Browsed by
Author: admin

Moral Man, Immoral War?: A Historiographical Study of Morality and Ethics in the American Civil War – Part V

Moral Man, Immoral War?: A Historiographical Study of Morality and Ethics in the American Civil War – Part V

In the fifth and final installment of this multi-part post, contributing editor Joshua Ward Jeffery continues an examination and discussion of the historiography of morality and ethics in the American Civil War. You can find Part I here, Part II herePart III here, and Part IV here.

More problematic, however, is the fact that the Lieber Code, as drafted, was intended to limit the conduct of Union, and later, American soldiers in time of war. However, one of the major innovations of the Lieber Code is that it enshrined the principal of “military necessity” as “a general standard for legitimate military action.”[72]  As Leiber defined it, Military necessity “consists in the necessity of those measures which are indispensible for securing the ends of the war, and which are lawful according to the modern law and usages of war.”[73]  According to Carnahan, however:

It should be noted that, both during the Civil War and in later nineteenth and twentieth-century conflicts, the terms “necessity,” indispensible,” and “unavoidable” were not taken literally by military commanders or their governments. In practice, so long as there was a rational connection, under circumstances as understood at the time, between an act of war and the defeat of the enemy’s armed forces, the principle of military necessity was regarded as having been satisfied.[74]

Instead of having a limiting effect on soldiers, however, the principle of military necessity emboldened military commanders, soldiers, and politicians to claim that almost any action was justified by military necessity.  Much of the balance of Carnahan’s book is dedicated to demonstrating that the escalation to total war was fully justified by the doctrine of military necessity, leading Carnahan to argue that the actions of Lincoln, Grant, and Sherman were more or less moral.  Carnahan also examined Lincoln’s actions as Commander in Chief using other standards of the Laws of War at the time of the conflict, and found that “Under the standards of his time, President Lincoln did not authorize or condone any violations of the laws of war against enemy civilians.”[75]  Furthermore, Carnahan argued that scholarly statements decrying Lincoln and his commanders for war crimes committed by their troops suffered from “presentism,” because the doctrine of “command responsibility,” did not become incorporated into the Laws of War until after World War II.[76]  I found this argument very unsatisfying, however.  According to the doctrines of Just War Theory, which provided the backbone for international law, commanders, and ultimately, the sovereign that sends them into the field, have the ultimate moral responsibility for the conduct of a war under Jus in Bello.  In fact, the just war doctrine of the moral equality of soldiers recognizes the fact that the morality of all actions occurring in war fall at the feet of those giving the orders, not those executing them.  To argue that the idea was not formally enshrined within the Laws of War appears to me to be a legal argument based upon technicality, and not upon understood principles in fact.

    Carnahan’s Lincoln on Trial was received well by scholars, with only minor criticisms for failing to compare the complexities of the Laws of War during the Civil War with other like conflicts, such as the American Revolution or the Civil War in Post-Soviet Yugoslavia.[77]  Sailaja Paidipaty  argued that such a comparison might have made the analysis more complex and might have served to create more questions about the application of the Laws of War to conflicts considered civil wars.

    The result of these works has been to create a historiographical space for the assessment of the American Civil War through the lens of morality and ethics.  The majority of those works, unsurprisingly, have tended to exonerate Lincoln and his generals as acting morally, but all of these works have applied differing moral standards.  Miller’s work examined Lincoln through the eyes of Weberan ethics, Stout applied Christianity’s Just War Theory to weigh the actions of Lincoln and others, and Carnahan applied the dictates of International Law—which is based upon Just War Theory, but not bound by it—to weigh Lincoln and his commanders.  Such varied approaches have of course crossed widely varied results, creating a historiographical problem that beckons additional attention to the subject. However, the authors of the extant works in this new subfield of Civil War Studies largely ignored the fact that they were creating or contributing to a unique historiographical approach to the war. Work that takes this new historiographical approach into account, and attempts to weave these differing approaches into a coherent whole will make a strong contribution to the field. While much ground has been covered in the few works that have so far appeared on this topic, much fertile soil remains for scholars who wish to till these grounds.

[72] Ibid, 31.
[73] Ibid, 32.
[74] Ibid.
[75] Ibid, 119.
[76] Ibid, 98-99.
[77] Sailaja Paidipaty, review of Lincoln On Trial: Southern Civilians and the Law of War, by Burris Carnahan, New York University Journal of International Law and Politics 43, no. 211 (2010): 225.

