Saturday, November 7, 2015

A Reasonable Man

I originally had David McCullough’s Truman on my reading list as the presidential biography for year 9. But as I put together the plan for 2015 last fall, and I saw The Lord of the Rings and Don Quixote and other lengthy books on the list, I started wondering whether I really wanted to reread that monumental history, as much as I loved it the first time through. So at the beginning of the year, I decided to remove it from the schedule and to put in its place Eric Foner’s The Fiery Trial, a fairly recent Lincoln book. And I’m glad I did.

In his preface, Foner says he wants to put Lincoln’s thoughts, feelings, and actions concerning slavery in historical context. Many pages of what I thought would be a biography don’t mention Lincoln at all, instead examining significant historical events, newspaper editorials, debates in Congress, and speeches and letters by other prominent figures of the time. Then each time the lens turns back to Lincoln, the reader knows the setting and can judge just how much Lincoln was shaped by the culture and how much he resisted or even changed the culture.

I’ve read many times that — Hold on: I have to think a minute. There’s a subordinate clause coming up, and I don’t know which verb to use. I have two choices, and the difference between the two constitutes the main point of this post. I think I’ve read many times that Lincoln did not believe that blacks were the social equals of whites, although he courageously and repeatedly insisted that they were entitled to the unalienable rights named in the Declaration of Independence. But was it in fact his belief?  I know I’ve read this quotation before, from a speech given in Peoria in 1854:
If all earthly power were given me, I should not know what to do. . . . Free them, and make them politically and socially, our equals? My own feelings will not admit of this.
But Foner doesn't stop here. He doesn’t just want to offer up a provocative quotation designed to prove to the reader quickly that Abraham Lincoln wasn’t free from all traces of racism. Oh, he shows Lincoln’s faults, all right. But I don’t think now that this quotation is a sign of one of those faults. Reading the words in context this time, I actually come away with even greater admiration for the sixteenth President than I had before.

I know. I need to explain that. How can I admire a man who felt something so distasteful? Bear with me for a couple of minutes before you call me a barbarian.

A twenty-first century American coming across the sentence “My own feelings will not admit of this” tends to read the words as a final statement. Well, if that’s what he felt, then that’s that. Now we know what Lincoln really thought. But feeling isn’t the same as thought. In a much earlier speech delivered to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Lincoln addressed his concerns over the alarming number of mob riots then occurring throughout the country. He told the “young men” of the audience that in order to prevent the country from sliding into anarchy and then tyranny, Americans would have to devote themselves to living by “cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason.” Note especially the adjective “unimpassioned.” A few years later, in 1842, Lincoln spoke to a temperance society and closed his talk saying that freedom for every person in America (he explicitly mentioned slaves here) would come only when reason ruled the world and passions were subdued. All that classical education that Lincoln gave himself shines through here. I wouldn’t be surprised if I read the entire text of these speeches and found him quoting book IX of Plato’s Republic.

Now back to the Peoria speech. Lincoln goes on to say this:
My own feelings will not admit of this; and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of white people will not. Whether this feeling accords with justice and sound judgment, is not the sole question, if indeed, it is any part of it. A universal feeling, whether well or ill-founded, can not be safely disregarded.
Lincoln indeed admitted his feelings; we might even say he confessed his feelings. But feelings are not the same as beliefs. At least they aren’t for a man who knows to distinguish between reason and passion. I’ve read enough student papers to know that most people today don’t know the difference between “I feel” and “I believe.” But Lincoln did, and his reason, or “sound judgment,” condemned his unjust feeling. He felt that blacks were not his social equals, but he did not believe it. Other passages from the speech show that his main concern here is whether blacks would find themselves in a happy social situation if suddenly freed. And he sees that they would not, because passion rules society and not reason.

Lincoln told the temperance society that he envisioned a day when reason would rule the world, and that when that day came, there would be no more slaves. When reason reigns, the pragmatic dilemma of the Peoria speech goes away. Feelings are held in check and then eventually change to “accord with justice.” Every person treats all other persons with dignity; no former slave need fear being treated as an pariah. We have no slavery in America today – well, no legal, constitutionally protected slavery. But reason does not rule our society. Reasoned discourse requires time, and the age of the sound byte and of the highly moderated debate doesn’t allow the time. Are the civil rights Americans enjoy today (as imperfect as those rights may be) based on feelings, then? No wonder the debates are so bitter. No wonder our rights are so fragile and temporary. Does no one know how to condemn his feelings with reason?

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