I want to begin this class with a distracting sidenote. After two classes, we still haven’t talked much about Darwin, the tree from which all our lives have ever since sprung. And that’s because in order to talk about the tree, we have to talk about the soil.
The first class was like an overture. Two thousand years of history had to be set up in order to bring us to the moment of our creation. The second class was a slight flash forward - a setting down of precisely what metamorphosis happened in Darwin’s wake that made his contribution so important. This, the third class, is the thesis statement. Today, we talk about how Darwin did it. And in order to talk about how he did it, we have to talk about the society in which he lived. And in order to talk about the society in which he lived, we first have to talk about Darwin’s intellectual twin - or perhaps his shadow self. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Darwin was the shadow self.
If Charles Darwin is the greatest scientist of all time, and I’m prepared to argue that he is, then the greatest philosopher, at least in the opinion of this pseudo-intellectual, was his contemporary, John Stuart Mill.
So Two Obvious Questions:
1. Whom in your opinion is the greatest of all philosophers?
2. Why that guy? (or girl, if your answer is de Beauvoir)
Mill published his essay - On Liberty, only a few months before Darwin’s On the Origin of Species came out. Many would call it the true beginning of the true liberal political revolution. I would call it the end - not in the sense that all liberal gains had been made until then, they certainly hadn’t, but in the sense that thanks to Mill, liberalism finally won the argument.
For two thousand years, the world’s drive to continually increase human freedom had gone underground. In both Greece and Rome, the Republic was murdered by tyrants, and so definitively that hardly any state ever thought to revive it. But even without freedom, human dignity was rediscovered in the Christian concept of the Soul, which lives on to reap the rewards we deserve for enduring all the indignities of this life.
Gradually, through thinkers like Dante, Aquinas, Erasmus, Luther, Gallileo, Shakespeare, Milton, and Newton we began fighting our way out of the indignities of tyranny, and with enough tooth and claw, we became able to reunite our souls with our bodies.
By the eras of Locke and Voltaire, we were ready to see ourselves as individuals. And new conceptions of ourselves as a dignified whole being, deserving of self-respect and deserving of being treated by the rest of us with respect, grew organically out of cardinal Christian virtues like charity, patience, kindness, and humility.
But the grand summation of all this growth from the New Testament onward was John Stuart Mill’s essay, On Liberty - which outlined basic precepts of the new, unfamiliar world in which we finally confront the consequences of a place in which every man and woman has the opportunity to preserve their dignity by pursuing their happiness. John Locke, and after him more obviously Thomas Jefferson, wrote in various ways about the pursuit of happiness. But only Mill was truly able to articulate how we might pursue it better. Like so many writers, this one included, Mill unfortunately put his thesis at the end of his book. Here’s a quote from the last chapter:
(call on reader)
The maxims are, first, that the individual is not accountable to society for his actions, in so far as these concern the interests of no person but himself. Advice, instruction, persuasion, and avoidance by other people if thought necessary by them for their own good, are the only measures by which society can justifiably express its dislike or disapprobation of his conduct. Secondly, that for such actions as are prejudicial to the interests of others, the individual is accountable, and may be subjected either to social or to legal punishment, if society is of opinion that the one or the other is requisite for its protection.
In other words - the individual need only answer to himself for his pursuit of happiness so long as his actions do not hurt the pursuit of other people’s happiness. And so in order to persue their happiness, humans require three basic liberties:
1. The freedom of thought and emotion. In other words, we must be free to think and feel as we like and never feel compelled to believe as others do. This includes the freedom to act on such thought and feelings, most importantly, through freedom of speech.
2. The freedom to pursue our tastes (provided they do no harm to others), even if they are deemed "immoral." In other words, the freedom to pursue happiness without feeling circumscribed because others disapprove of what makes us happy.
3. The freedom to unite so long as the involved members are of age, the involved members are not forced, and no harm is done to others. In other words, the ability to congregate so that we can find ways of increasing our happiness.
If you could boil all this down to one sentence, it’s simply that we pursue happiness better by not repressing the need for our pursuits. We do it by exposing our beliefs to the light of day, and refining our beliefs through the persuasion of, argument with, and listening to others, and the instatement of any rules that better help us facilitate such a process. According to Mill, there are three types of beliefs: wholly true, partially true, and wholly false, and all three are of potentially enormous benefit to us all. Here’s how he puts it.
(call on reader)
First, if any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility. Secondly, though the silenced opinion be an error, it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of truth; and since the general or prevailing opinion on any subject is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied. Thirdly, even if the received opinion be not only true, but the whole truth; unless it is suffered to be, and actually is, vigorously and earnestly contested, it will, by most of those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds. And not only this, but, fourthly, the meaning of the doctrine itself will be in danger of being lost, or enfeebled, and deprived of its vital effect on the character and conduct: the dogma becoming a mere formal profession, inefficacious for good, but cumbering the ground, and preventing the growth of any real and heartfelt conviction, from reason or personal experience.
John Stuart Mill - On Liberty
In plain English, by allowing more self-expression, we then become more individual, more diverse, more interesting. We are no longer forced to conform, we are individuals operating in a community, and the community is the sum-total of what we bring to it. Here is Mill again:
(call on reader)
It really is of importance, not only what men do, but also what manner of men they are that do it. Among the works of man, which human life is rightly employed in perfecting and beautifying, the first in importance surely is man himself. Supposing it were possible to get houses built, corn grown, battles fought, causes tried, and even churches erected and prayers said, by machinery—by automatons in human form—it would be a considerable loss to exchange for these automatons even the men and women who at present inhabit the more civilised parts of the world, and who assuredly are but starved specimens of what nature can and will produce. Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree, which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing.