Moral Man, Immoral War?: A Historiographical Study of Morality and Ethics in the American Civil War – Part III

Moral Man, Immoral War?: A Historiographical Study of Morality and Ethics in the American Civil War – Part III

In the third installment of this multi-part post, contributing editor Joshua Ward Jeffery continues an examination and discussion of the historiography of morality and ethics in the American Civil War. You can find Part I here, and Part II here.

While I find Stout’s approach to the Civil War concerning Jus in Bello to be particularly refreshing, considering the amount of hagiography the American Civil War has produced, I find Stout’s unwillingness to judge the war on the merits of Jus ad Bellum to be troubling. I find his argument that the Civil War cannot properly be judged by this criteria because it was in fact a civil war, and not an international war to be completely unsatisfying. Similarly, I find his argument about judging whether or not the South had a right to secede to be particularly questionable; it echoes pre-modern Christian arguments that God’s providence would ensure that the side in the right would always win and that winning was therefore a sure barometer of justice. The reasons for the war, despite some rhetoric to the contrary, are well documented, and an objective evaluation of the actions of the North and the South that led to the war is entirely possible. Since it is possible to apply Jus ad Bellum criteria to the conflict, it is very disappointing that Stout fails to do so. While it can be argued that evaluating whether or not entering the war was just would undermine Stout’s purpose in evaluating the conduct of the war, I do not find this argument to be particularly reasonable. The Jus ad Bellum criteria are entirely separate from the Jus in Bello criteria. Just as a party can enter a war justly and then fight it unjustly, so can a party enter a war unjustly and then fight in a just, moral, and lawful manner. Stout would have done well by making, at the least, a tentative judgment on the morality of going to war in the first place.

But while Stout failed to judge the morality of engaging the war, he did in fact do well in judging the morality of how the war was fought. In two sections made up of twelve chapters on proportionality during the war and the discrimination of combatants from non-combatants, Stout rightfully decried the violation of Jus in Bello criteria. Stout critiqued the well known and problematic battlefield math of Grant versus his opponents, where Grant often sacrificed two, three, or four times the number of casualties of his opponents in order to win a tactical or strategic victory for the Union. The disproportionality that resulted from Grant’s reckless charges and other actions in order to eventually overwhelm enemy forces was so great after one campaign, that Stout remarked “In the aftermath of Spotsylvania, even Grant was stunned by the carnage… In little over twelve days, the Army of the Potomac had lost thirty-two thousand men. Northern reporters, and not a few Democrats, branded Grant a ‘butcher,” and some of his own soldiers agreed. Nothing before had equaled the sheer intensity of killing.”[40] In a chapter on the battle at Cold Harbor, where the U.S. Park Service estimated 13,000 U.S. casualties to a Confederate casualty number of 2,500, Stout was able to demonstrate that Grant’s sacrificing of his men had no purpose, strategic or otherwise.[41] Grant himself said of the battle, “At Cold Harbor no advantage whatever was gained to compensate for the heavy loss we sustained. Indeed, the advantages other than those of relative losses, were on the Confederate side.”[42] Stout believed that Grant’s statements about Cold Harbor demonstrated that even Grant “had a moral sense of the war and an understanding of when the moral brake linings sheared. But even Cold Harbor could be morally justified by his commander in chief, who kept closely to his awful arithmetic.”[43]

Stout assessed the reasoning for Lincoln’s “awful arithmetic” as well, in a commendable section of the justification for total war. Most northern historians, and a few Southern ones as well, have applauded Lincoln’s decision to engage in total war through his adoption of the Emancipation Proclamation. While Stout recognized the Proclamation as “unquestionably right and good,” he also recognized that it “becomes more problematic if it was employed by Lincoln and Northern Republicans generally as a “lever” (Lincoln’s term) for a total war on the Confederacy that deliberately targeted” Southern civilians.[44] Stout rightly took Lincoln to task for fighting a war to save the Union, while using the emancipation of slaves as a method to escalate and win the war, and not as an end in and of itself. Stout also, correctly, saw Lincoln’s racism for what is was, unlike Miller, stating that “he could not escape the culture of racism and white supremacy of which he was a product. Besides favoring colonization of slaves before emancipation, he expressed no abhorrence about the racist laws in his native Illinois.”[45] While flawed in some ways, Stout’s work delivers overall a nuanced and well balanced depiction of the morality of Lincoln and the Civil War.

