July 31, 2019

Toward a Lincolnian Nationalism

Note: This is part of the “Promise of Republicanism” series, which can be found here in its entirety.

Political theorists are giving the problem of the nation both renewed and deserved attention. The resulting debate is largely one of dueling fears: on the one hand of a placeless cosmopolitanism, on the other of blood-and-soil nationalism. Each side grasps a central truth about, even as it dreads caricatures of, the other. Both would benefit from a mediating voice: Abraham Lincoln’s. Lincoln’s nationalism seeks the attainment of universal principles within a particular polity.

The concern about cosmopolitanism, expressed most clearly in Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley’s remarks to the recent National Conservatism conference, is its tendency to dissolve communal ties, assault tradition, and erode difference. In Burkean terms, a cosmopolitanism of abstract principle risks becoming “metaphysically mad.” Burke warned that a politics based on detached philosophy, rather than the wisdom a society accumulated in custom, was prone to fanaticism. (For an excellent assessment of Burke and the nation, see Yuval Levin’s remarks to the National Conservatism conference.)

On the other side of the debate, Jonah Goldberg fears an inexorable slide from nationalism to statism, while Gabriel Schoenfeld warns that unhealthy nationalism can be a thin veil for bigotry that stigmatizes and excludes immigrants, among others.

Lincoln could offend or exonerate either side. On the one hand, Lincoln’s idea of the nation was based on abstract and universal rights, which — without a concrete polity to ground them — could easily act as a solvent on particularity while supplying fuel to fanaticism. The rhetorical opening of the Declaration of Independence, which Lincoln identified as the source of all his political sentiments, speaks cosmopolitan language: “all men” are “created equal” and possess “certain unalienable rights.” These rights do not, at first blush, appear to be bound by borders: Everyone has them regardless of where they live.

Lincoln saw moral imperatives as comparably universal. At the final Lincoln-Douglas debate in 1858, he characterized the debate over slavery as “the eternal struggle between these two principles — right and wrong — throughout the world. They are the two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time; and will ever continue to struggle.” The significance of Lincoln’s basic debate between freedom and slavery is its global and universalistic nature: It occurs “throughout the world” and across all time.

Lincoln spoke of rights in axiomatic terms that suggested nature vested them in the human person, not the particular citizen. Speaking in Hartford in 1860, for example, he declared: “I think that if anything can be proved by natural theology, it is that slavery is morally wrong. God gave man a mouth to receive bread, hands to feed it, and his hand has a right to carry bread to his mouth without controversy.” There is nothing about this analysis that distinguishes between the rights of Americans and those of other nationalities: The rights in question arise from humanity, not citizenship. Lincoln called them “an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times.”

Thus far, Lincoln’s idea of the nation seems to lean toward, or at least to be compatible with, a cosmopolitanism of abstract rights. If everyone has the same rights and is bound by the same political truths, after all, borders seem arbitrary. Yet to an extent under-appreciated by partisans of Lincoln, he grounded these universals in the particular: His concern was with this nation, its memories and its laws.

In the context of the Civil War, Lincoln always declared that the preservation of the Union took precedence over the abolition of slavery. The First Inaugural disavowed any intent to interfere with existing slavery, while the Second Inaugural called emancipation an “astounding” result of the war. Lincoln’s famous 1862 letter to Horace Greeley put the matter starkly: “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.” 

On his own philosophical premises, one might reasonably ask why this should be. If slavery is a universal wrong, why would the integrity of a territorial union take precedence over it? The Constitution, after all, is only the local expression of these premises. The premises, being universal, seem to be prior to the union.

Yet Lincoln, whose patriotism ran deep, never treated the Constitution this way. He was intensely loyal to the American nation. He drew inspiration from its memories and was committed to its institutions even, crucially, when they violated his principles. Lincoln admonished his friend Joshua Speed in 1855: “You ought … to appreciate how much the great body of the Northern people do crucify their feelings, in order to maintain their loyalty to the constitution and the Union.”

But what other purpose do a Constitution and union serve if not to instantiate political truths? Stated more provocatively, were northerners like Lincoln morally justified in crucifying their principles to maintain the union? One answer — Lincoln’s answer — is that abstract principles are attainable only within the context of those goods that constitute a distinct political community: shared memories, customs, laws, and ideals.

Lincoln appealed repeatedly to the particularity of the American nation and its heritage, as in the Lyceum Address of 1838, which warned that for a citizen to violate the law was “to trample on the blood of his father, and to tear the character of his own, and his children’s liberty.” The Gettysburg Address opened not just with the American “proposition” but with the fact that “our fathers” (emphasis added) created it, and did so on “this” continent. Leon Kass astutely observes that the word “here” appears eight times in the Address.

Likewise, the peroration of the First Inaugural calls forth memories unique to the United States in a soliloquy that seems inclined toward blood-and-soil nationalism: “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Lincoln, whose political heroes were George Washington and Henry Clay, often invoked the nation’s great statesmen to sustain his arguments against slavery. The clearest was the 1860 Cooper Union Address, which demonstrated that most founders had opposed slavery or its expansion. Significantly, Lincoln did not hang his argument merely on the abstract wrongness of slavery but also on the evidence that the nation’s founders shared that view. He argued that these founders, “our” founders, were owed deference:

Now, and here, let me guard a little against being misunderstood. I do not mean to say we are bound to follow implicitly in whatever our fathers did. To do so, would be to discard all the lights of current experience — to reject all progress — all improvement. What I do say is, that if we would supplant the opinions and policy of our fathers in any case, we should do so upon evidence so conclusive, and argument so clear, that even their great  authority, fairly considered and weighed, cannot stand; and most surely not in a case whereof we ourselves declare they understood the question better than we.

This attachment to the American regime did not undermine Lincoln’s commitment to abstract ideals. Lincoln’s patriotism arose from his fealty to the principles to which the nation was dedicated. But he also understood that only a particular political community could instantiate and defend these principles while calibrating their specific expression to local circumstance. In this mediation between principles and particularity, Lincoln followed the tradition of the Declaration of Independence, too rarely read in its entirety. Its bill of particulars against King George III accuses him of specific wrongs against thispeople on the basis of itscustoms and laws. 

The principles of Lincolnian nationalism, then, would be these: Universal ideals have meaning — and are protected against untethered fanaticism — only within a particular community bound by tradition and laws. A nation’s customs and memories enliven what would otherwise be principles at risk of desiccation while grounding abstractions that would otherwise be prone to fanaticism. 

In this sense, Lincoln can help to reconcile the longstanding debate in American political development between “creed” and “culture.” Ours is a culture rooted in a creed, and our creed is animated by the culture. The choice is not binary; one informs the other. Such is also the case in the dispute between cosmopolitanism and nationalism. They ought to be defined neither by caricatures nor by extremes. There is a middle course. Lincoln’s nationalism charts it.

Greg Weiner is provost of Assumption College. His latest book is Old Whigs: Burke, Lincoln, and the Politics of Prudence.