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lincoln’s virtues: an ethical biography

“Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.”

So said Abraham Lincoln at New York’s Cooper Union on February 27, 1860. It was near the beginning of his successful campaign to become President and he was speaking both in general and, more specifically, about slavery’s role in each state and in the nation as a whole.

I started reading about Lincoln in the hope of learning something about politics and speeches; I wanted a politician I could respect and from whom I could feel good about learning. Perusing the titles and back covers at a local bookstore, I discovered Lincoln’s Virtues: An Ethical Biography (William Lee Miller, 2002). As a first book on Lincoln’s life, it’s probably not the best choice. It is a pretty dense analysis of Lincoln’s argument, his moral, ethical, and logical treatment of issues. It’s slow going and I finished three or four other books during the time I was working on it. However, I did learn some valuable lessons:

  1. Prepare. In a series of now-famous debates, Lincoln—a self-taught lawyer from backwoods Illinois and at the time a one-term Congressman—took on one of the most powerful politicians of the era (Stephen Douglas) on the most controversial subject (slavery) in the nation. He didn’t win every point, but he did respectably most of the time and, more important, he clearly articulated his position. Lincoln spent months preparing for this work, a habit that he carried into almost everything that he did.
  2. Work from something incontrovertible—or as close as you can get. Lincoln based his arguments against slavery on carefully worked out trains of logic that were founded on the Declaration of points Independence, the Constitution of the United States, and the fundamental humanity of all human beings. While some people denied the full humanity of black slaves, Lincoln’s position was ultimately redeemed by the weight of majority opinion and the logic that if one group can be enslaved and dehumanized today, there’s no justification for not enslaving your group tomorrow.
  3. Do the politics. Lincoln was a consummate politician. He counted votes. He curried favor, formed coalitions, and helped build a major political party. He argued, cajoled, encouraged, motivated, and twisted arms. He used most of the legal and respectable tools available to carry his points and win his goals—though he didn’t always win. He didn’t shy away from talking to those with whom he didn’t agree and he acknowledged the expertise and ability of others, sometimes even those who had disparaged him in the past. (His Secretary of War through most of the Civil War, Edwin Stanton, is a great example of someone who had strongly opposed Lincoln’s election, but who Lincoln appointed anyway because of his skills; the two became a powerful team.)
  4. Do it because it’s right. Even under intense political pressure, Lincoln seemed never to lose sight of his larger goals and never to let personal gain be more important then communal good. At one point, trying to become the Senator from Illinois (something he wanted very much), he realized he couldn’t win and threw his support behind a candidate with less initial popularity (and who hadn’t supported him), but who was much preferred politically. He thereby helped his party and his ideological stance win, despite the personal loss. Consistently, he chose the right thing, as he defined it, over personal feelings (again, Stanton’s appointment is a good example).

Certainly, there are many perspectives on Lincoln and Miller’s is just one. However, Miller’s attempt to trace Lincoln’s moral and ethical development provides powerful access to and analysis of a crucial figure in our nation’s history. Whether you agree with Miller’s relatively rosy picture of Lincoln or not, looking at Lincoln through the lens of morality is welcome at a time when ethical behavior and moral principles seem, at least to this observer, less and less a part of our political rhetoric and life.

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