John Stuart Mill - On Liberty
Thus far, John Stuart Mill is the very climax of any human thought that places individuals and human dignity at the center of the universe. Everything before him builds to his moment, everything afterward is a commentary on him. But it was only a few months later that Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species, and blew Mill’s achievement into a smoldering crater.
So here’s a question: If there is no well-meaning force overseeing us that would discourage us from taking our share in this world without permission, why, if at all, is it in our interests to treat other people with dignity?
Perhaps it’s best to think of Mill’s On Liberty as the last book of the second millenium, and the Origin of Species as the first book of the third. On Liberty is not a beginning of a more liberal society, it is the end of the process of why the necessity for a liberal society is revealed.
So let’s now think of the era in which Darwin and Mill published, because in every way, that era, the Victorian era, is still with us. For the sixty-five years after Queen Victoria died in 1901, the majority of the world was trying to recapture the feelings and morality of that era. In the forty-seven years ever since, the world seems to be doing everything within its power to rebel against Victorian Era.
Question: When you think of Victorian Era, what do you think of?
It’s clear to most people today that the first-world society of 2014 stands for everything which Victorians hated, and that can’t be coincidental. We may look on the developments of contemporary society with approval or disapproval. But we are somewhat less sexual repressed than the Victorians, we are better able (though not able enough) to fight inequalities with regard to poverty, likewise, we’re at least somewhat better to fight environmental pollution, we are somewhat more able to stop countries from indulging in imperial rule. Obviously we are far from perfect in any of these regards. But we have, in fact, improved in these regards because we’ve been practicing at it for more than a century. It will take many more centuries to get it right, if we ever, but I think we’d all rather live in 2014 than 1859.
Victorian England is the Zero Hour of the new era in which social mobility was the greatest desire. Before Victorian England, the world was a stationary place - everybody knew their station within the world’s structure, and it never would have occurred to most people to attempt to change it. There was social mobility before the Victorian Era, but social mobility was not even a possibility in the minds of most. Victorians were so uptight and repressed because they hoped to ascend to a higher social class and feared descending into a lower one. So don’t be too hard on them. The Victorians were the first draft of a new society, so of course, they were going to get an enormous number of things wrong. The Victorian Era was the first truly industrialized urban society in which truly millions of people lived in close quarters in mass conditions of poverty and pollution. It was the first era in which human labor was divided into thousands of specialties, and the first era in which marriage and sex were widely treated as the outgrowth of love rather than commodities and weapons to pursue interest. It’s one of the least perfect eras in human history, but it failed so greatly because it achieved so much.
Question: As a result of our society, our American or first-world society’s, achievements, how have our achievements and successes failed us?
Which brings us to the other crucial book of 1859. On The Origin of Species is a great book, and it is a readable one. But you have to be a person of extremely logical mind to find it truly compelling reading. Darwin was a typical writer of the Victorian age, and a great one after a fashion, but full of long, overstuffed sentences with many clauses. The images of his findings can seem quite exciting if you read a paragraph in isolation, but taken as one paragraph after another they can be exhausting.
Nevertheless, Darwin is a great writer, and like many great writers, his greatness only appears if you’re patient with him. It wouldn’t occur to anyone to learn about gravity by reading Isaac Newton’s original text, and while readers can benefit from engaging the texts of modern philosophers like Kant and Hegel, non-specialists benefit more from reading the explanations of other philosophers.
But Darwin is best explained by Darwin himself. If you ever read On the Origin of Species, don’t approach it as a scientific text. Approach it as a legal one. Evolution by Means of Natural Selection is a much easier concept to understand than anything in Kantian logic or Hegelian metaphysics. It’s a concept simple enough to understand after hearing it explained in a single sentence. We evolve over massive spans of time by unfit animals being killed off, while organisms possessing traits which let them survive continue to flourish. What Natural Selection requires is not explanation, but justification. Darwin did not write the book to present his theory, Darwin wrote the book to defend his theory - from every scientific objection, from every religious objection, from every historical objection. Thomas Edison famously declared that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, and no thinker perspired more than Darwin to justify his theories. He worked so hard at accumulating the proper evidence that the anxiety of it all resulted in a near-complete nervous breakdown during 1859, ‘Origin’s’year of publication, during which he finally had to take a rest to recharge himself from this herculean effort expended over nearly three decades.
Darwin knew precisely how controversial and sensational the book might be. To merely call him a man who shied away from fights would be the understatement of the class. Here is what he had to say in a letter to his son:
(call on reader)
...you will surely find that the greatest pleasure in life is in being beloved; & this depends almost more on pleasant manners, than on being kind with grave and gruff manners… Depend upon it, that the only way to acquire pleasant manners is to try to please everybody you come near, your school-fellows, servants & everyone.
