Lincoln's first principles
Lincoln's career proved that moral strength can legitimize politics
How did Abraham Lincoln, a 19th-century rail-splitter from America's heartland, evolve into a mature politician and national hero? In "Lincoln's Virtues," William Lee Miller attributes the transformation to moral backbone, which developed during Honest Abe's frontier boyhood. It kept his heart pure as his mind matured, enabling him to stand ethically erect in the maelstrom of adult public life.
Lincoln's greatness and goodness are widely known. This book seeks to explain how he got that way. Eulogizing the 16th president as he lay in state in Philadelphia, Phillips Brooks said Lincoln "vindicated the greatness of real goodness, and the goodness of real greatness."
Miller elaborates on this theme, peering behind Lincoln's words and deeds to examine his thoughts and moral precepts. The author is well qualified to conduct such an investigation. Since earning a PhD in social ethics in 1958, he's taught at Yale, Smith College, and Indiana University, where he was founding director of the Poynter Center for the Study of Ethics and American Institutions, examining ethical issues across a wide spectrum of society.
Now Scholar in Ethics and Institutions for the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia, he's written numerous books, most recently "Arguing About Slavery," which won the D.B. Hardeman Prize for the best book on Congress in 1996.
Sept. 11 put many political figures under a moral microscope. As a scholar and ethicist, Miller selected Lincoln for his most recent research because "Lincoln's presidency is a case study in political ethics that applies continuously." Lincoln's career proved that moral strength can legitimize politics.
He calls this book an ethical biography, not because it seeks to oppose any prevailing view, but because it "presupposes the freedom of the subject, within some limits, to choose different courses of action. It assumes that he can, by a sequence of choices, shape abiding patterns of conduct - virtues."
Miller finds Lincoln, from his youth up, making choices that mold and manifest his emerging character. Born in a community of hunters, young Lincoln chose not to hunt or fish. Raised by a carpenter among farmers, he turned away from agriculture and carpentry. Unlike nearly all his male friends, he never smoked or chewed tobacco, drank liquor, or used profanity. He resisted contemporary hostility toward Indians, and was kind and courteous to blacks.
Even his religious views were atypical. "In a family active in church, young Lincoln abstained." Miller writes. "When evangelical Christianity permeated the western frontier, Lincoln raised questions - and gave different answers than his neighbors." He was never baptized.
But not all of Lincoln's choices were rejections. He was ambitious for education when few of his friends valued it. He supported Henry Clay when a majority of Westerners favored Andrew Jackson, and in a state dominated by Democrats, he became a Whig, eventually the only Whig among Illinois' seven congressmen.
Miller's detailed narrative traces the years from Lincoln's birth to his election as president, showing how moral principles that informed his early choices also served as waymarks at crucial turning points in later life. They led him to confront Stephen Douglas over the Kansas-Nebraska Act; to declaw the Eastern intelligentsia by accepting an invitation to speak in New York; and, as president-elect, to preserve the Union at any cost.
The author obviously assumes his readers have done their history homework. Newcomers may find the scholarship protracted, as when nine pages are spent comparing Lincoln's youth to themes from Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard." But for Lincoln scholars and a vast majority of Civil War buffs, Miller offers a distinctly new view of the Great Emancipator, showing how his solid, if not shining, intellect stood firmly on an ethical foundation. "His was a mind inclined to plow down to first principles and to hold to them," says the author.
Lincoln's trust in "first principles," so carefully documented here, has also been noted by other historians and observers, including William Rathvon, secretary to Mary Baker Eddy, who founded this newspaper. As a lad, Mr. Rathvon heard Lincoln speak at Gettysburg. Years later, he shared his impressions in words which nearly echo "Lincoln's Virtues":
"You may search pages of modern history from end to end, and can find no nobler example of unselfish devotion to duty, of courageous citizenship and of steadfast adherence to Principle than in the life of Abraham Lincoln - a life that will never die but which will go on and on forever."
David Horn is a staff writer for the Herald-Times in Bloomington, Ind.