Not all readers agreed, however, that Stout’s work was balanced or nuanced. James McPherson, the distinguished historian of the War Between the States and author of the Civil War volume of the Oxford History of the United States, was stunned that Stout would have the audacity to critique the war and Lincoln. While McPherson was critical of Stout’s unwillingness to engage in an analysis of the war from the vantage point of Jus ad Bellum, he saved his most bitter barbs for Stout’s discussion of how the conflict escalated to total war and the role that the emancipation proclamation played in that escalation. In his review, McPherson clearly saw slavery as a greater evil than the total war that the civil war became and the destruction that it wrought, and he criticized Stout for failing to declare which one he saw as the greater evil himself.[46] He thought that Stout was “uncomfortably aware that emancipation was an integral and essential part of the escalation to total war…As a practical matter, Stout acknowledges, ‘emancipation was necessary as a means to total war.’ But it also gave total war ‘an unprecedented moral stature, allowing the Northern public to fasten on the ‘good’ of emancipation without ever inquiring into the ‘bad’ of unjust conduct in a total war.’”[47] McPherson’s vitriol against Stout, it seems, was a question of ideology. To McPherson, no war that would ultimately end slavery—a gross evil—and free millions of slaves could be judged to be an evil in and of itself. Questions of Just Cause should have indeed been asked because the South was dead wrong. Returning to the question of Just Cause later in his review, McPherson attacked Stout for his view of African-American soldiers, stating:

By a twist of logic difficult to follow, Stout considers black soldiers fighting for freedom to have been engaged in a just war even if white soldiers fighting for the same cause were not. “If anyone had a ‘cause’ that could meet all the moral scruples of a just war, it was the slaves and freedmen,” he believes. “The willingness of black soldiers to fight and die helped to transform the moral meaning of the Civil War from a war for Union to a ‘crusade’ for freedom.”[48]

McPherson could not believe that white soldiers, fighting for the Union, and eventually, to destroy slavery, could be fighting an unjust war, while African-American soldiers could be fighting a Just War. In the moral calculus of the Just War Theory, McPherson is correct—soldiers following orders have no moral culpability as long as they fight according to the laws of war—but I suspect that Stout, in his differing assessments of the just cause of black and white soldiers, was appealing to a higher law than Just War Theory in that moment.
In addition, McPherson attacked Stout’s calculation of civilian casualties, stating that “Through carelessness or misrepresentation, Stout grossly inflates the number of civilian casualties directly caused by military action in the Civil War.”[49] I found this attack regarding numbers to be curious, since it is well known that the there has been disagreement and consternation regarding the number of casualties caused by the war since the very first battles were fought. The rest of McPherson’s review of Stout continued with an acidic tone that made clear that McPherson believed that Stout, “As a historian of American religion,” had no business engaging in the lofty academic debates that were the proper purview of seasoned Civil War historians. Judging Lincoln, then, was his job as an historian of the Civil War, not Stout’s, as an historian of American religion.

[43] Stout, 348.

[44] Ibid, xvi.

[45] Ibid, 185.

[46] James McPherson, review of Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the American Civil War, by Harry S. Stout, New York Review of Books 53, no. 5 (March 23, 2006).

[47] Ibid.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Ibid.

This essay is continued here.

Moral Man, Immoral War?: A Historiographical Study of Morality and Ethics in the American Civil War – Part II

Moral Man, Immoral War?: A Historiographical Study of Morality and Ethics in the American Civil War – Part II

In the second installment of this multi-part post, contributing editor Joshua Ward Jeffery begins an examination and discussion of the historiography of morality and ethics in the American Civil War. You can find Part I here.

Miller’s argument is correct in that he denounced the severe presentism of critics such as Bennett, who saw Lincoln as an inveterate racist.  However, while I believe Miller’s argument is logical, I do not find it fully satisfying.  While it may be true that Lincoln’s arguments did create room for making some arguments that advanced the status of blacks in the United States, many of his statements did in fact reinforce racial stereotypes and prejudice and reinforced systemic injustice towards African-Americans, which is the definition of racism.  Furthermore, while it can certainly be argued that Lincoln was much less a racist than the majority of his white contemporaries, it certainly cannot be argued that his opinions and declarations on race were exemplary.  Many white abolitionists, such as William Lloyd Garrison, and even many successful white abolitionist politicians, such as U.S. Representative Thaddeus Stephens and U.S. Senator Charles Sumner, were far more advanced in their understandings of race and racism than was Lincoln. Stephens especially pushed Lincoln towards more progressive views of race and slavery.[24]

