornieri’s schema is of special importance in elucidating the nature and importance of both theoretical and practical wisdom, or prudence. Prudence is an often discussed but little understood virtue in politics, given much lip service by those with political powers who seek radical change but wish to seem “reasonable” and so talk in terms of “maintaining essentials” or “keeping the spirit of the law” while undermining its essential character.
A truly great statesman, in Mr. Fornieri’s reasoning, is one who chooses the right goals for himself and his people, pursuing them according to the duties set forth in his public charge (most obviously, his oath of office) and in a fashion sufficiently wise and otherwise virtuous to “deserve” success, even if events may make such success unachievable.
There are significant problems intrinsic to any analysis of statesmanship. After all, a statesman is in a position of practical authority, dealing with practical realities, which may or may not be liable to success. Thus, the greatest natural statesman could not have defeated Julius Caesar in his drive for ultimate power in Rome—as the noble example of Cato the Younger makes abundantly clear. Other statesmen may not have the opportunity to show their “greatness” at all because they live in more mundane times. Still others, like Caesar himself, may seek their own greatness, or the greatness of a particular national order, at the expense of their people.
As to the second goal of Prof. Fornieri’s work—establishing that Lincoln was a shining example of the virtues of statesmanship—the issue of President Lincoln’s greatness is too often portrayed as a choice of sides in the Civil War itself. As so much of our academic and journalistic elites would have it, one either is a defender of slavery or a proponent of Lincoln. Those few, such as the late George Carey, who maintain both a fairly “northern” or even “nationalist” political creed (Carey was a defender of that early, mild form of nationalism propounded by Alexander Hamilton) have tended to be ignored or simply mis-labeled “neo-confederates.” But it is important to note with Eugene Genovese and others, that one may admire much of the culture of the South and much of what it stood for without admiring slavery. Sadly, it becomes ever more difficult to hear the voice of reason amidst the loud calls for equality above all and the accompanying slanders against any who refuse to “get with the program” of using the federal government to make us ever-more the same.
At a purely academic level, however, it is simply wrong to look to Lincoln as a great practitioner of theoretical wisdom. Like many neoconservative proponents of Lincolnian equality, Mr. Fornieri insists on the wisdom of President Lincoln’s “middle ground” between radical abolitionism and defense of slavery as practiced in the American South. He presents as the height of wisdom Lincoln’s arguments against slavery and the height of prudence; his use of rational, limited measures to contain it; followed by his use of a wartime Emancipation Proclamation to turn the Civil War into a war of liberation; thereby, in Dr. Fornieri’s view, scaring off potential supporters of the Confederacy while solidifying northern fervor and maintaining support from slave-holding border states within the Union.
At the risk of alienating partisans of the Old South, here, it seems important to point out that the argument against chattel slavery as legally authorized in the South (and the Caribbean, among other places) rather obviously was correct. The legal structure of chattel slavery, here, included the right of masters to break up families and abuse slaves; it simply was not defensible on honest intellectual and moral grounds. Analogies to industrial drudgery or to medieval serfdom entailed a level of counter-factual assumption rendering them sophistical, even where there may have been heartfelt emotions involved. Such arguments served only to divert attention or cloak abuses in romantic cultural trappings. It is possible, in this light, to see Lincoln’s earlier approach to slavery, insisting that it be put on the road to extinction, as a prudent answer to an insoluble moral dilemma: how to end an evil practice deeply embedded in a culture that was part of the United States and which (whether President Lincoln himself recognized it or not) had much to recommend it morally as well as politically and intellectually. This would support a finding “for” the early Lincoln in terms of practical wisdom, but would not support Mr. Fornieri’s assertion of his greatness as a “philosopher statesman.”
But was Lincoln, the President, prudent? Did he act in a practical, reasonable fashion in order to uphold the duties of his office, which included upholding the Constitution and, in his mind, maintaining the fundamental character of the nation he served? Here Mr. Fornieri’s analysis cannot stand for the simple reason that he, like nationalists and Progressives at the time and ever since, assumes as an absolute good that which should be questioned—the necessity of maintaining the union at all costs. Only ideological attachment to a large, centralized continental empire justifies President Lincoln’s conduct in jailing presumed enemies without trial, taking legislative actions on his own authority, waging war without Congressional sanction, and turning a war waged over questions of state and national rights into a crusade to establish “equality” as the single principle on which a unified republic would stand or fall.
Time and again Lincoln justified his actions violating the Constitution as necessary for its preservation. But that argument holds true only if (as Mr. Fornieri acknowledges) one sees the Constitution as destroyed if its scope is lessened. That is, only if the loss of states destroys a Constitution fully in effect in the remaining states can one plausibly claim that it is necessary to violate constitutional provisions to “save” the Constitution when the only danger to it is secession. And such an assumption makes sense only if one sees sovereignty as an absolute attribute in a centralized national government, to be valued above and at the expense of ordered liberty and the self-government of communities joined in a federal, compound republic.
There were practical reasons why one might wish to maintain the union, principally relating to foreign threats. But radical abolitionists, for example, had advocated secession before the Civil War, as had northern interests seeking to avoid participation in the War of 1812—both seeing other ends and preservation of limited constitutional government as more important than maintenance of a union of all the states. President Lincoln, for his part, repeatedly justified massive exercises of executive power, suspending habeas corpus, declaring a naval blockade, calling up the militia, suspending laws regarding property, slavery, and a variety of rights without Congressional action—that is, without law. In each case he argued his right to so act as necessary for preservation of the union, itself justified as intrinsically unitary and as the embodiment of a single ideological principle: equality.
Many conservatives, including Edmund Burke, recognized chattel slavery as an evil best put on the road to extinction. But this does not make all means toward the end of emancipation valid and good. Even if one sees the South (and South Carolina in particular) as the military aggressor during secession, and even if one sees the South as a serial violator of constitutional rights, including states’ rights in the north, through draconian versions of Fugitive Slave Laws, one still may, indeed should, see Lincoln’s extraordinary measures as unconstitutional, wrong in themselves, and a crucial part of an ideological movement continuing to do great damage to the republic. In reading our centuries-long constitutional tradition through the lens of one abstract, prefatory phrase plucked from a common law document (the Declaration of Independence) Lincoln simplified, solidified, and worst of all sanctified political and legal arrangements among self-governing communities. He revolutionized the character of our union by remaking it into the primary instrument of a holy cause—equality—removed from its proper place among varied goods pursued by varied communities devoted to ordered liberty and self-government under God.
More Caesar than Cato, Lincoln was right about many things. He no doubt sought to be magnanimous in victory. But, however “great” his achievement in transforming our compound republic into a single nation dedicated to a single principle, the “good” he sought was too narrow and extreme. It undermined the Constitution he was honor-bound to uphold. He cannot properly be deemed a statesman of high rank because he did not fulfill his duty, instead violating it in the name of an ideological goal he valued too highly.
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