Archive for category History

Hamilton’s Productivity

In his biography of Alexander Hamilton, Ron Chernow marvels several times of Hamilton’s capacity for work. He wrote the bulk of the Federalist Papers, sometimes turning out as many as 5 in a week.  When his opponents in Congress wanted to try to hang him on unfounded corruption charges, for instance, they demanded that he produce voluminous reports on short deadlines.  They underestimated him.  On p. 250, Chernow describes how Hamilton was able to do this:

Hamilton’s mind always worked with preternatural speed.  His collected papers are so stupefying in length that it is hard to believe that one man created them in fewer than five decades.  Words were his chief weapons, and his account books are crammed with purchases for thousands of quills, parchments, penknives, slate pencils, reams of foolscap, and wax.  His papers show that, Mozart-like, he could transpose complex thoughts onto paper with few revisions.  At other times, he tinkered with the prose but generally did not alter the logical progression of his thought.  He wrote with the speed of a beautifully organized mind that digested ideas thoroughly, slotted them into appropriate pigeonholes, then regurgitated them at will.

Both the organized mind and the regurgitation are harder than they look.  They both require patience, training, and discipline.  Yes, he was writing at a different time, when repeating arguments didn’t mean chewing up half of your allotted 700 words.  Length was never an issue, and Hamilton, being Hamilton, was brilliant enough that neither was publication or readership.  But I notice it when favorite columnists of mine no longer have anything new to say, and part of my own lack of production is from a desire to say something new each time, rather than even mentally cut-and-paste from previous efforts.  Contrary to popular opinion, it takes patience to repeat yourself.

This goes hand-in-hand with having an organized mind.  One wants to be able to assimilate events and ideas, and to respond to them.  But there’s a concomitant risk of building a system and fitting everything into that system.  One’s thinking becomes rigid, rather than supple and responsive.  You see this all the time with people who reduce all political arguments to one or a handful of principles – everything becomes confirmation of those few underlying ideas, but then all arguments return to those same few ideas.  Discussions become stale, because it’s more comfortable to have the discussion you’re used to having.

 

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Breaking News From 1798

I may be the last person on the planet to have read Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton.  I’ll certainly be digesting it for a while.

Among Chernow’s contributions is a detailed discussion of the American political climate, during the Washington and Adams administrations, when the bulk of Hamilton’s contributions to the nascent government were made.  It’s also when we saw the emergence of the first real political parties in history, parties committed to more than the mere attaining and retaining of power, but also to rival economic and political theories.

Today, we’re used to the stability of the two-party system, but at the time, they were not only a novelty, but a bit of a shameful one at that.  The Founders had wanted to avoid factions, or parties.  The new parties were not only organized around ideas, but also around the personalities of their leaders.  This led to a curious combination of personal touchiness, mutual misunderstanding and hostility, and denial that it was going on at all.

From Pages 391-92 of the softcover edition:

The sudden emergence of parties set a slashing tone for politics in the 1790s.  Since politicians considered parties bad, they denied involvement in them, bristled at charges that they harbored partisan feelings, and were quick to perceive hypocrisy in others.  And because parties were frightening new phenomena, they could be easily mistaken for evil conspiracies, lending a paranoid tinge to political discourse.  The Federalists saw themselves as saving America from anarchy, while Republicans believed they were rescuing America from counterrevolution.  Each side possessed a lurid, distorted view of the other, buttressed by an idealized sense of itself. No etiquette yet defined civilized behavior between the parties.  It was also not evident that the two parties would smoothly alternate in power, raising the unsettling prospect that one party might be established to the permanent exclusion of the other.  Finally, no sense yet existed of a loyal opposition to the government in power.  As the party spirit grew more acrimonious, Hamilton and Washington regarded much of the criticism fired at their administration as disloyal, even treasonous, in nature.