Charles Darwin - Letter to his son Willy
This is not the temperament of a person who should set off the greatest intellectual revolution known to man. But in fact, this was precisely what served Darwin in such good stead. Compare Darwin to his friend and colleague, Charles Babbage - the inventor of machine computation. Babbage was a difficult, tempermental man. Here’s what Darwin had to say about him:
(call on reader)
...a disappointed and discontented man; and his expression was often or generally morose… One day he told me that he had invented a plan by which all fires could be effectively stopped, but added - ‘I shan’t publish it - damn them all, let all their houses be burnt.
Darwin on Babbage
As a result, we live in a world where biology took the world by storm, but computers took another hundred years to take off. Were Babbage a nicer man, how much more advanced would computers be today?
A Question for The Node: What might computers be like today if we had another hundred years of development on them?
Darwin was a much friendlier man than Babbage, and as a result desperately craved the approval of a public which he knew might tar and feather him for his theory. One of his grandfather’s closest friends was the great chemist, Joseph Priestley, who discovered oxygen. Priestley was a free thinker, and in part because of his daring scientific theories (some of which, admittedly, were laughably wrong), he was suspected of sedition during the French Revolution. During the Birmingham riots of 1791, he had to flee his house, which was burned to the ground by anti-French militants. Due to the suspicion he engendered, he had to spend his remaining decade in America.
True to the sensation Darwin knew his book would cause, the publication sold out on its first day of release. Contrary to today’s common misnomer, what was controversial about the book was not its theory of evolution, a theory that long predated Darwin and was accepted by many scientists as verifiable.
It should go without saying, On the Origin of Species is probably the most important and influential scientific book yet written. And yet it’s not really a book of science. Instead of a book like Newton’s which is multi-volume, academic, and only of interest to specialists, Darwin’s book is a popular treatment - a rush job meant to keep the credit for himself and scoop other scientists like Alfred Russell Wallace from getting the lion’s share of the credit. It is not a book of science, it’s a book of laws and history.
And like all history, the main organizing principle of history is war. Think of this description of a forest in his chapter: “The Struggle for Existence”:
(call on reader)
What a struggle between the several kinds of trees must have gone on over long centuries… what war between insect and insect - between insects, snails and other animals, with birds and beasts of prey - all striving to increase, and all feeding on each other or on the trees or their seeds and seedlings, or on the other plants which first clothed the grounds and thus checked the growth of the trees!
Charles Darwin - On the Origin of Species
Darwin, like Lincoln, is both a figure of war and a figure of peace. Obviously, the debate in the world to accept Darwin is still an intellectual war which at times seems ready to become a real one. But like Lincoln, Darwin also provides the manner in which war can be transcended. If it can be contained, an intellectual war is always preferable to a physical one. Darwin’s theory may be the principle cause for his greatness, but he is also great because of the awesome battery of weapons with which he defends it - induction, argument, facts, logic, description, and eloquence.
History is the study of tracing back every cause to the cause which comes before it, to the cause before that, and tracing back as far as it can go, and evolution is impossible to understand without seeing its roots in the historical thought of its day. As we talked about in the first class, it was a process that began with Newton and went through the historian Giambattista Vico’s insistence that the truth is something made by humans and not handed down from the universe - therefore endowing humans a moral obligation to continually discover new truths. It went through Montesquieu’s attempts to determine why civilizations rise and fall, and how climate forms the particular laws and customs of various civilizations. It went through Lamarck’s and Buffon’s insistence on this crazy idea that animals change over time, and their still crazier attempts to determine how and why they do so. It took Hegel’s Theory of History, in which we all evolve over history toward truer and truer perceptions of the world. It took Saint-Simon’s proto-Marxist idea of mankind continually progressing towards a utopia in which the work of all men is equal and all needs are met through mankind’s cooperation. It took Auguste Comte’s Positivism, in which all human endeavor evolves forward from theology - a god or demon causing an event, to metaphysics - an hidden, unseen power is behind all events, to science - which will eventually explain all forces through uncovering the laws of nature. More importantly than any of those, it took Darwin’s BFF Charles Lyell and his theory of uniformitarianism - which posited that there are geologic processes which moved the earth into its current shape over unimaginably long periods of time, and which still move even as we sit here. Just as importantly, it took Thomas Malthus’s doomsday theory that human population growth will be checked enormously by food shortages. Most importantly of all, it took all Darwin’s careful decades of work about ants, and barnacles, and orchids, and pigeons, and spiders, and dogs.
Darwin saw further than those before him not only because he stood on their shoulders, but because he crouched beneath their legs. Ironically, his interest in the broad sweep of scientific events was not large. What truly interested him were micro-level developments, case by case. Here is Darwin’s most famous advocate, T. H. Huxley, grandfather of Aldous, talking about Darwin’s intellectual advantage over most overconfident intellectuals with a half-baked theory - of which you know none...
(call on reader)
But there is, at all events, one advantage possessed by the more recent writer over his predecessor [Lamarck]. Mr. Darwin abhors mere speculation as nature abhors a vacuum. He is as greedy of cases and precedents as any constitutional lawyer, and all the principles he lays down are capable of being brought to the test of observation and experiment… If it be so, it will carry us safely over many a chasm in our knowledge, and lead us to a region free from the snares of those fascinating but barren Virgins, the Final Causes, against whom a high authority has so justly warned us.
