Saturday, February 23, 2013

A Long Arc Toward Justice

by Bill Doughty
Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles was one of the first people to learn about President Lincoln's commitment to free enslaved human beings in the South.  Lincoln confided in Welles and Secretary of State William Seward on July 13, 1862, according to Seward’s diary, that emancipation was part of a military strategy.

Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, center, at Lincoln's right hand.
Was Lincoln motivated by morality or practicality -- or both?

A new book by John Burt, “Lincoln’s Tragic Pragmatism,” joins over 16,000 titles published to date about the 16th president and explores the question. 

Regarding Lincoln's practical motivation, Burt writes:

“He explained to Welles that emancipation ‘was a military necessity absolutely essential to the salvation of the Union, that we must free the slaves or be ourselves subdued.’ Such an act would, at the least, weaken the power of the Confederacy, since it used its slaves to do such things as dig intrenchments or move supplies, jobs which otherwise would have to be performed by white soldiers. He further noted that the border states would do nothing, left to themselves, and could only be persuaded to free their slaves if the slaves were freed in the Confederacy first.”

Burt’s book was showcased this week on one of America’s best radio shows,  Tom Ashbrook’s On Point, and is available as a podcast. The acclaimed new book examines Lincoln’s philosophy and approach to democracy.  Listen to the discussion here.

Ashbrook opens his podcast with a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”

He quotes a passage from Burt:

“Lincoln provides a model for moral agency in a complex world in which one must make one’s way among various half-understood alternatives, none of which leaves ones hands clean.”

Burt discusses conflicting beliefs and values, the tension between democracy and morality, and the fundamental principles of persuasion.

He tells Ashbrook, “My conscience commands me, but it has to persuade you.  And, indeed, if I don’t persuade you and compel you, then I’m not behaving in a democratic way either.  It may be a high-minded tyranny, but it’s still a tyranny.  I have an obligation to get you to accept defeat on things that matter to you highly.”

The On Point conversation brings out contemporary parallels -- from Martin Luther King’s strategy in the 1960s to current challenges of the ongoing Continuing Resolution and impending Sequestration in 2013.  In considering Lincoln, the lessons in leadership, compromise and warfare -- concessions without “fatal sacrifices” -- are striking.

Another one of the 16,000+ Lincoln titles (used as a backdrop by CNO Adm. Greenert to announce his revamped Professional Reading Program) is Ronald C. White, Jr.’s “The Eloquent President.”  White examines some of the president’s greatest speeches, addresses and public letters between 1861 and 1865, pulling them apart and looking at the poetry, cadences and conviction inside.

Like Burt, White also describes the role of Welles and Seward as Lincoln’s close confidants on the issue of emancipation.

Welles wrote detailed entries in his diary and recounted Lincoln’s growing belief in “Divine Will.” According to Welles, Lincoln saw victory in the Battle of Antietam as an indication that “God had decided this question in favor of the slaves.”

In "The Eloquent President," White writes:

“What was most remarkable, in an atmosphere charged with religious fervor and hyperpatriotism, was Lincoln’s new belief that God’s purposes may not be able to be identified by either side.  What sets him apart, in this musing, from his contemporaries in both North and South was his absence of pretension.”

White puts Lincoln’s passionate and compelling speeches under a magnifying glass, peeling off words and phrases and examining the inspiration, techniques and underlying morality of the president’s rhetoric.

He considers the Annual Message to Congress, delivered Dec. 1, 1862, as  “Lincoln’s finest message to Congress.” In that address, Lincoln calls for a “plain, peaceful, generous, just” way to save the Union.

Lincoln’s conclusion includes the phrase “fiery trial”:

“Fellow-citizens, we can not escape history. We of this Congress and this Administration will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance or insignificance can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor to the latest generation. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We, even we here, hold the power and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave we assure freedom to the free--honorable alike in what we give and what we preserve. We shall nobly save or meanly lose the last best hope of earth. Other means may succeed; this could not fail. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just -- a way which if followed the world will forever applaud and God must forever bless.”

White concludes, “His words transcended the limitations of the event.  He used this occasion not simply to report to Congress but to mobilize public opinion. He offered a powerful appeal to history but also invited Americans to think in the future tense.  Lincoln’s message represented a breadth of conception and height of imagination in his expanding rhetorical arsenal.”

Lincoln balanced the highest ideals of morality with a tough, clear-eyed practical approach to achieve compromise and cooperation.  Using the art of the long view, he kept his commitment to the arc of the moral universe that would lead to justice for future generations.

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