One last feature of the inchoate party system deserves mention.  The emerging parties were not yet fixed political groups, able to exert discipline on errant members.  Only loosely united by ideology and sectional loyalties, they can seem to modern eyes more like amorphous personality cults.  It was as if the parties were projections of individual politicians – Washington, Hamilton, and then John Adams on the Federalist side, Jefferson, Madison, and then James Monroe on the Republican side – rather than the reverse.  As a result, the reputations of the principle figures formed decisive elements in political combat.  For a man like Hamilton, so watchful of his reputation, the rise of parties was to make him ever more hypersensitive about his personal honor.

The parallels between the politics of that day, when parties were being formed, and today, when they have been structurally weakened and are in flux, should be obvious.  The party establishments and the administrative state mitigate some of the effects, but there’s no question that election laws have neutered party back-rooms and allowed anyone to run under a party banner.  The move towards open primaries further erodes party discipline.  Each party increasingly sees the other less as principled opposition and more as a conspiracy bordering on organized crime.  And there is no question that the Bush and Clinton dynasties, along with the personally prickly Obama and Trump, have personalized presidential politics to a degree we’ve not seen in a while.

Over the last several presidential elections, people have called attention to the vitriolic nature of political campaign rhetoric, if not (until 2016) by the candidates themselves, then by their surrogates and supporters.  As often, people have trotted out some of the truly vicious things said in the campaign of 1800.  With a somewhat broader view, that similarity seems less a coincidence and more like the product of a common cause.

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Russia Elects A US President

In 1960.  At least that’s what Khrushchev thought.

Khrushchev took a particularly keen interest in the 1960 US presidential election.  Having engaged Nixon in the famous 1959 “Kitchen Debate” while on tour in the US, he became convinced that the firm anti-Communist would be impossible to do business with.  He determined to help elect whoever the Democratic nominee was.

First, he tried to convince Adlai Stevenson to run again.  Stevenson declined to openly seek a third straight nomination, mostly out of pride and a desire to be asked rather than have to ask.  But he was certainly not about to be goaded into it by the Soviets.

Then, when John F. Kennedy became the nominee, Khrushchev tried to intervene in the election on his side.  Quoting from Dan Carlin’s podcast on the Cuban Missile Crisis:

In the book Inside the Kremlin’s Cold War by Vladislav Zubok and Constantine Pleshakov, it’s interesting to read exactly how much Khrushchev was hoping Kennedy would become the president. But not because he thought he was weak, but because he thought he might be another Franklin Roosevelt, someone who could reach out and have another relationship the way Stalin’s and Roosevelt’s relationship was seen to be.

Khrushchev apparently did everything he could to help Kennedy get elected. He told KGB officers in Washington to analyze the situation, and if there was anything they could do diplomatically or with propaganda to help, to do it. He called Kennedy, ‘his president’ after he was elected, and told Kennedy at the first eye-to-eye meeting they every had, ‘I got you elected.’

Zubok and Pleshakov go on (p. 238) to detail that they were rebuffed when they rather clumsily tried to approach Robert F. Kennedy directly.  However,

In the end, Khrushchev did influence the U.S. presidential elections by his belligerent rhetoric, as well as by demonstrating that a constructive U.S. – Soviet dialogue would be impossible so long as Eisenhower or Nixon remained in the White House.  Twenty years before the revolutionary leadership of the Islamic Republic of Iran used American hostages to influence a U.S. presidential campaign, Khrushchev did the same by holding captive two pilots of the U.S. reconnaissance plane RB-47, shot down in July 1960 over the Soviet North.  Along with fears of the “missile gap,” Kennedy successfully exploited the issue of the captive pilots in his barbs against the Eisenhower-Nixon administration.

Correctly or incorrectly, Khrushchev believed this was a decisive factor in the elections.  From his memoirs, Khrushchev Remembers, page 458, he details how he mentioned this to Kennedy at the Vienna summit:

By this time President Kennedy was in the White House.  Not long before the events in Berlin came to a head, I met Kennedy in Vienna.  He impressed me as a better statesman than Eisenhower.  Kennedy had a precisely formulated opinion on every subject.  I joked with him that we had cast the deciding ballot in his election to the Presidency over that son-of-a-bitch Richard Nixon.  When he asked me what I meant, I explained that by waiting to release the U-2 pilot Gary Powers until after the American election, we kept Nixon from being able to claim that he could deal with the Russians; out ploy made a difference of at least half a million votes, which gave Kennedy the edge he needed.

