U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Roundtable: John Burt’s LINCOLN’S TRAGIC PRAGMATISM (Part I)

LTPI am very pleased to publish the first of three parts of a roundtable on John Burt‘s remarkable new book, Lincoln’s Tragic Pragmatism: Lincoln, Douglas, and Moral Conflict. This roundtable took place at the recent S-USIH Conference and was one of the most exciting that I had the pleasure to attend. Peter Wirzbicki, who reviewed Burt’s book for S-USIH a few months ago, chaired the panel. Richard H. King (author of the new book and Peter Kuryla offered comments. Burt responded. We kick off the roundtable with King’s comments.

Political Thought, Historical and Literary Sources, and Collective Guilt

Richard H. King 

I don’t know when I’ve read a work of intellectual history as intellectually challenging and exhilarating as John Burt’s Lincoln’s Tragic Pragmatism. It made me think along with it rather than just serving up neat conclusions and memorable summations. Burt’s approach, a kind of applied political thought, bypasses the usual stuff about the need to place texts in contexts, ideas in their setting. Instead it uses political thought to illuminate and explore a political event of a particular historical moment. In this case, that moment includes the debates between Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln in their race for the Senate in Illinois in 1858 and the lead-up to this classic confrontation, with close analyses of the Douglas-inspired Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, and the Dred Scott decision of 1857. In fact, what Burt carries out is less an historical contextualization of political ideas and more a political conceptualization of an historical context. The point is, in fact, to look at what happens when ideas formulated in one historical moment are brought to bear on another. Here John Burt’s great precursor is, of course, Harry Jaffa’s Crisis of the House Divided (1959), an unfairly neglected work until recently, which also approaches the crisis of the Union through the prism of the Lincoln-Douglas debates and the events leading up to them, [1] all the while underpinned by Plato and Straussianism of a particular kind.

Anxieties and Influences

Mentioning precursors raises the question of influence, a particularly apposite concern since John Burt’s mentor at Yale was Harold Bloom, author of the critical classic, The Anxiety of Influence (1973). With or without Bloom, reckoning influence is a notoriously tricky subject. Among other things, it is not restricted to one thinker or text. In terms of philosophy and political thought, the figures of Kant and John Rawls (moral autonomy, rational/reasonable), are always mentioned as crucial for understanding Lincoln’s Tragic Pragmatism. But he takes a fair number of side glances at Hannah Arendt, who hovers over the discussion of politics as “persuasive engagement” rather than just being about force, power, and pursuit of interests. He provides a short, fascinating discussion of the difference between republican and liberal notions of citizenship as the difference between being the member of a club, on the one hand, and already always possessing human rights, from which citizenship rights are derived, on the other. I would have loved it had Burt discussed Arendt’s idea of “the right to have rights” in this context. I’m not sure there is much in Burt’s Lincoln about the concept of a citizen or the public that seems very republican in the traditional sense. He also repairs fairly frequently to the distinction between “nation” and “state” that Arendt makes much of in The Origins of Totalitarianism[2] She was much more concerned with the political institutions of power and participation (the republic or state), which she did not want to see dominated by any one people, ethnic or racial group, or nation. The important distinction Burt makes between a “concept” and its “conceptualizations” comes from HLA Hart, WB Gallie, and Ronald Dworkin and it represents one of Burt’s main methodological commitments. Another key idea is what Burt names “reverse Burkeanism.” These are only some of the items in Burt’s well-appointed terminological repertoire.