TH Huxley - Review of On the Origin of Species
It didn’t have to be Darwin, in fact, it was almost his grandfather Erasmus, who posited things not unlike Natural Selection. Erasmus Darwin was a great polymath - he even anticipated the use of steam cars and flying machines. Unfortunately, the first Darwin had a habit of putting his scientific ideas forward in poetry, which rendered him in no shape to defend his ideas, and perhaps not even able to make people take his ideas seriously:
(call on reader)
First forms minute, unseen by spheric glass
First forms minute, unseen by spheric glass
Move on the mud, or pierce the watery mass;
These, as successive generations bloom,
New powers acquire and larger limbs assume;
Whence countless groups of vegetation spring,
And breathing realms of fin and fleet and wing….
The hand, first gift of Heaven! to man belongs;
Untipt with claws the circling fingers close,
With rival points the bending thumbs oppose…
Whence the fine organs of the touch impart
Ideal figure, source of every art.
Even England’s poet laureate, Alfred Lord Tennyson, put forward a concept of evolution in his stunningly beautiful long 1850 poem “In Memoriam”, in which concepts are put forward of something much more stunningly close to natural selection.
(call on reader)
I held it truth, with him who sings
To one clear harp in divers tones.
That men may rise on stepping stones
Of their dead selves to higher things.
So then were nothing lost to man;
So that still garden of the souls
In many a figured leaf enrolls
The total world since life began.
That nothing walks with aimless feet;
That not one life shall be destroy'd,
Or cast as rubbish to the void
When God hath made the pile complete;
That not a worm is cloven in vain;
That not a moth with vain desire
Is shrivell'd in a fruitless fire,
Or but subserves another's gain.
But there was something missing from both of these descriptions. Tennyson got much closer, and if you read In Memoriam, you’ll see why. But what all these explanations of life - whether Mill, or Darwin grandpere, or Tennyson - are missing are what Darwin so chillingly called the ’wedge.’ Baudelaire, the poet whom we’ll cover in a few weeks, called it ‘the void.’ But today, we’ll hear it best put by Louis CK:
Darwin’s wedge is death and pain and fear and suffering. It is the huge chasm that exists in the world when we realize that the world does not care whether or not we have what it takes to survive it. And if we’re lacking whatever it takes to survive at any given moment, the world will dispatch us ruthlessly with no regard for the horrors that accompany it. If we can’t survive, we are simply roadblocks in the way of someone who can. According to Louis CK, we aspire to have the world which Mill sets out for us, and we want to believe with all our might that this is the world in which we live. But the world we truly live in is the world of Darwin, in which suffering and fear are our most basic experiences.
Let’s begin with a question: Is Abraham Lincoln our greatest president?
Let’s ask another, completely unrelated question: Is counterfactual history, the idea that history might have happened differently, a subject worth studying?
Historians don't like to deal with counterfactuals, but counterfactual history is the study of the future. How can we gauge the future properly if we don't ask how the past might have turned out differently? Only a scholar of The Great Depression like Ben Bernancke would have been equipped to steer us clear of a second one. Only a voracious reader of military history like Dwight Eisenhower could have understood how to mount the first successful military crossing of the English channel in 300 years. And only a passionate student of law commentary could completely reconstitute a society in which the laws were clea new ground of better laws. Before we get to the principle argument, let’s watch this one minute clip from A Man for All Seasons - in this one minute, we hear the greatest defense of rule of law ever committed to film, declared by Sir Thomas More. But the irony is that there were few personages in British history who showed less regard for the law’s absolute dictates.
Law is at the center of Lincoln’s achievement - how to make it, how to pass it, how to enforce it. And yet no president broke laws more flagrantly, no president bended the law better to his will as he saw fit. Lincoln was not simply a lawyer, he was a man who lived and died by the law even as he violated it.
(call on reader)
Let every American, every lover of liberty, every well wisher to his posterity, swear by the blood of the Revolution, never to violate in the least particular, the laws of the country; and never to tolerate their violation by others… Let reverence for the laws, be breathed by every American mother, to the lisping babe, that prattles on her lap - let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges; - let it be written in Primmers, spelling books, and in Almanacs… And, in short, let it become the political religion of the nation.
Abraham Lincoln - Lyceum Address 1838
America, like every country before it, like every era of mankind, and every era of animal life, is a country beset by violence. But humans are the first species who could write laws down on pieces of paper, and the first species to pay policemen to enforce their laws. The rule of law is the cure for violence, and violence itself is something never to be honored. And yet the honoring of violence transcends partisan lines. The Southern culture of honor may have perpetuated slavery, but it was so embedded in the South’s way of life that even slavery was a mere symptom of the true problem. When it came time for the South to address the issue of John Brown, the abolitionist hero/terrorist who murdered so many of those involved in slaveholding along with innocent bystanders, many in the South were as full of admiration for John Brown as they’d have been had he fought for their side. They may have hated Brown’s politics, but the extremity of his means made him a great man in many Southern eyes. One of the Civil War’s great ironies is that John Wilkes Booth’s wrote this to his sister:
(call on reader)
Lincoln was walking in the footsteps of old John Brown but no more fit to stand with that rugged old hero - Great God! No! John Brown was a man inspired, the grandest character of the century.
John Wilkes Booth - acc. to his sister
For so many Southerners, the real threat to their way of life was not the proto-radical chic of many Northern abolitionists, who were stuck in a world they didn’t like but without much desire to change it. it was the morally relative ‘legalistic cunning’ of politicians like Abraham Lincoln. The opposite of war may be peace, but the opposite of violence is rule-of-law.