Of course, at the time, nobody accused RFK or JFK of actually colluding with the Soviets to ensure JFK’s election.  (That would have to wait for another election, and another Kennedy.)

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The March To The Sea

One hundred fifty years ago today, Gen. William T. Sherman quit Atlanta, and began his March to the Sea.  The March was decisive in breaking the spirit of the slave-holding South, but Sherman always saw it as a repositioning of his army to prepare it for action in the Carolinas.  The army conducted itself with remarkable discipline.  It did not, contrary to the assertions of my Georgian 8th grade history teacher Miss Davis, salt the earth as they went.

Victor Davis Hanson describes the March better than anyone:

How in a moral sense could the March to the Sea be too barbaric in destroying Southern property yet at the same time not effective enough in killing Confederate soldiers? How could Sherman’s men be too lax in freeing slaves? How could his march be considered too easy when Grant and Lincoln–men known for neither timidity nor hysteria–feared for the very destruction of Sherman’s army when he requested permission to attempt it? And how else could Sherman move his colossal army to the east and be in position to march northward other than by living off the land and destroying property? Was he to pay for the food of slaveowners in prized Federal dollars with promises that such capital would not be forwarded to purchase more bullets for Lee and Johnston? Were his men to eat hardtack while secessionists fared better? Keep clear of railroads, as locomotives sped by with food, ammunition, and guns to kill Northerners in Virginia? Bypass slaveowning plantationists in a war to end slavery?

As for the charge that Sherman’s brand of war was amoral, if we forget for a moment what constitutes “morality” in war and examine acts of violence per se against Southern civilians, we learn that there were few, if any, gratuitous murders on the march. There seem also to have been less than half a dozen rapes, a fact acknowledged by both sides. Any killing outside of battle was strictly military execution in response to the shooting of Northern prisoners. The real anomaly seems to be that Sherman brought more than sixty thousand young men through one of the richest areas of the enemy South without unchecked killing or mayhem. After the war a Confederate officer remarked of the march through Georgia: “The Federal army generally behaved very well in this State. I don’t think there was ever an army in the world that would have behaved better, on a similar expedition, in an enemy country. Our army certainly wouldn’t.”

If you haven’t read Hanson’s description in The Soul of Battle, you’re missing out.

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So we made a thoroughfare for Freedom and her train,
Sixty miles in latitude, three hundred to the main;
Treason fled before us, for resistance was in vain,
While we were marching through Georgia. 

Hurrah! Hurrah! We bring the jubilee!
Hurrah! Hurrah! The flag that makes you free!
So we sang the chorus from Atlanta to the sea,
While we were marching through Georgia.

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25 Years

Twenty-five years ago tonight, I stood in my apartment in Arlington, Virginia, and watched Berlin free itself.

It was a moment I really never thought I would see.

The Wall had been built in 1961, five years before I was born, so to me, it was eternal.  It was built to prevent the East German dictatorship from turning into a land without a people.  Berliners, and Germans in general, were using the Allied Sectors as an escape hatch in growing numbers, and the East Germans were putting pressure on the Soviets to do something about it. Having found Kennedy weak, Khrushchev acted.  The wall went up, and the city divided.

Escapes – successful and failed – became the stuff of legend.  People tunneled under, jumped over, drove through, and just sneaked across.  Checkpoint Charlie – the official crossing between East and West – assumed a mythic status in the Cold War imagination, for exchanges, infiltrations, and releases both real and fictional.

Over time, the embarrassment of the Wall exceeded the embarrassment of the East German exodus:

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The Wall, built in 1961, just like the tyranny that put it there, was a fixture.  And then, it wasn’t.