Bloom warned his readers not to assume that frequency of mention was a measure of strength of influence; still, I was still struck by how little, not how much, of a presence Harry Jaffa is in John Burt’s book. But there is one other cluster of influences that is, I suspect, the key to much that drives Lincoln’s Tragic Pragmatism. I refer to the rhetoric/idea of human fallenness and limitation, the need for humility and self-knowledge in relationship to ideas and ideals, and, above all, the fear of “higher law idealism” identified, most often, with the militant abolitionists, who, like John Brown, were devoted to “action from principle” (the term Thoreau used to describe what drove Brown). The thinkers and intellectuals I associate with this position are writer and poet Robert Penn Warren, particularly in his The Legacy of Civil War (1961), historian C. Vann Woodward’s collection of essays, The Burden of Southern History (1960), and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History (1952). This position might be called neo-orthodox liberalism, an intellectual stance that was particularly influential in the first couple of decades after World War II. Woodward came to Yale from Johns Hopkins in 1961 and there joined fellow Southerners Warren (and critic Cleanth Brooks) for several decades. [3]

John’s links to this group are significant. After studying with Bloom, who did much to burnish Warren’s poetic reputation, Burt became one of Warren’s critical champions, particularly of his poetry, in the 1970s and 1980s. He has edited several volumes of Warren’s poetry and written widely about southern literature. Niebuhr’s idea of irony fed directly into Woodward’s essay “The Irony of Southern History” and other of the essays collected in Burden. Niebuhr didn’t write a great deal about Lincoln but did observe that Americans should treasure the way Lincoln balanced a “sense of ethical mission” and “a tragic sense of the ironies of politics and history.” [4] I am definitely not saying that Burt adopts a pro-southern position in his book or that he necessarily cherishes all the traits that Woodward associated with southern identity, especially a deep commitment to place and a hostility to abstraction. The problem with neo-orthodox liberalism was that it sometimes made 1950s southern moderates and liberals sound as though they were offering elegant justifications for a go-slow, plague-on-both-your-houses stance (e.g both the Klan and the NAACP were extremists) during the Civil Rights era. But in Burt’s view, it is Abraham Lincoln, who does everything possible to avoid identifying the cause of the North and even the anti-slavery position unambiguously with God’s work in the world or with higher law idealism. John concludes his book with a flourish of negative theology that makes Niebuhr sound like Norman Vincent Peale by comparison. As Burt sums up the faith that sustained the moral and spiritual nationalism he articulated in his Second Inaugural:

Faith here is not a proposition to be advanced on the basis of the trumping authority of God’s will, but a crux to be experienced; God is manifested chiefly through his absence, and faith is a way to keep one’s self-possession while registering that absence” (LTP,681).

Literary Frames

Perhaps it is too much to claim that Burt’s literary background is the animating force to his study. Neither Kant nor Rawls is exactly associated with the philosophical uses or exploration of imaginative literature. Quite the opposite. (Arendt would make a better candidate in this regard.) But Burt’s book is a prime example of what literary creators and critics can bring to intellectual history. Obviously, the capacity for close reading of texts and a sensitivity to the use of language, not to mention a greater willingness of literary people to chance the daring observation, should be mentioned. In Burt’s case, there is something else—the way he deploys his familiarity with the novelist’s or poet’s interest in the creation of character. For instance he makes reference to Keats’ idea of “negative capability” in trying to understand Lincoln, Douglas, Calhoun and the other major figures. Keats defined the idea in a letter of 22 Dec. 1817: “Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” [5] At issue for Burt is the historian’s or philosopher’s willingness to be open to personal—and intellectual—complexity, without trying to nail things down too firmly. From this perspective, Burt’s book is organized around the aporia, bold pronouncements and equally assertive expressions of qualification and doubt. It has something of the quality of Lincoln’s balancing act between assertion and qualification, conviction and tolerance.

Burt’s theory of ideas, his idea idea, is that we come to know a complex idea well in the same way that we arrive at close familiarity with a close friend or lover or partner. We know lots about them, having experienced them in a vast range of circumstances, but we don’t have a theory about them. We only have, suggests Burt, a theory about people whom we don’t care about personally or who lack depth. [6] Similarly, our most treasured values and traditions fascinate us, but they also exasperate and exhaust our efforts to completely understand the range of their implications. And it is the implications or what Burt refers to as the “implicitness” of ideas and the distinction between a concept and its various conceptions, that uses in his analyses. [7]

