Lincoln's Tragic Pragmatism:
Lincoln, Douglas, and Moral Conflict
February 22, 2013
Harvard Book Store
1256 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02138
This event is free; no tickets are required.
Harvard Book Store is pleased to welcome Brandeis University's JOHN BURT for a discussion of his book Lincoln's Tragic Pragmatism: Lincoln, Douglas, and Moral Conflict.
In 1858, challenger Abraham Lincoln debated incumbent Stephen Douglas seven times in the race for a U.S. Senate seat from Illinois. More was at stake than slavery in those debates. In Lincoln’s Tragic Pragmatism, John Burt contends that the very legitimacy of democratic governance was on the line. In a United States stubbornly divided over ethical issues, the overarching question posed by the Lincoln-Douglas debates has not lost its urgency: Can a liberal political system be used to mediate moral disputes? And if it cannot, is violence inevitable?
As they campaigned against each other, both Lincoln and Douglas struggled with how to behave when an ethical conflict as profound as the one over slavery strained the commitment upon which democracy depends—namely, to rule by both consent and principle. This commitment is not easily met, because what conscience demands and what it is able to persuade others to consent to are not always the same. While Lincoln ultimately avoided a politics of morality detached from consent, and Douglas avoided a politics of expediency devoid of morality, neither found a way for liberalism to mediate the conflict of slavery.
That some disputes seemed to lie beyond the horizon of deal-making and persuasion and could be settled only by violence revealed democracy’s limitations. Burt argues that the unresolvable ironies at the center of liberal politics led Lincoln to discover liberalism’s tragic dimension—and ultimately led to war. Burt’s conclusions demand reevaluations of Lincoln and Douglas, the Civil War, and democracy itself.
Lincoln's Tragic Pragmatism is a brilliant, ground-breaking book with fresh insights on almost every page. No one has analyzed the ironies and problems of liberal politics with the rigor, depth, and subtlety Burt displays here. He redeems (or recovers) Stephen Douglas's reputation as a writer, speaker, and political thinker, and, through his deep engagement with Lincoln's writings, Burt also makes the best case available for the significance of Lincoln as a literary figure. And Burt's conclusions about the limits of liberal politics, about democracy itself being the barrier to ending a pervasive evil, have deep resonances for nations today.
--John Stauffer, author of The Black Hearts of Men
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