Self-Interest Is Not Enough: Lincoln’s Classical Revision of the Founding

Visitors at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. (Jason Reed / Reuters)
Freedom depends on virtue, the most important of which is respect for the equality of all human beings.

The Constitution of the United States is built upon the sure and steady foundation of human selfishness. Its author, James Madison, was of the opinion “that neither moral nor religious motives can be relied on” to support republican government. Since saints are rare and sinners are ubiquitous, it makes sense to assume that both voters and magistrates will resemble the latter more than they resemble the former. For this reason, Madison informs us in Federalist 51, “ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place.”

The counterexample that demonstrates the genius of his approach is France. After succumbing to a revolution in 1789 raised in the belief that human nature is, in and of itself, innocent, the French are now on to their fifth republic. The previous four were felled by either tyrants or tyrannical mobs. Meanwhile, Madison’s constitution is still going strong nearly 233 years after ratification. The Founders’ decision to make self-interest the backstop of political freedom has been vindicated by history.

The problem with this rather neat and tidy conclusion is that it can be arrived at only by ignoring the public career of Abraham Lincoln. All of Lincoln’s major speeches, from his speech to the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield to the Gettysburg Address, exhibit his conviction that the self-interest of the citizenry cannot sustain the republic. In fact, this was Lincoln’s central contention during his famous debates with Stephen Douglas.

In 1854, Douglas supported the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which removed the ban on slavery in the western territories. According to Douglas, the legality of slavery should have been decided in each case by “popular sovereignty,” which, for Douglas, meant that local majorities should have full power to decide the legality of slavery in each of the territories. The purpose of the Constitution, in his eyes, was to allow the interests and desires of citizens to be hashed out through democratic mechanisms. Banning slavery from the territories would violate the rights of the locals to pursue their own political desires.

Lincoln could not have disagreed more strenuously. In his speech at Peoria in 1854 he declared that he hated Douglas’s Nebraska bill because it enabled “the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites, . . . and especially because it forced so many really good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil-liberty — criticizing the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principal of action but self-interest.”

This should not be taken as a simple moral objection to the law in question. For Lincoln, public opinion on matters of morality was of the utmost importance to practical politics. He wrote that “our government rests on public opinion. Whoever can change public opinion, can change the government, practically just so much.” He further observed that “public opinion, on any subject, always has a ‘central idea’ from which all its minor thoughts radiate. . . . The ‘central idea’ in our political public opinion, at the beginning was, and until recently has continued to be ‘the equality of men.’” For Lincoln, the preservation of the republic depended upon the presence of certain convictions in the hearts and minds of the people rather than their proclivity to pursue their interests. The debates with Douglas were about nothing less than the question of which idea would be the “‘central idea’ from which all . . . minor thoughts radiate” in the United States of America.

According to Douglas, this central idea was “popular sovereignty:” local majorities pursuing their interests in an unfettered way so as to check the interests of other local majorities across the country. This regional proliferation of different political priorities would then serve as a check against overreach on the part of the federal government, as it would make stable national majorities difficult to come by. One reason that Douglas was such an avid proponent of Manifest Destiny was that he wanted more and more geographically dispersed communities with ever more diverse political priorities to prevent the growth of Leviathan. A federal ban on the extension of slavery would have been a gross violation of popular sovereignty in his eyes. The federal government’s attempt to take into its own hands decisions that rightly belong in those of local communities represented an existential threat to self-government as Douglas understood it. The plenary ability of individuals to come together and make political decisions for themselves was Douglas’s ultimate political value. He even located its origin in the Garden of Eden, claiming continuity between the freedom given by God to Adam and Eve and the freedom inherent in the popular-sovereignty principle. Lincoln objected to this analogy, and corrected Douglas at the end his Peoria speech:

In the course of my main argument, Judge Douglas interrupted me to say, that the principle of the Nebraska bill was very old; that it originated when God made man and placed good and evil before him, allowing him to choose for himself, being responsible for the choice he should make. At the time I thought this was merely playful; and I answered it accordingly. But in his reply to me he renewed it, as a serious argument. In seriousness then, the facts of this proposition are not true as stated. God did not place good and evil before man, telling him to make his choice. On the contrary, he did tell him that there was one tree, of the fruit of which he should not eat, upon pain of certain death.