Numerous observations scattered throughout Lincoln’s Tragic Pragmatism and other of his writings show how Burt distils this critical practice into practical criticism and from that derives neat observations. In a lecture at Yale in the spring of 2013, he notes how Lincoln ended up being more like Melville than like Ahab, though the latter might have been possible, had Lincoln not been able to curb his own moralizing streak by scrupulously observing the legal and constitutional limits of his role as President. In the same lecture, he also suggests that Abe’s relationship with his own father was something like Huck’s was to Pap Finn, while in Lincoln’s Tragic Pragmatism he elides nineteenth and twentieth century history when he observes that “both (Lincoln and Douglas) resembled George F. Kennan more than either resembled Churchill or Chamberlain”(LTP,332). One lesson here is that intellectual historians might do well to hang out more with literary historians and critics than they are used to.

Resources and Repertory

Put another way, the richness of Lincoln’s Tragic Liberalism is constituted by Burt’s ability to discover or invent terms of denotation that lodge in the mind. To create such terminological richness is a skill in itself. As already mentioned he borrows Rawls’s distinction between “rational” (internal logical coherence) and “reasonable”(common sense judgment of experience) as well as Arendt’s distinction between nation and state. This distinction was particularly important, since the American people circa 1850s were not a people in the sense that Europeans thought of the term. (It was the Westphalian settlement that had established the ideal-typical nation-state as an entity possessing linguistic, culture, religious and eventually racial homogeneity.) He also makes Lincoln’s idea of “the public mind” do heavy duty in the book, referring as it does to the complex and messy sense of things that Americans share as a large and growing republic. In a strange way, America had a Volksgeist without actually being a real Volk (LTP,175,487).

Despite that the concept I am most intrigued by is Burt’s idea of “moral narcissism.” In some ways, it is another name for self-righteousness. But it emphasizes the tendency to be obsessed with the purity of one’s own motives or intentions at the expense of a successful outcome. Moral narcissism believes that “What is important is that I do the right thing even though it may be impossible for it to succeed and may even mess up what one has already achieved.” It is also closely akin to higher law idealism. Lincoln was terrified of giving in to such concepts which implied something like moral exceptionality. Moral narcissism was a particular temptation in the great debates of the 1850s, since what was at issue was Lincoln’s “moral grounds” argument against slavery, yoked to his constitutionalism, against Douglas’ “popular sovereignty” argument, linked to moral indifferentism. The slippery slope down which each threatened to tumble was crusader politics or amoral cynicism (LTP,378-83). [8] Overall, it is moral narcissism that is the most dangerous enemy of democratic politics, what Burt calls “persuasive engagement.”

Burt also links moral narcissism in his own mind with Robespierre as Arendt portrayed him in On Revolution, and also with Brown and Thoreau. [9] Interestingly, what Max Weber named the “ethic of conscience” (Gesinnungsethik) bears a family resemblance to moral narcissism. It refers to a form of political morality that reckons exclusively with personal conscience not consideration of circumstances or possibility of success. Interestingly, Arendt’s essay “Civil Disobedience” comes close to equating “conscientious objection” with something like moral narcissism, since she thought that conscientious objection was based on the desire to avoid sullying one’s own conscience more than it was concerned to correct injustice done to others. The preferable stance, according to Arendt, is “civil disobedience” which involves speech and action to protect the principles undergirding the public realm, but not in order to maintain one’s moral purity as such. It is important to emphasize that this whole issue is not centrally an argument about violence v. non-violence. Lincoln was a classic proponent of what Weber called the “ethic of responsibility” (Verantwortungsethik), yet his actions as President unleashed massive amounts of violence. [10] Again, Burt is by no means going easy on the South and southern politicians. Rather, by the end of the 1850s, most had already succumbed to the temptation to close themselves off to political argument in their rage to take what they saw as the South’s maximalist position. Still, I wish Burt had emphasized just a bit more that Lincoln’s opponents both among Northern Democrats and white Southern defenders of slavery were as obdurate and dangerous, if not more so, than John Brown and the radical abolitionists. I also think that the distinction between relativism as “circumspection” and relativism as “skepticism” (LTP,486) has much to teach us. This would have helped make the point that genuine liberal tolerance is not a species of moral indifferentism, but a strategy for preserving the possibility of further political and moral engagement and having a political ethics in general.

