There are East-Coast Straussians and there are West-Coast Straussians. Reduced to a single mouthful, East-Coasters can be said to believe that liberal modernity is a bad thing for politics and ethics. Since the American political experiment was born out of the Enlightenment, it unavoidably shares in modernity’s defects—among which are a dismissal of religious and ethical restraints and a depressing weakness for the tyranny of the majority. West-Coasters agree that liberal modernity, as so defined, has had some lamentable consequences; but they understand the American experiment as an effort to recur to the first principles of classical politics (and particularly to Aristotle), and that recurrence renders American political history as the tale of a struggle between a righteous classicism and a lethal relativism. (Of the two, we may take Allan Bloom as emblematic of the East-Coasters, and Harry Jaffa of the West-Coasters). Between these upper and nether millstones, there is also a Midwestern Straussianism, which agrees that modernity is toxic (in the worst Hobbesian or Nietzschean sense of the word) and that the American experiment is indeed a modern one, but an experiment whose instincts struggle to tame the worst features of political modernity. And Michael P. Zuckert, the author of A Nation So Conceived: Abraham Lincoln and the Paradox of Democratic Sovereignty, is one of its prophets.
It is worth noting at the outset that this is a book about Abraham Lincoln, and that it reflects a basic Straussian methodology in its exquisite and detailed attention to texts—in this case, the texts of Lincoln’s most famous speeches. It’s worth noting, too, that simply by fixing on Lincoln, Zuckert has made an important theoretical gesture. Lincoln has been a figure of reverence for West-Coasters ever since Harry Jaffa first encountered the Lincoln–Douglas debates and experienced a philosophical eureka, which convinced him that the contest of Long Abe and the Little Giant was really a reprise of Socrates and Thrasymachus. Even in his last great work on Lincoln, A New Birth of Freedom in 2000, Jaffa asked whether “Socratic rationalism ever appeared more powerfully in public utterance since the founder of political philosophy walked the streets of Athens.” Contrast this with East-Coaster Allan Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind, where only the most casual references to Lincoln occur, and even then to decide that modernity’s “gradual movement from rights to openness” renders him an artifact of the past.
This does not seem to leave much room between the two millstones except for grinding. But in the case of Michael Zuckert, whatever grinding occurs is tastefully fine. Zuckert never disputes the modernity of the American experiment in democratic republicanism. His interest in Lincoln is a nod toward Jaffa and the West-Coasters; but what he finds in Lincoln is an example of a political philosopher who has found a way to constrain raw majoritarianism, not by the use of classical politics (neither Aristotle nor Socrates makes a bow in A Nation So Conceived) but by showing what tragedies are likely to occur by yielding to the irrational impulses of popular sovereignty.
Lincoln is, for Zuckert, the prime example of an idealist whose “one abiding question” is, how to sustain the American experiment in the face of democracy’s temptation to surrender everything to the Moloch of a Most-Votes Majority. Lincoln saw the fundamental problem in democracy as one single, monstrous question: “Can the principle that liberates all and produces self-government remain disciplined and restrained enough in practice to retain self-government?” Ironically, voices on both the political right and left loudly answer NO, the second adding and it’s a good thing, because all restraint is oppression, and the first adding and that shows how liberal democracy makes for monsters. Lincoln never doubted that democracy was the best of all forms of government, but he was also aware that American slavery was a blatant contradiction of it, and that slavery’s survival depended on demagogues like Douglas pandering to the basest popular instincts. “There is something tragic” in Lincoln, Zuckert argues, because “the very success of popular government contributes to the confidence of the people in their own sovereignty” and allows them unwittingly to don a reckless or selfish sheet of flame that will destroy them. Whether this is literally tragic or simply ironic is the struggle now being played out in our history wars.
Nothing will impress the reader more in A Nation So Conceived than the careful journey Zuckert takes through Lincoln’s major speeches. He interprets these speeches chronologically, beginning with the Young Men’s Lyceum speech of January 1838 on “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions” and the address on behalf of the Washington Temperance Society in 1842. The Lyceum speech is the awkward affair of a twenty-something Whig politico, eager to use Jacksonian mob violence as a club with which to beat Democrats. But, as Jaffa saw in Crisis of the House Divided (in 1959), it also contains the core of Lincoln’s diagnosis of the “political and moral crisis of popular government.” What Zuckert does, and does rightly, is to notice the structure of the Lyceum Address: it ends with a plea for reason in politics, but it begins by appealing for a “political religion” that stems from “a state of feeling” that must be cultivated in every American institution. Lincoln’s concept of reason is certainly not a scientific or a critical one: it is built on the more modest foundation of “observation, reflection and trial.” But that deference to reason runs through the remainder of Lincoln’s career; so, it turns out, will the recognition of the need for that religion.
