Matthew Kramer is Professor of Legal and Political Philosophy at Cambridge University and a Fellow of Churchill College. He is the Director of the Cambridge Forum for Legal and Political Philosophy. He has published on a wide range of topics in legal, political and moral philosophy. His two most recent books are The Quality of Freedom and Where Law and Morality Meet; his next, Objectivity and the Rule of Law, will be published by Cambridge University Press towards the end of this year. Matthew was born and brought up in Massachusetts, where the abolitionist movement in the antebellum United States was centred. He has lived in England for 18 of the past 21 years. Below he discusses the writings of Abraham Lincoln.
Matthew Kramer on Abraham Lincoln: A Documentary Portrait (Don Fehrenbacher ed.)
If I were asked to single out the greatest human being who has ever lived, I would unhesitatingly name the sixteenth President of the United States. To a greater extent than anyone else, Abraham Lincoln deserves credit for having held the United States together during its fiercest ordeal; and to a greater extent than anyone else, he deserves credit for ending the iniquitous institution of American slavery (despite his initial lack of enthusiasm for such a measure). He was one of the shrewdest politicians ever to occupy the White House, and he was the loftiest statesman to occupy it. In addition, he was a writer of genius. Like the man himself, his words belong to the ages.
Don Fehrenbacher's one-volume anthology of Lincoln's writings is not the only such anthology, but it is the one that I read thirty years ago when I was in my mid-teenage years. Though I had admired Lincoln from my early boyhood, it was my perusal of his writings in the anthology that filled me with awe at the grandeur of his mind and personality. His rather wayward spelling and punctuation - attributable in no small part to the meagreness of his formal schooling - accentuate the magnificence of the style and substance of his prose. Similarly, his personal shortcomings, which are certainly on display at times in the writings contained in the anthology, serve to magnify his huge strengths of character. (One strength not adequately evident in those writings, incidentally, is his renowned sense of humour. Only occasionally does it flash through.)
Fehrenbacher's anthology motivated me to read the entirety of the eight-volume Collected Works of Lincoln (published by Rutgers University Press, 1953-55). I warmly recommend those eight volumes to people who want to experience the full range of Lincoln's pronouncements, but for anybody without the time to spare on the complete works, Fehrenbacher's anthology is superlatively well chosen. It covers the whole span of Lincoln's adulthood from the early 1830s through 1865, and it enables a reader to discern Lincoln's maturation as a politician and a moral agent. It likewise enables a reader to witness the maturation of the United States - a country that has continually transcended itself and its many failings toward the better realization of its own ideals.
For instance, as Garry Wills has emphasized in his book on the Gettysburg Address, one of Lincoln's preoccupations lay in his insistence that the words 'all men are created equal' in the Declaration of Independence were applicable to blacks as well as to whites. That insistence was salient, for example, in his speech at Columbus, Ohio in September 1859. Having there decried the notion 'that the negro had no share in the Declaration of National Independence; that it did not mean negroes at all; and when "all men" were spoken of negroes were not included', Lincoln went on to recall the sentiments of Henry Clay:
[H]e told an audience that if they would repress all tendencies to liberty and ultimate emancipation, they must go back to the era of our independence and muzzle the cannon which thundered its annual joyous return on the Fourth of July; they must blow out the moral lights around us; they must penetrate the human soul and eradicate the love of liberty; but until they did these things, and others eloquently enumerated by him, they could not repress all tendencies to ultimate emancipation.Lincoln's insistence on the applicability of the words of the Declaration to blacks as well as whites was shared by his abolitionist contemporaries. Perhaps the most memorable example appears in 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic', composed by the abolitionist Julia Ward Howe in the aftermath of her visit to a Union army camp in November 1861. In the final stanza, she proclaimed: 'As He [Christ] died to make men holy, let us die to make men free.' Like Lincoln, she was determined to point out to her compatriots that the referential scope of the word 'men' is unrestricted by the colour of anyone's skin.
Though Lincoln underwent very little formal education, he was an avid reader from his early years. As an adult, he was able to draw on a wide range of cultural references. Nothing had a more significant formative influence on him, however, than the Bible - which, of course, also profoundly influenced most of the major abolitionists, including Julia Ward Howe. In virtually every one of his principal writings, Lincoln referred directly or obliquely to the Bible, and he repeatedly invoked God's guidance. I myself am an implacable atheist completely devoid of religious sentiments, but I marvel that some people think that invocations of God by political leaders are invariably deplorable. Are such people dismayed, for example, by the magnanimous close of Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address?
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 a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.Just before those closing lines, in a passage much more sustainedly laden with religious references, Lincoln delivered himself of observations that are reminiscent of the Hebrew prophets. Quoting from both the New Testament and the Hebrew Scriptures, he urged his countrymen to adopt a posture of humble self-reflection and contrition as victory approached. The doctrine of collective responsibility which he shared with the Hebrew prophets is unsettling, but his keen sense of indignation in response to grave injustices - which he also shared with the prophets - is exalted.
Both [sides in the Civil War] read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. 'Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!' If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope - fervently do we pray - that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it should continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said 'the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether'.A comparison between Lincoln and the Hebrew prophets is not an instance of maudlin extravagance. Broadly similar comparisons were drawn by contemporaries of his who were especially well positioned to pass judgement on the matter. In the most moving paragraph from James McPherson's fine book Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction, we are told of the fall of the Confederate capital Richmond:
Among the first Union soldiers to take possession of [Richmond] were black troopers of the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry, commanded by Charles Francis Adams, Jr., eldest son of the minister to Britain and grandson of President John Quincy Adams. Once again, as at Charleston, the first task of the occupation troops was to put out the fires, which they had done by nightfall, but only after most of the business and industrial sections of Richmond were destroyed. Next day President Lincoln visited the ruined city, escorted by a troop of black cavalry. Richmond blacks turned out by the thousands to cheer every step of their way. 'I know I am free,' shouted one, 'for I have seen Father Abraham and felt him.'This passage carries a special poignancy because Lincoln would lie dead exactly one week later with an assassin's bullet in his brain.
When I read the sundry writings in Fehrenbacher's anthology, I feel the same sense of wondrous elevation that occurs when I listen to a fine performance of a Mozart opera or a Bach mass. One is aware that one is encountering the outermost bounds of human achievement.
[A list of the pieces that have appeared to date in this series, with the links to them, is here.]