For Lincoln, America, like Eden, could be maintained only by the willingness of the people to deny themselves certain pleasures; in particular, the pleasure of despotism, of ruling others without their consent. The great Lincoln scholar Harry Jaffa summed up the Great Emancipator’s argument when he wrote that “if the pleasures of freedom come into competition with the pleasures of despotism, they cannot survive on the basis of their pleasantness alone.” There is no guarantee that the self-interest of the citizen will always lead him to respect and defend the rights of others. The persistent practice of slavery was enough to demonstrate this. Lincoln maintained that there was no difference in principle between enslaving a white man and enslaving a black man. From this premise he reasoned that a local majority voting in favor of enslaving other men was something akin to a logical contradiction. By voting in favor of the proposition that human beings can be ruled without consent, they rendered their own majoritarian consent meaningless. This is why Lincoln rejected Douglas’s central idea. Popular sovereignty can function only if the conviction that no man is to be ruled without consent is first affirmed. To use a phrase of the late Justice Robert Jackson, this commitment must be put “beyond the reach of majorities.” Otherwise, popular sovereignty collapses under the weight of its own contradictions.

Lincoln’s rejection of Douglas’s strict democratic-libertarian model of freedom, with its emphasis upon choice in and of itself as the supreme political value, reveals a classical bent in his political thought. The idea that freedom means living under the right restraints, rather than the fewest restraints possible, is one we find in Greek philosophy and in the early Fathers of the Christian Church, not in Locke or Hobbes. And yet this, the classical understanding, is the model of freedom we find expressed and endorsed by Lincoln. The classical Christian understanding of human nature conceives of it as something toward which we move, not from which we come. Fallen and sinful man is, according to this view, in a profoundly unnatural state, judged by the standards of the ideal human being. This arch-human paragon might be Achilles to the Greeks, or Christ to the Christians, but either way, a standard is upheld.

Lincoln’s conviction that slavery was profoundly unnatural must be understood in these terms. He does not argue that slavery isn’t habitual or normative — he was too great a student of history to think that. But its practice requires the abandonment of certain self-imposed restraints without which we cannot rise to the full height of our humanity. Without these restraints, we are little more than beasts. Thus it is for Lincoln that living according to one’s nature means, first and foremost, living under the restraints of human equality. Throw off these restraints, and the exercise of a purely libertarian freedom by some amounts to nothing more than the abasement of the species.

This brings us to Lincoln’s own “central idea,” that “all men are created equal.” The words, of course, are lifted from the Declaration of Independence, but Lincoln’s interpretation of them is subtly different from Jefferson’s. Our third president interpreted this statement in the conventionally pre-political Lockean sense: All men are created equal in the state of nature and then, faced with the threat of violent death, reluctantly form a government to protect themselves from their fellow men. It’s essentially a negative formulation designed to create a permission structure for revolution when government oversteps the mark. However, as Jaffa observes:

Lincoln’s interpretation of “all men are created equal” is not that it specifies the condition of man in a pre-political state, a highly undesirable state which marks the point at which men ought to revolt, but that it specifies the optimum condition which the human mind can envisage. It is a condition toward which men have a duty ever to strive, not a condition from which they have a right to escape. It is conceived as a political, not a pre-political, condition, a condition in which — to the extent that it is realized — equality of right is secured to every man not by the natural law (which governs Locke’s state of nature, in which all men are equal) but by positive human law.

This is yet more evidence of Lincoln’s classical revision of the Founding. Politics exists in order to allow citizens to better live according to their nature, and the great American insight into this nature is that “all men are created equal.” Lincoln transfigured this great phrase from a pre-political stick with which to beat tyrants (as it was for Jefferson) into a classical political ideal toward which the citizenry has a duty to strive. “Equality” becomes for the United States what wisdom was for Athens and what martial glory was for Sparta. As an ideal it always escapes the conclusive grasp of Lady Liberty’s outstretched arm, but she and her country are nevertheless exalted by her persistent and relentless reach for it. Not a perfect Union, but an “ever more perfect Union.” Jaffa, once again:

The Declaration conceives of just government mainly in terms of the relief from oppression. Lincoln conceives of just government far more in terms of the requirement to achieve justice in the positive sense; indeed, according to Lincoln, the proposition “all men are created equal” is so lofty a demand that the striving for justice must be an ever-present requirement of the human and political condition.