Now, there are pieces of the wall all over the world, although, perhaps surprisingly, not in every former Soviet bloc country.  Pictures of these segments invariably show the spray-painted western side, because it’s more visually arresting and more colorful.  That’s almost always the side that’s displayed, where the little plaques explaining the history are placed, as well.

That’s a mistake, and it’s one that reprises a mistake we made during the Cold War itself.  American tourists were often disappointed.  “It’s just a wall,” they’d complain, after having seen it.  They should showcase the drab, dull grey side instead.  For the West, the Wall was just a wall; for the East, it was a prison.  Let the spectators see the other side first, and have to circle around to see the colors.

In a very real sense, the wall isn’t gone.  Forty years of separation, 28 years of the Wall, effected a lasting societal change:

Not everyone is happy about this change.  During the Day at the Capitol for the JCRC, in the House gallery, I sat next to an older gentleman, representing one of the JCRC’s organizations.  It turned out he was a retired American diplomat, back from a long-term posting in Leipzig, in the former East Germany.  To break the ice, I mentioned something about the Leipzig Trade Fair, and then offered what I assumed was a fairly innocuous observation about how the people there are better off since the fall of Communism.  At first, I wasn’t sure he had heard me, so I tried again.

In fact, I had stumbled across not an American patriot, but a Communist fellow-traveler.  What followed was an hour-long discussion that could have happened during my college days, complete with assertions that East Germany was free for certain values of “free.”  With representatives like that, it at once became clear to me why it took 70 years to win the Cold War.

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Liberals And Your Soul

Remember when Michelle Obama promised that Barack would heal our broken souls?  In my lifetime, that’s pretty much been the refrain of liberalism – a concern for the well-being of your souls, if not of yourselves, despite the stereotype that this is a feature of the religious right.  It goes to the heart of the liberal trope that intentions matter more than results, and that government action is inherently more virtuous than private initiative.

It turns out this was a characteristic of liberalism even when it was relatively new and driven by Evangelical concerns.  From Paul Johnson’s The Birth of the Modern, and his chapter on Britain’s rise in the role of World Policeman, comes this description of the conflicting British attitudes about the Barbary pirates and their slavery:

The West’s supine attitude toward the horrors of Barbary piracy had long aroused fury in some quarters.  Officers of the British navy were particularly incensed since seamen were frequently victims of the trade.  They could not understand why the huge resources of the world’s most powerful fleet were not deployed to root out this evil affront to the international law of the sea, once and for all.  They could not understand why liberal parliamentarians, who campaigned ceaselessly to outlaw the slave trade by parliamentary statute, took no interest in Christian slavery….But William Wilberforce, MP, and the other Evangelical liberals, who finally got the slave trade made unlawful in 1807, flatly refused to help.  They were concerned with the enslavement of blacks by whites and did not give the predicament of white slaves a high priority on their agenda, an early example of double standards.

I’m sure this account of Wilberforce is going to make some people unhappy, but it shouldn’t be taken as ad hominem.  He’s merely the most prominent representative of the cause, and therefore of the cause’s flaws.  Liberalism suffered from double standards when it was new, and now that it’s old, when it was religious, and now that it’s secular.

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Springtime for Putin

Last week, I posted a comment on Facebook to the effect that I was waiting for the Pat Buchanan column defending Putin’s invasion of Ukraine as a defense of traditional conservative values.  I meant it as a joke, but he seems to have taken it as a challenge.

In a remarkable Townhall.com column, Buchanan takes Hillary Clinton to task for comparing Putin’s motives to Hitler’s in 1935-39. Then he does the same thing, in order to exonerate Putin. In doing so, he has to exonerate Hitler. It’s the Double-Reverse Godwin, and he gets 6.0 from the German judge!  And the Russian judge!  The only thing missing was a description of how it’s all Israel’s fault, or the Jewish lobby’s fault, although I guess this is only a few hundred-word column, and he has to leave something for the long program.