Lincoln’s Temperance Address was also fingered by Jaffa as a neglected key to Lincoln’s politics. Zuckert devotes yet another perceptive chapter to the appearance, in that address, of a third element in Lincoln’s politics, “the virtue of charity.” Reviewing the difference between the zealots who hoped to stamp out liquor by preaching it down as sinful, and the Washingtonians who campaigned for amelioration and recovery, Lincoln described how passion is forever trying to inflame sentiment into absolutism. A democratic people need to avoid addictions like drunkenness that would distort their political judgment, but the come-outers and enthusiasts actually alienate the citizens they profess to help by their hatchet-wielding denunciations of Demon Rum. (Lincoln delicately called this “a want of approachability”). The Washingtonians were a secular, nonjudgmental reform movement, who relied on sympathy and persuasion rather than fire and brimstone. “There is a logic, and an eloquence in it, that few, with human feelings, can resist,” Lincoln said. This, too, would become a major aspect of Lincoln’s politics.
There is a long period in Lincoln’s life, between 1842 and his return to political activism in 1854, when Lincoln’s speeches seem to lapse into the unremarkable. Zuckert disagrees. Lincoln’s 1852 eulogy for Henry Clay—Lincoln’s “beau ideal of a statesman”—is “his most underrated performance,” and Zuckert could not be more right, since it is “a subtle, even brilliant reflection on the requirement of statesmanship.” Clay is Lincoln’s pattern of prudence, especially a prudence that opposes slavery without adopting the teeth-grinding absolutism of the abolitionists. Yet, Zuckert also notices—again, rightly—that Lincoln’s anti-slavery still represents a shift toward a more demanding version of anti-slavery. What he does not notice, curiously, is something new, but potent, in Lincoln’s definition of patriotism, for Lincoln lauds Clay’s amor patriae, not simply as a sentimental attachment, but as a love of universal right represented by the American experiment. Clay “loved his country partly because it was his own country, but mostly because it was a free country,” Lincoln said, “and he burned with a zeal for its advancement, prosperity and glory, because he saw in such, the advancement, prosperity and glory, of human liberty, human right and human nature.”
Then comes 1854, the screeching arousal of the Kansas-Nebraska bill, Lincoln’s dumbfounding realization that slavery is not going gently into any political good night, and the epochal Peoria Address of October 1854. If everything else that Lincoln wrote or said were to be erased by some Olympian hand except the Peoria speech, we would still have all the basics of Lincoln’s politics. In it, Lincoln confronts a new version of the Lyceum speech problem, not this time in the form of lynch mobs, but in the seductive whoredom of Stephen Douglas’s “popular sovereignty” doctrine. His response is a revival of the “political religion” of the Lyceum speech, this time grounded in the “ancient faith” of the Declaration of Independence and a new version of the charity he espoused in the Temperance Address, which refuses to demonize even the slaveholder. “When southern people tell us they are no more responsible for the origin of slavery, than we, I acknowledge the fact,” Lincoln admitted. “When it is said that the institution exists; and that it is very difficult to get rid of it, in any satisfactory way, I can understand and appreciate the saying.”
It is the Lincoln of the presidency—of the two inaugural addresses, the July 4, 1861 special message to Congress, and the Gettysburg Address of November 19, 1863—that will always be the real test of any commentary on Lincoln’s words, and Zuckert does not disappoint. Zuckert has scant patience with the wriggle-nosed libertarians and neo-Confederates who huff-and-puff about Lincoln’s tyrannical-cum-dictatorial presidency. In the same breath, though, he is equally critical of the progressives—Mark Graber in particular—whose bottom line is that Dred Scott was actually a correct interpretation of the Constitution (because, of course, the Constitution is a document, corrupted by slavery, which we should all deplore). Instead, Zuckert sees Lincoln’s constitutionalism as a middle path between Jeffersonian absolutism and Hamiltonian looseness, looking to find “the Constitution’s meaning” in the changes presented by “circumstances.”
This may be the point at which Zuckert’s Midwestern Straussianism shows its weakest hand. Like many progressive “neo-abolitionists”—one thinks here of David Waldstreicher and George Van Cleve—Zuckert cannot believe that the Constitution was, as Frederick Douglass described it, a “glorious liberty document.” The Constitution contained “a degree of toleration” for slavery and “makes an accommodation to that fact so far as there are spillover effects into the Union.” At the same moment, though, Zuckert sees that the overall direction of American political logic flew away from slavery. The Constitutional Convention’s unwillingness “to state the name of the institution in the Constitution’s text bespeaks a distinct lack of neutrality,” if not entirely in the document, then in the assumptions of its creators. This created a conundrum in the American experiment in which slavery enjoyed legality but not legitimacy.