So let’s now read a quote from one of my favorite books, The Vital Center by Arthur Schlesinger. Before reading it, we have to define the term ‘doughface.’ A doughface is a disparaging term for a pliable politician. It was coined during the debate over the Missouri Compromise by a relatively anti-slavery representative from Virginia named John Randolph
Randolph was technically anti-slavery, and yet he also owned hundreds of them. When it came time to vote on the Missouri Compromise of 1820, he was compelled to vote with the South to ensure that one slave state could be admitted for every free state. Not quite unfairly, he blamed Northerners willing to accede to Southern demands as much as he blamed the South.
(call on reader)
They were scared at their own dough faces—yes, they were scared at their own dough faces!—We had them, and if we wanted three more, we could have had them: yes, and if these had failed, we could have three more of these men, whose conscience, and morality, and religion, extend to 'thirty-six degrees and thirty minutes north latitude'
When Arthur Schlesinger recoined the phrase for the twentieth century, he used it in a very different context. The northerners who voted for the Missouri Compromise were of many different stripes. Some were simply moderates for their day, Southern sympathizers who held no great love for black people. Others were radicals who simply voted for it because they were too frustrated to make a stand against it. One might recall Howard Dean’s strenuous insistance during the Obamacare debate that the whole law be scrapped because it was simply not good enough. These were the doughfaces who felt that since such an evil law could not be stopped, an attempt to minimize the evil which the law imparts should not even be made. When Schlesinger used it, he was addressing the latter type, who in 1949 the height of the early Cold War, were the prime voice in the United States arguing for a full accomodation of Soviet demands.
"The weakness of impotence is related to a fear of responsibility - a fear, that is, of making concrete decisions and being held to account for concrete consequences. Problems are much simpler when viewed from the office of a liberal weekly than when viewed in terms of what will actually happen when certain ideologically attractive steps are taken.
``Too often the Doughface really does not want power or responsibility. For him the more subtle sensations of the perfect syllogism, the lost cause, the permanent minority, where lie can be safe from the exacting job of trying to work out wise policies in an imperfect world.
``Politics becomes, not a means of getting things done, but an outlet for private grievances and frustrations. The progressive once disciplined by the responsibilities of power is often the most useful of all public servants; but he, alas, ceases to be a progressive and is regarded by all true Doughfaces as a cynical New Dealer or a tired Social Democrat.
"Having renounced power, the Doughface seeks compensation in emotion. The pretext for progressive rhetoric is, of course, the idea that man, the creature of reason and benevolence, has only to understand the truth in order to act upon it.
``But the function of progressive rhetoric is another matter; it is, in Dwight MacDonald's phrase, to accomplish "in fantasy what cannot be accomplished in reality." Because politics is for the Doughface a means of accommodating himself to a world he does not like but does not really want to change, he can find ample gratification in words. They appease his twinges of guilt without committing him to very drastic action.
``Thus the expiatory role of resolutions in progressive meetings. A telegram of protest to a foreign chancellery gives the satisfaction of a job well done and a night's rest well earned. The Doughfaces differ from Mr. Churchill: dreams, they find, are better than facts.
``Progressive dreams are tinged with a brave purity, a rich sentiment and a noble defiance. But, like most dreams, they are notable for the distortion of facts by desire."
Arthur Schlesinger - The Vital Center
Question: What, if anything, is the difference in effect between a moderate who wants to compromise completely, and a fanatic who refuses to compromise so greatly that he allows others to compromise for him?
So here’s an unrelated but key question, perhaps THE key question, of American History: Was the Civil War about the emancipation of slaves or about the preservation of the Union? (people will argue both sides)
Think of the Gettysburg Address - has anyone ever had to memorize it? (call on someone if they have)
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
There is no question that slavery was an absolute evil, even for its time, and the plurality of Americans knew it in their bones - it is America’s original sin through which our country built itself as a free place for some on the backs of other people’s bondage. Violent abolitionists like John Brown may have been radical chic terrorists, but in a sense, what was the solution that Lincoln proposed but John Brown’s massacre of slaveowning society writ extremely large. How else was America going to free itself of something so deeply entrenched? The ridding of slavery took a leader who not only had a genius for politics and law, but a will to commit acts which not even John Brown would dream. Slavery was a sin so bloody had to be paid for in blood just as overflowing.
Perhaps the figure of Lincoln looms so large in history that everyone sees the Lincoln they wish to see. Some historians gave us the progressive Lincoln who loved Shakespeare and partook of a lifelong crusade to end slavery, others gave us a realist Lincoln who enjoyed minstrels in blackface and ‘darkie’ jokes, who seriously entertained shipping former slaves to Central America or back to Africa to start new American colonies - perhaps to establish an American imperium to compete with the European powers, meanwhile coldly accumulating power at home for its own sake. Still others gave us a Conservative Christian Lincoln - a figure not unlike Moses, mystically guided by what he took to be Providence to deliver a people from slavery, and yet there is just as much historical record that shows Lincoln as close to atheist as a 19th-century politician would be able to admit. We’ve had Lincoln the libertarian and Lincoln the socialist. We have Lincoln the depressive trapped in a loveless marriage, and Lincoln the happy family man who doted on his wife and children. We even have gay Lincoln and Lincoln who lusted after black women. Thanks to Steven Spielberg, the larger public even has a vision of Lincoln for the Obama era in which Lincoln is a liberal technocrat - reserved and calculated, slowly counting up the votes he needs to pass his world-changing legislation.