There is, consequently, no room in the United States for politics, like those of Douglas, that deny the truth of universal human equality. Popular sovereignty is legitimate only within the proper constraints of human nature, and human nature is one, indivisible, and evenly distributed among all members of the species. According to Lincoln’s carefully constructed arguments, those whose would deny this are the very definition of anti-American. They hold the country’s “central idea” in contempt.

What’s the relevance of all this today? In our recent history the country has been drifting back toward Stephen Douglas’s model of politics. Not that there’s any great resurgence in affection for antebellum slavery — thank God, its moral horrors are now almost universally recognized. But Douglas’s insistence that the rights of the people and the desires of the people are one and the same is the functional assumption of both parties in 2020. Both the Republican Party and the Democratic Party seem at times to have little function other than to provide catharsis to their respective bases by publicly defenestrating the other side at every opportunity.

Moreover, the classical reorientation of the republic by Lincoln is a legacy that has been left unclaimed by either party. The political rhetoric and thought-forms of the Democratic Party have been generated by Hegel, Marx, and the Progressive movement of the early 20th century. Its conception of freedom is directional; we have to move “forward” toward a more just society by giving politicians and bureaucrats a free hand to mobilize the machinery of the state to that end. The language of the Republican Party has, for the last 40 years, been more or less Jeffersonian. This conception of freedom is spatial; it prioritizes the alleviation of external restraints upon the individual. In 2016, with the nomination of Donald Trump, the GOP pivoted from the rhetoric of Jefferson to the rhetoric of Jackson (a man and president whom Lincoln loathed). The party then took own its own flavor of dialectic between “coastal elites” and “the forgotten man.”

But for Lincoln the definition of freedom was tantamount to the acquisition of indispensable virtues on the part of the people. The most important of these virtues is a healthy and reverent respect for the equality of all men. Without this, free government is impossible. In this way, Lincoln may be said to have significantly altered the fabric of American freedom as handed down to him by Madison. He did believe that virtue was required to sustain the republic, because republican government is a product of virtue in the first place. This is a point of internal contradiction in Madison’s thought. Ironically, the Founders were themselves exceptionally virtuous men in many respects, especially Washington. The idea that a form of government founded by good men acting upon heroic and elevated impulses (pace Charles Beard) could be sustained by bad men acting on selfish impulses is a strange one.

Lincoln’s idea of equality, however, was not equality of outcome, but equality of access to the fruits of one’s own labor. He often argued to his opponents that even if their position was correct, and African Americans were biologically unable to produce the same kind of wealth as whites, what little they produced would still be their own by absolute and inviolable right. In this respect his conception of virtue differs somewhat from the classical notion. The classical hero is defined by his superiority to his fellow men. He belongs to “the family of the lion or the tribe of the eagle,” as Lincoln puts it in his Lyceum Address. But the American Republic is not governed by such men. It is governed by every man. As such, Lincoln’s conception of civic virtue is a kind of universalism. His conviction is that whatever can be said that is true of all men and women should be more and more reflected in our mode of government as time goes on. Where relationships are voluntary, let them be characterized by particularity and eccentricity. But when the terrible and coercive power of the state moves, it must begin by treating each individual as a representative of all that is true of human beings per se.

The idea of classical virtue has thus been infused by Lincoln with the Christian belief in the universal equality of mankind. In this respect Lincoln’s America is, philosophically if not theologically, a kind of classical Christian America. To recover it, all we need to do is think seriously, deeply, and regularly about the fact that none of us are, in any intrinsic or objective way, better than the people whose politics we loathe. If you’re interested in practicing the politics of Lincoln, try to bring to mind the person in public life whose views you find the most appalling, and meditate long and hard on the fact that they are your unalterable and inalienable equal. Our sixteenth president was quite adept at this. On the night that Robert E. Lee surrendered, Lincoln, after four years of being cursed, warred against, and burned in effigy by the soldiers of the South, turned to the White House band and asked them to play “Dixie.”


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