This sets Zuckert apart from James Oakes and Sean Wilentz, who have wanted to see the Constitution as a deliberate plan for expunging slavery from the American scene. But it also creates a conundrum for Midwestern Straussianism, which finds itself suggesting that the American experiment is neither classically good nor wickedly modern, and may only be able to redeem itself by the kind of “biblical-Lincolnian sentiment” Lincoln invokes, in the house-divided imagery of his 1858 senatorial nomination speech.
It is Zuckert’s opening-up of the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural that are the outstanding chapters of A Nation So Conceived. Stand Zuckert’s chapter on Gettysburg alongside Michael Johnson’s Writing the Gettysburg Address (2013) on the creation, delivery, and reception of the Address, and together there will be no finer commentary on Lincoln’s “few, appropriate remarks.” Zuckert is exquisitely attentive to words, especially Lincoln’s use of dedication, since dedicating ourselves “to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced” is what propels the mere recognition of sacrifice at the Soldiers National Cemetery toward action to preserve the republic. But even more important is Zuckert’s shrewd recognition that Lincoln’s last-minute (and apparently extempore) insertion of the phrase under God as the modifier of this nation is no mere pious crowd-pleaser, but an insistence on Lincoln’s part that the ultimate restraint on democratic libertinism (and any “radical implementation of the popular sovereignty doctrine”) lies in divine sovereignty. The political religion of the Lyceum speech had returned in 1863.
Zuckert is closest to the sublime in his treatment of the Second Inaugural, for it is there that providence emerges as the comprehensive solution to “the anarchic dissolution of authority” and “the descent into the affirmation of mere human will as the source of right.” If the Civil War was, in the Gettysburg Address, a testing of the sustainability of a liberal democracy—“whether that nation or any nation so conceived or so dedicated can long endure”—then in the Second Inaugural the war has become a woe whose terrible costs can only be resolved by a surrender to “the God of history, the God who judged nations,” and gives no ground for retribution on the part of the victors.
For in the end, the problems of democracy cannot be contained or resolved either by classical philosophy or by narcissistic modernism, much less satiated by vengeance, since vengeance, as Lincoln understands, is as destructive a narcotic to democracy as ever alcohol was in the Temperance Address. Just as the disorder of alcoholism can only be resolved by empathy, so the internal conflicts of democracy can only be satisfied by malice toward none. The sad truth Zuckert leaves us with is that, not the Second Inaugural, but the Wade-Davis Bill of 1864 became the functional template for Reconstruction.
A Nation So Conceived will receive, and will deserve, many plaudits. It is the most instructive and profound exploration of Lincoln’s ideas since Crisis of the House Divided; it is, in effect, a demonstration of a Straussian principle, of how to discuss philosophy and history without dissolving into a useless or cynical historicism. But it will not be an easy tour for the reader. The rhythm of the book, parsing out speech after speech, chapter by chapter, will become narcoleptic for all but the most determined savant. Zuckert also neglects the complicated textures of the nineteenth century’s historical geography that one finds in the biographies of Michael Burlingame or Sidney Blumenthal, and he especially neglects the influence of Mill, Wayland, Henry Carey, and other political economists in Lincoln’s development, a fault historians are more likely to notice than political theorists. Which is not to say that historians have no faults, since many Lincoln biographers are less interested in an exploration of Lincoln’s ideas than in an accumulation of new Lincolnian micro-sources.
There is less to learn here about Lincoln’s rules on the functions of government, and oddly even less than that on the role of natural law (despite Zuckert’s extensive exploration of Lockean natural law in chapter seven of his Natural Rights and the New Republicanism in 1994). But this is, after all, a book about speeches, and even if it casts no glance at Lincoln’s considerable skills in the prudential implementation of politics, it should be remembered that Lincoln was preeminently a man of words who understood that words are what shape public opinion. Even if public opinion should not be, in moral terms, everything, it still counts for a very great deal in a democracy. “The statesman is the leader who presents not merely the truth about political right,” Zuckert wisely observes, in one of the book’s most memorable sentences, “but the version of that truth that has the greatest chance of being grasped by the people in a way that will make the truth as effectual as possible.” The question Zuckert leaves tantalizingly dangling is whether we have yet to listen to Lincoln’s truth fully.