Here’s Buchanan’s take on the events of 1935-1939:

He imposed conscription in 1935, sent his soldiers back into the Rhineland in 1936, annexed Austria in 1938, demanded and got the return of the Sudeten Germans from Czechoslovakia at Munich in 1938.

He then sought to negotiate with the Polish colonels, who had joined in carving up Czechoslovakia, a return of Danzig, when the British issued a war guarantee to Warsaw stiffening Polish spines.

Enraged by Polish intransigence, Hitler attacked. Britain and France declared war. The rest is history.

It’s not often you get to read histories from a parallel universe in a political journal.  Hitler didn’t just get the return of the Sudeten Germans, he got the Sudetenland, which included the only serious geographic obstacle to the rest of Czechoslovakia.  In-between Munich and Hitler’s, ah, “negotiations” with the Poles, Hitler walked into Bohemia, Moravia, and Prague, effectively annexing the rest of Czecholovakia and along with it, the Skoda Works.  Although not very many more Germans.

It’s true that Poland fought a series of short, unpleasant border wars with most of its neighbors, and that it took advantage of Munich to settle some leftover business with Prague. (Paul Johnson in Modern Times suggests that that’s at least part of the reason why Poland didn’t have any local friends when its own day of reckoning came.) It’s also true that Zaolzie bore none of the strategic or military significance that the Sudetenland did, and that the Poles didn’t exactly have the same strategic ambitions as did Germany.

Hitler wasn’t going to get Gdansk/Danzig without a fight, and he knew it.  But he didn’t just walk in an take the Polish Corridor.  He shelled Warsaw for weeks, and partitioned the entire country between himself and Stalin.  So according to Buchanan, Hitler needed Prague to secure the Sudetenland, and he needed Warsaw to secure Danzig.

If I were living in Kiev right now, I’m not sure I’d find that encouraging.

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Contraception Mandate the Latest Battle in a Long Fight

I mean a long fight.

I’ve been reading Norman Cantor’s Medieval Lives, a short book advertising itself as character sketches of a few important Middle Age figures.  In reality, it’s a densely-packed but highly-readable study of the interplay among religious, social, cultural, and political factors in the development of medieval civilization.  By spacing the biographies a generation or a century apart, Cantor makes it possible to trace the evolution and influence of ideas over time.

One sketch is of the first Chancellor of Oxford and inventor of the modern scientific method, Robert Grosseteste.  Grosseteste was also a fierce defender of Church privileges and the rights of ecclesiastical courts.

Before that, though, he tangled with Henry III over the exclusive right of ecclesiastical courts to try clerics.  Few students at Oxford were there to enter the priesthood, but because the University was under Church control, they were required to nominally be members of a monastic order.  As a result, when they got out of hand, as students often would, Grosseteste would routinely write the requisite letter to the common law courts testifying that they were members of the clergy, exempting them from civil jurisprudence and permitting them to be tried by the much more lenient church courts.  The traditional conflict between town and gown thus took on overtones of a larger dispute – the extent of domain of civil society over the Church.

Eventually, Grosseteste would set the tone for his collaborators in the Franciscan Order to support Simon de Montfort in his rebellion against the crown.  And we’re all familiar with the English crown’s resistance to papal duties, and Henry VIII’s financial duress leading him to separate from Rome and confiscate monastic property.  But even in 1253 or so, this tension was manifesting itself in a very specific, very legal, jurisdictional dispute.

To that extent, it looks a lot like the current disputes over the Obamacare contraception mandate – how much room for private or institutional religious conscience is there in a secular civil society?  It also demonstrates how much ground has been lost in that fight, and why Orthodox Jews are rushing to make common cause with a historic adversary and recent friend.

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Duck Dynasty, Free Speech, and Cable Unbundling

I’m not the first one to make the connection.

That’s not surprising.  What is perhaps surprising is that we’re not the first generation to have the debate over what free speech means.  In fact, the very first generation of free Americans had this debate.  This same exact debate.

I read Pauline Maier’s remarkable Ratification in 2011, but this stayed with me.  On p.71 – 75, she has a section on “Freedom of the Press.”  Surprisingly, the context is very much the same now as it was 226 years ago.