Guilt and Responsibility

Finally, I want to make a few remarks on a recent essay “Collective Guilt in Lincoln’s Second Inaugural” that Burt has written to continue the argument of his big book. [11] In it Burt contends that the basis of “mutual forbearance” between the sections lay in “the recognition of shared collective guilt over slavery and shared responsibility for the violence of the Civil War.” He refers to one familiar type of guilt as “agential,” the guilt of those who have acted to perpetuate or advance slavery and the guilt of those who failed, as political actors, to halt its expansion. Burt wants us to think of “the political class” and “deliberative bodies” of both sections here. But he also proposes another kind of guilt, “ontological guilt,” which applies to the nation as a whole, rather than to just those who operated the mechanisms of the state apparatus. Ontological guilt has to do not with “choice” of “action” but with the fact of one’s “identity” as a “given.” Agential guilt has to do with failures of the “state” and ontological guilt has to do with the shortcomings of the “nation.” [12]

My first observation about these provocative distinctions is that, as far as I can tell, Burt uses the terms “guilt” and “responsibility” interchangeably. Both have to do with liability in the broadest sense, but they imply different ways of dealing with it. Near the end of World War II, there was a wide-spread debate about German collective war guilt, as expressed, for example, in the Morgenthau Plan to dismantle German’s formidable industrial capacity and pastoralize it by force. In this debate, Dwight Macdonald and Hannah Arendt, especially, emphasized the important differences between guilt and responsibility. In his classic “The Responsibility of Peoples,” Macdonald wondered how free from responsibility the American and British people were for the massive aerial bombardment of Germany and, of course, the use of the atomic bomb. (In fact, he thought the scientists were guilty of working on the bomb but the people were not, since it was unknown to them). In an essay published at roughly the same time (in 1945), Arendt contended that those perpetrators were responsible who made the momentous decision to carry out the Final Solution and then commanded people down the chain of command to carry it out, while the guilty were those who pulled the trigger and dropped the gas pellets into the air vents.

Later in her work, Arendt would retain the two terms but use them somewhat differently. Guilt ranged in seriousness from the ultimate “deciders ”(Hitler, Himmler, Heydrich) through those who arranged for the evil to be carried out (“desk murderers” such as Eichmann) on down to those who actually carried it out (SS guards, Einsatztruppen). One agonizing case was that of a Dr Lucas at Auschwitz who helped innumerable patients and was deeply troubled by his position at Auschwitz, even though his priest assured him that God would absolve him. But the very condition for helping Auschwitz inmates survive was participation in the ramp selection where the determination of who would live or die was made. In the end, Lucas served time for having participated in selections, despite having saved numerous lives. [13]

On the other hand, responsibility came to be applied more to bystanders and those who lived in the aftermath of the horror. It was more often applied to those who now worked in the present against the baleful effects of past evil, which they had had no hand in perpetrating. In sum, guilt was connected with what was done in the past and how one chose to live with it, while responsibility had more to do with making good (Wiedergutmachung) what had been done in the past and with preventing it from happening again. In this spirit, Macdonald contended that northern white opponents of Southern segregation were not guilty of perpetuating discrimination or worse in the South, but they were responsible for helping to end the Jim Crow system. Another key point, for Arendt, was that once evil had been committed, it was only of limited value to determine the levels or degrees of guilt beyond the clear and obvious cases. To concentrate on expressing guilt feelings was for her (and her husband) a kind of moral self-indulgence. Taking responsibility had more to do with politics than morality. Similarly, Dwight Macdonald distinguished between political and moral responsibility and all but eliminated the term guilt. Both were very suspicious of the idea of collective guilt, though Arendt’s mentor, Karl Jaspers, proposed four varieties of guilt—criminal, moral, political and ontological. For him, political guilt came closest to collective guilt (and to Burt’s ontological guilt), since it involved crimes committed in the name of the German nation, of which Germans were citizens. [14]

