A member of the board of the Abraham Lincoln Institute and the Lincoln Studies Group examines the moral reasoning at the heart of the president’s statecraft.
Lincoln’s graceful and humane exercise of power remains exemplary, a startling assessment, perhaps, of the man who presided over the greatest slaughter in American history. But Lincoln was neither a prophet nor a saint, neither a reformer nor a revolutionary. Rather, he was an engaged, embattled politician who clearly understood the role of settled law and of government and who resisted the temptation to engage in moral posturing. Miller (Ethics and Institutions/Univ. of Virginia; Lincoln’s Virtues: An Ethical Biography, 2002, etc.) focuses on Lincoln’s moral reasoning, demonstrating how worthy statecraft requires the leader to attend to reality, to the objective situation, to achieve his goals, all the while hewing to certain principles that cannot be compromised. From the time he took the oath of office, the bedrock principle for Lincoln was the preservation of the Union, no mere political power struggle in his mind, but rather an undertaking with vast, universal moral significance: whether a free, constitutional government could sustain itself, whether a successful appeal from ballots to bullets would mean not just diminishing or damaging the American experiment, but rather destroying it. Through this lens, Miller examines Lincoln’s leadership under the unique circumstances of civil war in a variety of cases large and small: the decision to resupply Fort Sumter, to issue the Emancipation Proclamation and to enroll freed slaves in the Union army; the exercise of the president’s pardon power; the strategies to keep border states from joining the rebellion and to keep foreign powers at bay. While enduring the criticism of opponents, the incompetence or, in George McClellan’s case, insubordination of his generals, or horrible battlefield reversals, Lincoln remained a resolute and aggressive war leader, even as he displayed an uncommon charity and largeness of spirit. His remarkable success, Miller makes clear, was attributable not only to his powerful mind, but also to his moral clarity, a seemingly unerring instinct that allowed him to achieve his goals without losing his own or his country’s soul.
A creative thesis thoroughly explored and beautifully argued.