Sometimes you even get conflicting views from the same writer. On the one hand, here’s what Frederick Douglass said in his memoirs
“Mr. Lincoln was not only a great president, but a great man - too great to be to be small in anything. In his company I was never in any way reminded of my humble origin, or of my unpopular color.”
Frederick Douglass - 1876
And yet five years before his autobiography was published, Douglass had this to say at a public unveiling of a Lincoln monument:
“[Lincoln was] preeminently the white man’s President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men... [Lincoln] shared the prejudices common to his countrymen towards the colored race… Viewed from the genuine abolition ground Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.”
Frederick Douglass - 1881
Ultimately, we’ll never know Lincoln’s real reason for launching the Civil War. Surely many Northerners, perhaps like James Buchanan, looked on the secession as a godsend which alleviated them of moral responsibility for the slaves. But my best guess is that the reason for The Civil War was more basic than either slavery or preserving the union. If the South were able to secede, the precedent would be set for every minority with an evil ideology to secede. No governance would be possible, because evil values would always triumph over good ones. Republican democracy cannot endure unless it can in some sense impose democratic values on undemocratic people.
At the time, America was less than a century old. Were the American republic to dissolve into separate countries, it would have lived far less time than either the Athenian democracy or the Roman Republic. When would another republic, a true republic without a constitutional monarchy, have ever resurfaced? Would it have been another two thousand years? Think of this Orwell quote:
(call on reader)
When I think of antiquity, the detail that frightens me is that those hundreds of millions of slaves on whose backs civilization rested generation after generation have left behind them no record whatever. We do not even know their names. In the whole of Greek and Roman history, how many slaves' names are known to you? I can think of two, or possibly three. One is Spartacus and the other is Epictetus. Also, in the Roman room at the British Museum there is a glass jar with the maker's name inscribed on the bottom, 'FELIX FECIT'. I have a mental picture of poor Felix (a Gaul with red hair and a metal collar round his neck), but in fact he may not have been a slave; so there are only two slaves whose names I definitely know, and probably few people can remember more. The rest have gone down into utter silence.
George Orwell - Looking Back on the Spanish War
This is the world Lincoln believed we might face were we not to preserve the union. A world not only of perpetual slavery, but of such unintelligible chaos that few people or deeds are ever worth remembering. The vast majority of world history is a dark age about which we know very little, and the vast majority of human future may look like that as well. So Lincoln did what he thought was necessary to continue the democratic values of this nation, and in order to do so, perhaps he indulged in more undemocratic means than perhaps any president yet recorded. When the Civil War began, he ordered 75,000 reserve troops without asking Congress for a declaration of war. And then ordered 40,000 more even though Congress has the ultimate power to raise armies. When Congress brought the issue before the Supreme Court, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of congress, Lincoln simply ignored them. When Union troops were assaulted here in Baltimore, Lincoln suspended the writ of Habeas corpus everywhere from Philadelphia to Washington - meaning that anyone within this area could be detained unlawfully without presenting evidence or cause. When revolts happened more broadly across the nation, Lincoln suspended Habeas corpus everywhere in the nation.
Question: Who are the other candidates for the most flagrant violators of the Constitution?
And yet Lincoln was also very specific in saying that by assuming these war powers, he was breaking the Constitution. He made no attempt to legitimize his actions in the eyes of the Constitution. He merely said that the Constitution was inadequate and vague about what to do in such an extreme era, and that he was improvising as seemed necessary for the moment. Unlike so much contemporary veneration for the Constitution’s every word, Lincoln viewed it as a living, purposive document that was only of worth to us insofar it addressed the needs of the moment.
Here’s what Lincoln said to a joint session of Congress on July 4th, 1861.
Must a government, of necessity, be too strong for the liberties of its own people, or too weak to maintain its own existence?... The whole of the laws which were required to be faithfully executed were being resisted, and failing of execution in nearly one-third of the states. ... Are all the laws but one to go unexecuted, and the government itself to go to pieces, lest that one be violated? Even in such a case, would not the official oath be broken if the government should be overthrown, when it was believed that disregarding the single law would tend to preserve it?
Abraham Lincoln - addressing a Joint Session of Congress, July 4th, 1861
While this may seem from one angle to be the worst possible violation of the Constitution, think of how different this is from Nixon evoking his constitutional right as commander in chief of the military to prolong the Vietnam War and invade Cambodia after Congress revoked the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in 1971. During Lincoln’s one term as a congressman, he stood as nearly a lone voice against the Mexican War. He opposed it not necessarily on humanitarian grounds, but on legal ones.
Here’s what Lincoln had to say
(call on reader)
Allow the President to invade a neighboring nation, whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion and you allow him to do so whenever he may choose to say he deems it necessary for such purpose -- and you allow him to make war at pleasure. . . . If, today, he should choose to say he thinks it necessary to invade Canada to prevent the British from invading us, how could you stop him? You may say to him, 'I see no probability of the British invading us'; but he will say to you, 'Be silent; I see it, if you don't.’
