Moral Development and President Lincoln


A critical element to understanding Lincoln and his views on the United States as it existed in his time and should become in the future are the topics of role and slavery as presented by Miller in Lincoln’s Virtues. The duty or role of politician as well as Lincoln’s views on slavery underscore his personal moral development in addition to the relationship between ethical decision-making and the workings of political institutions. In light of these ideas, Aristotle’s The Politics, familiar to Lincoln, also provides insight on the role of politicians, citizens and the governance of society.

Lincoln was a self-educated individualist that rose to power through the role of politician, not through his own personal wealth, fame or other talents. Re-examination of self and reflective change allowed him to hone his identity as a politician and determine his appropriate duties in all circumstances. According to Miller, Lincoln was a “lifelong politician” that realized that position to its “fullest moral possibilities”. Furthermore, “there never would come a time when Abraham Lincoln abandoned the role of politician”. He continued to conduct himself in this role using an ethic of responsibility throughout his public life.
Miller contends that Lincoln upheld his role through moral “principles that determine action decisively” and viewed his place as linked to consequences or “what can be expected to happen in the real world as a result” of an action. Using observation, intellect and reason, Lincoln upheld a duty to do what is good and right in politics. His role and duty within it was measured and defined by moral reasoning and principles. At all times reason showed what was intrinsically right to do within his role. Miller argues that “responsibility, practical wisdom and realism” are the shaping qualities of Lincoln as a politician and “principle, duty, doing what is right, moral” are all parts of his view of ethical responsibility.

“Lincoln, at his core a surpassingly dutiful man” was also a man of “his own ideas”, per Miller. His political ambitions were well known and his function as a builder of the Republican Party illustrates his ability to effectively executive his duties. Lincoln outlined the major issues of the time and gathered needed constituencies and continued the “political arranging and shaping he had already been doing in Illinois”. In his time, place and role Lincoln was a mainstream politician “seeking to shape major party victories and much of the time seeking office himself” in a racially prejudiced northern state.

The topic of slavery greatly influenced Lincoln’s role of politician and throughout his career he would maintain that slavery was unjust. He was an “unmoralistic moralist” and argued against slavery while avoiding self-righteousness and oversimplification of moral issues. However, he had to deal with slavery as a constitutionally protected institution ingrained in the everyday lives of a whole society of people. According to Miller, Lincoln upheld slavery as unjust by linking this principle “to the moral meaning of America in the history of the world”.

Lincoln’s duty was to form a fundamental argument about the moral wrong of slavery through reason and became a visionary seeking to create the nation as it had not been before. In this, Lincoln hints at John Rawls’ logic in that the wrongness of slavery is the argument against it. As slavery is extended, thus liberty is diminished. Freedom and slavery as related to democracy, republican institutions and self-government was to Lincoln a shared responsibility and a shared bafflement of the North and the South. He maintained that the expansion of slavery only further institutionalizes it and endangers the institutions of liberty because the issue of slavery is an American issue, not a sectional one.

Lincoln was against compromising on slavery for several rational and moral reasons. He felt that slavery had a basic core of evil and perpetuating it would be a “loss of all we have gained”, but it also symbolized disaster for the Republican Party and US government to Lincoln. Although he comprehended slavery as an economic reality, he could not reconcile the treatment of people as property, less than human. Nor could Stephen Douglas’ “moral indifferentism” be tolerated because to Lincoln “the war came about somehow because of slavery, in which the whole nation was implicated”.

Lincoln was a moral realist and kept his general principles and moral ideas clear within his debates regarding slavery. He stated, “if slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong” and maintained great continuity on this point. Slavery was a “monstrous injustice” and in Lincoln’s political context he displayed moral conclusions reflecting unstated moral reasoning. In his debates with Douglas, Lincoln provided rational arguments against the spread of slavery in addition to demonstrating a meticulous and explicit assertion that “he had no prejudice against the Southern people”. He stated, “I surely will not blame them for not doing what I should not know how to do myself”.
Although Miller would not consider Lincoln to be an abolitionist by any means, the author is careful to show how he discussed slavery not as a race issue but as an issue concerned with human beings. In their series of debates, Douglas often displayed blatant racism and used this concept to further his pro-slavery arguments. Lincoln, on the other hand, dealt with issues of moral injustice and freedom of all humans, per the Declaration of Independence. He stated, ” as a good thing, slavery is strikingly peculiar in this, that it is the only good thing which no man ever seeks the good of, for himself”. Lincoln as a moral realist highlighted the power relationship at the center of slavery while treating all humans as equal by bypassing all racial categories.

In the discussion of Lincoln in regard to topics of role and slavery, one can draw on the theories of Aristotle that Lincoln studied. According to Aristotle, a person is a ‘citizen’ only if he/she participates in the political community. A politician’s duty within political office is to optimize the combined happiness of the citizenry as a function of his/her political virtue. Aristotle holds that to be worthy of the role of officeholder, a politician must be superior in political virtue. Legislators are considered to be the most critical of those in power politically, thus must be most politically virtuous. Aristotle’s ideal is to have those in politically powerful roles to understand how to best use this power to optimize the collective well being of the citizens. Shares of power within the “polis” or the state should be given in proportion to how much one serves it.

Similarly, Lincoln as portrayed by Miller seemed to also esteem political virtue and stood for issues on moral as well as rational grounds. He was also concerned with the good of the whole, for both the US as a united country and for his party. Miller contends that Lincoln strove be overcome his humble, self-educated beginnings to make himself worthy of political office and to achieve distinction. Furthermore, one could argue that Aristotle’s valuing of legislators’ significance and power influenced Lincoln’s career choices and ambitions.

In regard to slavery, Aristotle contends that slavery should be limited to those who are, by nature, slaves. However, such people must at least be capable of recognizing reason. Per Aristotle, the capacity to recognize reason means that the natural slave can recognize the justice and appropriateness of being ruled over by a master. He argues that some are better fit to rule than others and that hierarchical relationships are natural, whether in the polis or the household.

Although Lincoln might agree with Aristotle’s points on hierarchies, especially within political party machinations, one can be certain he would not agree that the “monstrous injustice” of slavery could be natural. Perhaps Miller would argue that Lincoln viewed the rise of slavery as an economic system as natural, but not the subjugation of one human unto another. Furthermore, Aristotle’s theory that reason separates humans from animals, thus the capacity for reason meaning a person is human might have fueled Lincoln’s focus on the slavery issue not on the racial level, but human level.

In conclusion, Miller’s presentation of the topics of role and slavery in his moral biography of Lincoln highlighted crucial elements to understanding Lincoln’s motivations, actions and opinions on the United States and it’s future. Aristotle’s theories on citizens, politician and slavery may have influenced Lincoln’s moral development as well as many other public figures in his time and afterwards. The concepts of role, duty, race and slavery were important to Lincoln’s ethical decision-making and actions within the public sphere.

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