The reason for this extended excursion into the post-1945 debate over collective guilt is that John Burt needs distinctions such as guilt/responsibility to clarify the thinking in Lincoln’s Second Inaugural and to make sure that his idea of collective guilt is a viable one. Here Burt, following the gist of Lincoln’s thinking, does distinguish between evil undertaken by a political entity that one belongs to and acts in the name of as a citizen and evil undertaken by a cultural entity—a nation or ethnic group, for instance — whose values and traditions one shares and with which one identifies. But I miss in Lincoln’s—or in John’s thinking—a strong notion of responsibility, the taking of action in the present and future to remedy the ills of the past and to ensure that they do not happen again. And tragically, we don’t know what Reconstruction, the process by which the Congress took responsibility for aftereffects of the War and the ruination brought about by slavery in the South, would have entailed if Lincoln had lived. There is also the problem of guilt and forgiveness. One disturbing thing in Lincoln’s position is that he seemed to be saying that slavery was evil, yet there was no one person or group who was guilty or responsible for its existence. Evil had been done, but there were no specific, identifiable perpetrators. But he also seemed to be saying that both sides should be blamed for?— were guilty of perpetuating? were responsible for?—slavery because they were a people, a nation, that perpetuated slavery. Yet real ontological guilt shared by everyone plus reluctance to hold anyone agentially guilty seems to amount to something like the mutually cancelling claims: “if everyone is [ontologically] guilty, no one is [agentially] guilty.”

A third dimension to the reckoning with slavery is that political guilt for slavery was in practice settled according to political jurisdictions, not agential guilt. Slaveholders in the Union slave states (Maryland, Kentucky, Delaware, Missouri, and West Virginia) were deprived of slaves by the 13th Amendment, but they were not forced to join their fellow slaveholders in the states of the Confederacy and/or denied their political rights. They “got away with” more than southern slaveholders did. One other dimension that Lincoln also recognized as difficult to solve was the degree to which someone who was born into already existing slavery was guilty in an agential sense as opposed to an ontological one?


Finally, and most problematic, how should the slaves and free people of color who lived in the United States be judged in relation slavery? Were they in any sense ontologically guilty by virtue of being alive, though socially and politically dead subjects? Does the slave have a kind of moral duty to risk his or her life to escape captivity? That is, were slaves responsible for and complicit in the survival of slavery? Does political exclusion or lack of civil rights mean that freedpeople were in no way responsible for its perpetuation? It seems monstrous to think along these (Hegelian) lines, but how are we supposed to think about their situation? These issues also arose in relation to the Holocaust and ran through the war-crimes trials. One of its ugliest moments was the charge of blaming the victims or being a self-hating Jew, as Arendt was.

Finally, then, in evaluating Lincoln we needed to have more sense in John’s book of how African Americans, free and even slave, thought these issues through. Surely questions of violence take on a different cast if we are talking of slave violence. Was the matter of moral narcissism or the ethics of conscience the same for a slave as for a free white man? How do we morally and politically judge Frederick Douglass’ decision not to join John Brown? Did Lincoln’s “with malice toward none, with charity for all” ease the way toward white reconciliation but at the expense of indifference, even opposition, to the exclusion of former slaves from full citizenship? To use Roger Taney’s formulation, did Abraham Lincoln say anything as a President or as an ethical or political thinker that either slaves or free blacks were “bound to respect” or follow? If not, then Lincoln, for better or worse, remains someone who speaks primarily to the ethical and political dilemmas of white Americans as they struggled over the existence of slavery and of their Republic. For slaves and freed people something and someone else was needed.