Imagine Congressman Abraham Lincoln facing Richard Nixon during the Vietnam War… But such a tyrrany was precisely what Lincoln’s assumption of tyranny’s appearance was meant to avoid. By trying to legitimize his power grabs through the constitution, Nixon made such powers that much harder for later presidents to relinquish - as we saw in the presidency of George W. Bush. But Lincoln, in acting as he did, consciously cultivated the mantle of the tyrant, and in doing so, preserved the Constitution for a better day when its laws and unions could be fulfilled more perfectly.
Or think of The Emancipation Proclamation - the ban on slavery which freed no slaves. It merely said that the freeing of slaves was a ‘military necessity,’ and freed slaves in ‘the States and parts of States’ where people were in open rebellion. It was a purely symbolic gesture, but it paved the way for the Thirteenth Amendment, which banned slavery for all time.
So here’s another question: When would slavery have ended had The Civil War not been fought?
Who knows when slavery would have ended if not for the Civil War? But the war claimed 620,000 to 850,000 people - until the Vietnam war, this was indisputably a larger death toll than America ever ever experienced in every war it’s ever fought combined. It may still be a greater death toll.
It’s often recounted that Lincoln was extremely fond of Shakespeare. He memorized his favorite soliloquies and one of his personal assistants later recounted how Lincoln could put him to sleep by insisting on yet again reciting them. His favorite play was Macbeth, and what is Macbeth ultimately about but ambition? He loved Hamlet almost equally, but he had a very strange love of Hamlet. He seemed to love the character of Claudius far more than he did Hamlet, and insisted that Claudius’s soliloquy in Act 3 Scene III was the best in the play.
Let’s read that… (call on Hasdai…)
O, my offence is rank it smells to heaven;
It hath the primal eldest curse upon't,
A brother's murder. Pray can I not,
Though inclination be as sharp as will:
My stronger guilt defeats my strong intent;
And, like a man to double business bound,
I stand in pause where I shall first begin,
And both neglect. What if this cursed hand
Were thicker than itself with brother's blood,
Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens
To wash it white as snow? Whereto serves mercy
But to confront the visage of offence?
And what's in prayer but this two-fold force,
To be forestalled ere we come to fall,
Or pardon'd being down? Then I'll look up;
My fault is past. But, O, what form of prayer
Can serve my turn? 'Forgive me my foul murder'?
That cannot be; since I am still possess'd
Of those effects for which I did the murder,
My crown, mine own ambition and my queen.
May one be pardon'd and retain the offence?
In the corrupted currents of this world
Offence's gilded hand may shove by justice,
And oft 'tis seen the wicked prize itself
Buys out the law: but 'tis not so above;
There is no shuffling, there the action lies
In his true nature; and we ourselves compell'd,
Even to the teeth and forehead of our faults,
To give in evidence. What then? what rests?
Try what repentance can: what can it not?
Yet what can it when one can not repent?
O wretched state! O bosom black as death!
O limed soul, that, struggling to be free,
Art more engaged! Help, angels! Make assay!
Bow, stubborn knees; and, heart with strings of steel,
Be soft as sinews of the newborn babe!
All may be well.
Gore Vidal, whose historical novels comprise a near-complete fictional history of American government, believed that Abraham Lincoln was a genius of war like Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar, who waged war and expanded his powers so that he could rule America like an Emperor. If Lincoln’s remembered as a saint today, Vidal believes it’s because he had the good fortune to die before he could assume his emperorship. Perhaps Vidal forgets that both Alexander and Caesar also died prematurely, but the similarities are close enough that the comparison should freeze our blood for a minute.
William Herndon, Lincoln’s legal partner who would later become his first biographer, said this of Lincoln:
(call on reader)
That man who thinks Lincoln calmly gathered his robes about him, waiting for the people to call him, has a very erroneous knowledge of Lincoln. He was always calculating and planning ahead. His ambition was a little engine that knew no rest.
William Herndon - Herndon’s Lincoln
So Three Questions In Quick Succession:
#1: Does absolute power corrupt absolutely?
#2: Can anyone name another world leader who successfully created a more liberal society through extremely illiberal means?
#3: If a leader is successful in doing so, are these means justified?
While there is little question that Lincoln’s aims were ultimately liberal, this is not a liberalism that would be at all popular in the wake of George W. Bush. This is a Harry Trumanesque liberalism that from certain angles in our day might seem indistinguishable from neoconservatism. Under Lincoln’s rule, virtually all means are justified if the end is pure. In our era, when issues of national security seem like more a justification for tyranny than as much an actual threat as they once did, the stock of Harry Truman’s greatness is falling precipitously. He’s an historical figure we’ll revisit in the far future. But it’s important to note that he’s perhaps the president whose moral character, temperament, background, prejudices, objectives, and decisions resembled Lincoln’s in far more particulars than any other. Truman is the closest thing that Lincoln had to an heir, and if you’re troubled by that thought, I’d ask you to examine its implications further.
Ultimately, we will never know if Truman’s decision to drop the bomb was successful. 210,000 lives were lost thanks to his decision, in some of the most horrific ways ever known to man. Thanks to Truman, America lost most of whatever moral capital they earned for being less brutal than the totalitarian regimes we fought against. And yet, thanks to Truman, Western Europe was endowed the Marshall Plan, which spearheaded prosperity for that region unseen even by America in our greatest years. Thanks to Truman, Britain and France were forced to begin the process of relinquishing their imperial empires. Thanks to Truman, the military was desegregated, a process that not even Lincoln or Roosevelt dare initiate. Most importantly, thanks to Truman, the anti-communist Right, with its notions of maintaining world supremacy over Communism, was prevented from continuing World War against Russia and China - for which there was great clamor at its beginning.
