A sincere attempt to make peace with Abraham Lincoln’s written political thought leads the distinguished Princeton academic into reflective, occasionally troubled waters.
Kateb (Human Dignity, 2011, etc.) feels his way through Lincoln’s speeches and letters, probing the process, gradual and often opaque, of his grasping of the necessity as president of emancipating the slaves in order to reassert the worth and dignity of the Declaration of Independence’s self-evident first assumption. In unearthing Lincoln’s “political religion,” which evolved over roughly 10 years, from passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 to his assassination in 1865, Kateb looks first at what Lincoln was up against, namely unprecedented “group ferocities” that counted not just the intractable Southern states bent on secession (the slave states did not even make a show of backing Lincoln’s Democratic rival, Stephen Douglas), but also the outraged abolitionists sworn to vengeance on the South. The author also examines the “passion of patriotism” each side claimed for its own. By the time of his “House Divided” speech in 1858, Lincoln declared that the nation “would become all slave or all free”—there was no more room for compromise. Which was the truth; i.e., which side did God endorse? Lincoln, the politician and man of his age, was not rallying for the abolitionists, and while he detested slavery, he did not endorse emancipation until much later, believing that blacks weren’t ready—or rather, whites weren’t. Kateb traces these telling moments in Lincoln’s words, where he “was hiding the truth or hiding from it.” What Lincoln did embrace above all was human equality and the sanctity of the preservation of the Union; for these to endure, slavery had to be destroyed.
An erudite work that gently unravels the great man’s distortions and political expediency. Though it may prove recondite for a general audience, the book is compelling throughout.