[1] Harry Jaffa, Crisis of the House Divided ( Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2009/1959). Diana Schaub, “Lincoln for Liberals,” The Claremont Institute (posted December 13, 2013) :https://www. claremont.org/ article/Lincoln-for-liberals is an extended review of Lincoln’s Tragic Pragmatism: Lincoln, Douglas, and Moral Conflict (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013) from a conservative position favourable to Jaffa. A recent work by Robert B. Pippin, Interanimations: Receiving Modern German Philosophy (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2015) defends the history of philosophy as a way of doing philosophy and not just the history of ideas.

[2] Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973); Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (Cleveland, OH: Meridian Books, 1958). For the discussion of the nation/state distinction, see Chapter Nine (“The Decline of the Nation-State…) and also her review of J. T. Delos, The Nation: “The Nation(1946)” in Essays in Understanding, 1930-1954 (New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1995), 206-11.

[3] There was a whole group of ex-Southerners who lived in or around the New York–New Haven corridor and who shared tastes and political positions in a broad sense: novelists William Styron and Ralph Ellison, critic Albert Murray and Willie Morris, who brought them together in the pages of Harpers, where he was editor between 1967 and 1971. In those years, Morris made his magazine the house organ, the home away from home, of southern intellectuals of the liberal persuasion.

[4] John Burt, Lincoln’s Tragic Pluralism, 25.

[5] “Keats regarded Shakespeare as the supreme example of a writer with a highly developed negative capability, attributing to him the ability to identify completely with his characters, and to write about them with empathy and understanding; he contrasts this with the partisan approach of Milton and the ‘wordsworthian or egotistical sublime’ (Letter to Woodhouse, 27 Oct. 1818) of Wordsworth.” See the following. It is also closely related to Coleridge’s “willing suspension of disbelief.”

[6] From Burt’s “The Gettysburg Address,” Lecture at Yale University, May 3, 2013: C-Span. Later that same day Burt responded to critiques of his book by a panel made up of Stephen Skowronek, Harry Stout, James Kloppenberg, and David Bromwich.

[7] Implicitness is a low altitude, Hegelian/Aristotelian notion that refers to the way an idea reveals its various implications and potentials over time, often without imputing direct individual agency (intentions) or assuming something like the working of Geist in history. The relationship between the republicanism of Arendt’s Framers and the tradition of later workers-council self-organization (including the revolutionary Soviets to the German Räte in 1919 to the spontaneous self-organization of the Hungarian uprising in 1956) is one of implicitness. Implicitness enables us to see the path that led from an only barely democratic form of governing to a hyper-democratic one. The thread linking them is the idea of citizen participation and public happiness and what is revealed over time is the democratic potential of such ideas.

[8] See Michael Ignatieff’s “Citizenship and Moral Narcissism,” in Citizenship, ed. Geoff Andrews (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1991): 63-79. Burt makes no reference to Ignatieff, but the latter’s definition can be joined with Burt’s sense of the term. Ignatieff refers to “a rhetoric of complacency whose result is to reassure those who cannot bear the moral complexity of a market society that they are sensitive and superior human beings”(29). Another analyst, Hans Kundnani, uses moral narcissism to refer to the tendency to “think about morality in terms of how your actions make you feel about yourself rather than in terms of their consequences for others.”

[9] Email from John Burt to Richard H. King, September 7, 2015.

[10] Max Weber “Politics as a Vocation,” in From Max Weber, ed. by Hans Gerth and C.Wright Mills (New York: Oxford University Press, 1946), 77-128 and Hannah Arendt, “Civil Disobedience, in Crises of the Republic (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972), 51-102.

[11] John Burt,” “Collective Guilt in Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address,” in American Political Thought (2015), forthcoming.

[12] Ibid, 1-2.

[13] See Arendt,“Auschwitz on Trial (1966),” Responsibility and Judgement, ed. by J. Kohn( New York: Schocken 2003). Lucas served three years and three months, longer, I believe, than any of the guards who were on trial.

[14] See Richard H. King, Arendt and America (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2015), Chapter 1. See particularly Karl Jaspers, The Question of German Guilt (New York Capricorn, 1961/1947).