If you think of Lincoln as anything but a man with a ruthless stomach for war, I would ask you to think of this quote:
(call on reader)
“if God wills that… [the war] continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’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 judgements of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
Abraham Lincoln - Second Inaugural Address
This is a quote that sounds as though it comes from the mouth of George W. Bush’s more fanatical cousin. And yet it’s the same Lincoln we venerate as the greatest of all presidents.
Lincoln destroyed the laws of this country so that he could rebuild them. He bled this slave-holding country dry so that it might flourish as a free country. All humans must come to terms with natural selection, but only a truly great leader knows how to use it to his subjects’ advantage.
Does anybody know who uttered the first sentence? (Benito Mussolini) Eternal as the figure of Lincoln seems, he was still a creature of his time. As imperfect and hypocritical as any Victorian. He upheld the rule of law by flagrantly breaking it, he prepared America for superpower status by demolishing half the country's economy, and he purged the country of evil by inflicting more evil on this country than any one person ever has. Lincoln was the greatest democrat of us all, but he was perhaps the greatest democrat because he was also perhaps the greatest fascist.
Evolution is a process that is larger than us. Eventually, enough people would die and suffer that slavery would probably outlive its usefulness. But if humanity could evolve past the need for slavery sooner rather than later, it required a mass extinction of the ecology which perpetuated it. Lincoln perpetrated a mass extinction of an entire concept of America as a loose confederation of states which held some men to be free and privileged and other men deserving of slavery. In its place came the long, difficult evolutionary process toward a fairer, more equitable, more perfect union. Thanks to Lincoln, we took the first baby steps toward making John Stuart Mill’s world a reality. may draw ever closer to a world Mill could be proud of. It is best probably to end this class with a long quote from Mill about the American Civil War.
There is a theory in England, believed perhaps by some, half believed by many more, which is only consistent with original ignorance, or complete subsequent forgetfulness, of all the antecedents of the contest. There are people who tell us that, on the side of the North, the question is not one of Slavery at all. The North, it seems, have no more objection to Slavery than the South have….
If this be the true state of the case, what are the Southern chiefs fighting about? Their apologists in England say that it is about tariffs, and similar trumpery. They say nothing of the kind. They tell the world, and they told their own citizens when they wanted their votes, that the object of the fight was slavery….
It is true enough that the North are not carrying on war to abolish slavery in the States where it legally exists.
The present Government of the United States is not an abolitionist government…. But though not an Abolitionist party, they are a Free-soil party. If they have not taken arms against slavery, they have against its extension. And they know, as we may know if we please, that this amounts to the same thing. The day when slavery can no longer extend itself, is the day of its doom. The slave-owners know this, and it is the cause of their fury….
If, however, the purposes of the North may be doubted or misunderstood, there is at least no question as to those of the South. They make no concealment of their principles. As long as they were allowed to direct all the policy of the Union; to break through compromise after compromise, encroach step after step, until they reached the pitch of claiming a right to carry slave property into the Free States, and, in opposition to the laws of those States, hold it as property there, so long, they were willing to remain in the Union. The moment a President was elected of whom it was inferred from his opinions, not that he would take any measures against slavery where it exists, but that he would oppose its establishment where it exists not,—that moment they broke loose from what was, at least, a very solemn contract, and formed themselves into a Confederation professing as its fundamental principle not merely the perpetuation, but the indefinite extension of slavery.
But we are told, by a strange misapplication of a true principle, that the South had a right to separate; that their separation ought to have been consented to, the moment they showed themselves ready to fight for it; and that the North, in resisting it, are committing the same error and wrong which England committed in opposing the original separation of the thirteen colonies….
I am not frightened at the word rebellion…. But I certainly never conceived that there was a sufficient title to my sympathy in the mere fact of being a rebel; that the act of taking arms against one’s fellow citizens was so meritorious in itself, was so completely its own justification, that no question need be asked concerning the motive. It seems to me a strange doctrine that the most serious and responsible of all human acts imposes no obligation on those who do it, of showing that they have a real grievance; that those who rebel for the power of oppressing others, exercise as sacred a right as those who do the same thing to resist oppression practised upon themselves…. Secession may be laudable, and so may any other kind of insurrection; but it may also be an enormous crime. It is the one or the other, according to the object and the provocation. And if there ever was an object which, by its bare announcement, stamped rebels against a particular community as enemies of mankind, it is the one professed by the South.Suppose, however, for the sake of argument, that the mere will to separate were in this case, or in any case, a sufficient ground for separation, I beg to be informed whose will? The will of any knot of men who, by fair means or foul, by usurpation, terrorism, or fraud, have got the reins of government into their hands?… Before admitting the authority of any persons, as organs of the will of the people, to dispose of the whole political existence of a country, I ask to see whether their credentials are from the whole, or only from a part. And first, it is necessary to ask, Have the slaves been consulted? Hast heir will been counted as any part in the estimate of collective volition? They are a part of the population. However natural in the country itself [meaning the United States], it is rather cool in English writers who talk so glibly of the ten millions [of southerners]…., to pass over the very existence of four millions who must abhor the idea of separation. Remember, we consider them to be human beings, entitled to human rights.