Threats…encouraged writers to continue the standard practice of publishing essays under pseudonyms.  In Boston, however, Benjamin Russell, published of the Massachusetts Centinel, announced in early October that he would print no essays that raised objections to the Constitution unless their authors left their names “to be made public if desired.”  That would clearly discourage critics of the Constitution from speaking out.  The local tradesmen and artisans (known as “mechanics”) who strongly supported ratification, “had been worked up to such a degree of rage,” one Massachusetts official noted, “that it was unsafe to be known to oppose [the Constitution] in Boston.” … Other commenters, however, charged Russell with violating freedom of the press since his policy would curtail the range of arguments available to the public.  In Philadelphia, a writer who took the pen name “Fair Play” answered the threats leveled against those who criticized the Constitution by insisting “that the LIBERTY OF THE PRESS — the great bulwark of all the liberties of the people — ought never to be restrained” (although, he added, “the Honorable Convention did not think fit to make the least declaration in its favor”).

The freedom such writers defended went back to an earlier time, when colonial printers had to appeal to a broad range of readers to stay in business; they took a neutral stand and justified necessity by defining a “free press” as one that was “open to all parties.”  That way of operating came under pressure as the market for newspapers grew and the Revolution raised doubts about giving “all parties,” including Loyalists, ready access to the reading public.  State partisan divisions during the 1780s also made it difficult, and sometimes unprofitable, for printers to remain impartial.  On the other hand, the establishment of a republic, in which all power came from the people, gave the argument for a press open to all parties a new ideological foundation: To exercise their responsibilities intelligently, the citizens of a republic had to be fully informed of different views on public issues.

That concept of a free press was, in any case, different from the standard Anglo-American understanding of “freedom of the press,” which referred to the freedom of printers to publish whatever they wanted without “prior restraint” by the government….The emphasis was on the freedom of the press to monitor and criticize persons in power and the policies they adopted.

In the end, proponents of the Constitution found an effective alternative to threats of tar and feathers and other forms of physical punishment: They could influence editorial policy by cancelling or threatening to cancel their subscriptions to “offending” newspapers.  Advocates for freedom of the press could insist that the American people needed access to the full range of opinions on the Constitution. But were individual subscribers…obliged to pay for newspapers that published essays they considered profoundly subversive of their own and the country’s best interests?

Men like Oswald were rare.  Only twelve of over ninety American newspapers and magazines published substantial numbers of essays critical of the Constitution during the ratification controversy…. If printers were “easily terrified into a rejection of free and decent discussions upon public topics,” [New-York Journal Thomas Greenleaf] wrote in early October 1787, the “inevitable consequence” would be “servile fetters for FREE PRESSES of this country.”  Greenleaf promised to give “every performance, that may be written with decency, free access to his Journal.”  For their persistence, Oswald and Greenleaf suffered verbal attacks, cancelled subscriptions, and threats of mob violence.  Their insistence on maintaining what they understood as a “free press,” that is, one that presented the people with criticism as well as hallelujahs for the Constitution, helped start a widespread public debate on the Constitution, which they they kept going. (Emphasis added – ed.)

Just because the government’s not involved doesn’t mean it’s not a free speech issue.

Arguing over whether this is a legal or a strictly First Amendment issue is the reddest of red herrings.  I suppose there’s some possibility that some judge will decide that if a baker and a photographer can be forced to provide services for gay weddings, then A&E can be forced to employ religious Christians, but absent that, it’s unlikely this will be decided through the courts.  And certainly nobody on the right is calling for a return to the bad old days of the “fairness doctrine,” which wouldn’t apply here in any event.

For most libertarians and conservatives, that’s ok.  But we can’t let it end with that.  We can’t short-circuit them by dismissing them because there are no legal implications.  As Mark Steyn points out, if we want civil society to be where these discussions take place, then we have to ensure that civil society is a place where we can actually have these discussions.

