Lincoln as a Philosopher

01 July 2011

Lincoln is revered as our greatest President; he is virtually an American Saint.  In Sunday’s program, we look at his philosophical ideas --- both political and religious. 

Some of these are disturbing.  The Second Inaugural Address --- the one that’s carved on the wall of the Lincoln Memorial --- is really quite chilling.  Especially if you think it really represents the philosophy of someone who has just pursued a path that led to the death of half a million people.

It ends with a very moving statement:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.’’

Those words express a noble philosophy: charity, fairness, compassion. 

But consider what comes earlier that in the address.  Lincoln basically suggests that American slavery was something that happened according to God’s plan, but then God decided  to stop it.  And God chooses to do so by this terrible war, in which every drop of blood spilled by the lash of the whip during the 250 years of slavery shall be paid for by the blood of soldiers.  That is a frightening picture, and a frightening image for our leader to have.  He is but the pawn of a God who designs things so that first innocent people are slaves for 250 years…  And then as payback, half a million folks - the vast majority of whom didn’t own slaves and many of whom were opposed to slavery - must suffer and die.  A chilling theology.

However, to be fair, the larger context of  this part of the address is a big question:  If this is what's going on, if this is all such a plan of God, then quote:

shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes   which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?

It’s as if Lincoln lays out this way of looking at things that might bring solace to the suffering believers --- it’s all God’s will --- but at the same time he really doesn’t commit himself to that.  It’s not clear Lincoln gives the answer to the rhetorical question that he intends to evoke in the minds of his listeners.

As philosophers, I suppose we ought to be impressed that an American President could write prose that posed such deep questions in such an artful way.  But that’s the whole mystery of Lincoln’s philosophy; a lot of at least these apparent contradictions.

 He lauds government of the people, by the people, for the people; words that echo the Declaration of Independence.  But that’s different from the idea that the union must be preserved, no matter what the southern states want.  Then there’s the devotion to life, liberty and the rights of citizens; but he closed down the newspapers in New York City and jailed the editors and suspended Habeus Corpus.  With malice towards none --- but he sent Sherman on his march through Georgia.

 Even though he was a stalwart and consistent opponent of slavery, he also expressed racist views. But perhaps the problem is not in our Lincoln, but in us;  we don’t understand what things were like, what options he saw.

 We will have some help thinking about this: Al Gini of Loyola University in Chicago, where he teaches a course on Lincoln and Leadership.

Comments (3)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Saturday, July 2, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

This will not be popular with Lincoln admirers, bu

This will not be popular with Lincoln admirers, but allow me to offer a notion about him---a notion which may well hold true to this day, and even stronger due to the increased complexities of our modern times. Let us suppose that as a politician, Lincoln was an equivocator and opportunist. If he was as astute and inlelligent as he seemed, he would have known it necessary to take positions that would have made him both a hero and a pariah. In the profession that politics was, is and shall be, there are chess players and checker players, metaphorically speaking.
The chess players create legacies for themselves and may be victims of their own brilliant moves---an assassin got Honest Abe,as well we know. The checker players tend to fade into obscurity, write books and play golf. I do not know if Lincoln was the greatest president. But he put on a good show, didn't he?
If you have been watching developments since,oh, the 1980s or thereabouts, you may have heard that word LEGACY bandied about a lot. It is no longer enough to serve in a high public office. Officials must leave a legacy. It must be a positive one, whether deserved or not. This is one difference between chess players and checker players...

Guest's picture


Tuesday, July 5, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

Lincoln wouldn't be the only person misguided by r

Lincoln wouldn't be the only person misguided by religion is he? Does the Pope wears a funny hat?
What about the rest of us?
Haven't we all been askewed?
Merry Chistmas Santa?
Did you get any colored eggs from the Easter Bunny?
Do angels really have wings?
Did God really send his son Jesus to be tortured to death?
If so, wouldn't that make God a murderer?
Did God really kill a whole bunch a first borns and spare those that had slaughtered lambs' blood on their doors? Lets celebrate!!!
What's going on here?
And you want to question Lincoln?
I think you should question GOD.
God bless America,
Ummm, What exactly does that mean???

Mark Caplan's picture

Mark Caplan

Tuesday, September 27, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

I was flabbergasted and

I was flabbergasted and dismayed to hear on Philosophy Talk the mistake by both hosts and the expert guest that Lincoln "abrogated" the Constitution by suspending habeas corpus. Here is what Article 1, Section 9 says about suspending habeas corpus:
"The privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it."
Congress was not in session and therefore could not be consulted when, in a clear emergency situation, Lincoln suspended habeas corpus. As soon as Congress came back into session, he asked Congress to ratify his decision. The Supreme Court backed Lincoln up. There was no "abrogation" of the Constitution.