Right now, it’s difficult to tell A&E, and only A&E, that you’re unhappy with their editorial decisions, because if you want to buy A&E, you’re also forced to buy a whole package of other cable channels, not all of which are even owned by the same companies.  The most effective way to enable us to hold A&E accountable is to unbundle these offerings, and allow me to choose, a la carte, what channels I want to receive.   There’s a bill pending in Congress to do just that, and Canada has already taken that step.

In the end, even though there’s an excellent chance that unbundling will mean higher, rather than lower cable bills, it may be the best means of sending the market signals that prevent an enforced conformity.  Right now, more channels just look like a dizzying array of sameness, with those channels of communication that “appeal to a broad range” of viewers, readers, or listeners, being dictated to by bullies who cannot stand to hear that someone disagrees.

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November 19, 1863 + 150

Today is the 150th Anniversary of the Gettysburg Address.  There will be a great deal written about the speech itself, so I’m going to take a slightly different tack.

In 1982, Jacques Barzun was invited to give the Annual Fortenbaugh Memorial Lecture, on the anniversary of the Address, to Gettysburg College.  His topic was “Lincoln’s Philosophical Vision,” and he broke it down into three parts: everyday life, ethics and morals, and man’s place in the universe.  I can’t find the whole speech online, but there is much in it that is relevant to today’s politics.

The fanatical temper on either side springs from the philosophy opposite to perspectivism – the philosophy of absolutism: according to it, once an important purpose has been adopted, nothing must stop its immediate carrying out – and damn the consequences.  Such thinkers are proud of their “principle” and they forge ahead thinking it is the only principle in the case.
Lincoln was a man of principle, too, but he understood how to handle principles – in the plural – in a world of actuality.  Just one year before the war broke out, he plainly told his first great audience in the east that he thought slavery wrong and that there was “no middle ground between the right and the wrong.”  But he went on to say: “Wrong as we think slavery is, we can yet afford to let it alone where it is, because that much is due to the necessity arising from its actual presence in the nation; but can we, while our votes will prevent it, allow it to spread into the National Territories, and to overrun us here in these Free States?”  Lincoln wanted to stiffen resistance against the compromisers such as Senator Douglas, who was “groping” for “sophistical contrivances” that would in the end perpetuate slavery.
The lesson here is to beware of what absolutists call principles.  Principles necessarily take the form of abstract words… Such words…lack contents you can name, concrete reference to the world of fact and behavior.  That is the reason why the great English writer Dorothy Sayers said, “The first thing a principle does is to kill somebody.”  Her conclusion follows from the absolutist temper…Of such stuff are made the idealist, the crusader, the revolutionist.  He not only wants instant gratification, but he is also ever-ready to believe that his opponents are wrong on purpose, knowingly and wickedly; he is incapable of saying with Lincoln, “the southerners are just what we would be in their situation.”

And, as importantly:

One more word must be said about pragmatism by way of introducing the second part of Lincoln’s philosophy.  The word pragma, a Greek root, means “the thing done,” the upshot. Pragmatism therefore means the doctrine that all human thought is fundamentally directed at doing, at some desired action, now or in future.  The pragmatic test asks: What concrete difference would it make if this idea or that idea, this policy or that policy, were taken as the true one?  It is the test that mankind has used for thousands of years in accumulating what we call the truths of experience.

Lincoln was above all a practical politician, who wanted to work within the existing political system to effect change, but wasn’t willing to let its limitations be its demise.  He was also one who sought to understand where the other guy was coming from, even as he understood the profoundly moral nature of politics.

The deep irony of the current age is that President Obama, who pretends to Lincoln’s mantle, has based his entire political outlook on believing that his opponents are wrong on purpose, knowingly and wickedly, and being willing to say so, loudly and longly.

At the same time, there’s a small but loud group of Republicans who reject Lincoln’s pragmatism in the name of principle, without realizing that life often consists of sorting out conflicting principles.

The anniversary of that short, profound, complex speech couldn’t come at a better time.

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