While Miller was interested in Lincoln’s moral developments and wished to defend him against current critics who called him a racist, Miller was particularly interested in demonstrating how Lincoln was a moral politician. Miller believed that what made Lincoln a “moral exemplar” was the fact that he applied his ethics in the public arena in an attempt to influence and then create policy. Miller had no interest in sectarians that separated themselves from the world.  Instead, he admired Lincoln because he was:

engaged in collective undertakings—political parties, legislative bodies, governments—in which his decision and action must take account of the decisions, actions, and convictions of others. He will be engaged in collective undertakings that, whatever they embodied of value, also entailed seeking and exercising power. He will realize a moral ideal only in the fragments and distortions possible in a particular place and time.[25]

At the heart of Miller’s book was the fact that Lincoln was remarkable not only because he was so very moral (in Miller’s eyes), but also because he applied that morality to the public arena.  Miller was quick to admit that if Lincoln had not become a politician, and if he had not been propelled into the greatest crisis the United States had even known, he would not have been remembered as a great man.[26] However, Miller was not just interested in Lincoln’s performance during the Civil War, but in his political work as a whole, especially against slavery. 

For example, Miller dedicated a chapter to Lincoln’s political maneuvering and moral attitude with regard to halting the extension of slavery in the land ceded to the United States after the Mexican War.[27] While Lincoln was absolutely opposed to the institution of slavery, he was not an abolitionist.  As is well known, Lincoln favored gradual, compensated emancipation of slaves.  However, Lincoln, like many anti-slavery politicians, did not believe that the federal government could directly intervene in slavery where it already existed.  What the government could do, however, was to prohibit the expansion of slavery into existing territories without slavery, as well as prevent it from being an institution in new states.  During Lincoln’s time in both the Illinois Legislature and the U.S. Congress, Lincoln worked towards campaigning for candidates and legislation that opposed the expansion of slavery.[28]  As a part of this work, Lincoln sometimes found himself stumping for candidates who opposed the expansion of slavery, but who also owned slaves themselves.  Lincoln gladly supported these candidates as long as they were willing to work against the expansion of slavery, but some of his fellow Whigs refused to support slaveholders as candidates, no matter what their positions on the expansion of slavery. These Whigs refused to vote for the “lesser of two evils,” instead arguing that they must maintain their “purity” or “perfection” by voting only for non-slaveholding, anti-slavery, and ideally, abolitionist candidates. Lincoln opposed such purist attitudes as unhelpful, and adopted a consequentialist view of ethics that focused upon the “fruits” of voting. Lincoln compared the fruits of voting for a slaveholding Presidential candidate such as Henry Clay, a slaveholder who opposed the expansion of slavery, versus James Polk, who favored expansion and pushed the United States into the Mexican War in order to provide more territory for slave states. Lincoln, then, was ready and willing to vote for “the lesser of two evils” in order “that good may come.”[29]

Miller the ethicist praised Lincoln’s willingness to vote for evil in order to achieve good, comparing Lincoln’s political work and thought to the thought of Max Weber.  Miller found Lincoln to embody Weber’s “ethic of responsibility” that he described in his essay “Politics as a Vocation.”  Such an ethic rejecteds philosophical purity in exchange for a realism that could accomplish a real moral good.[30]  Lincoln argued that such an ethic would have real successes.  In a letter to colleague and “Liberty-man” Williamson Durley who refused to vote for slave-holders, Lincoln denounced the perfectionism of Whigs who voted against Henry Clay because by their refusal to support Clay, they ensured that Polk would be elected as President.  Such a stance was not just foreign to Lincoln, its provoked “wonder” in his mind as to how such a stance could be morally right.[31] Such stances caused Miller to view Lincoln through the light of Weber and his “ethic of responsibility” throughout the balance of the book.[32]

Miller’s work was fairly well received, though it was not without critics. Eric Foner, early on in a review, expressed the opinion that “ ‘Lincoln’s Virtues’ is filled with digressions, irrelevancies, arguments with other historians and annoying asides.”[33]  Foner also found Miller’s defense of Lincoln’s alleged racism less than successful, seeing much of his defense as a gloss over very real racism.  Foner argued against Miller’s defense that “ it cannot be denied that, like many of his contemporaries, he [Lincoln] held prejudiced views regarding blacks even as he believed that slavery was a crime.”[34]  Foner also took Miller to task for ending his book in 1861, as Lincoln took the reigns of the Presidency at the beginning of the Civil War, showing that Foner was unaware of the fact that Miller was under contract for a second volume addressing the morality of Lincoln’s presidency.[35]  It is somewhat understandable, however, that Foner, a master historian of the Civil War, might want to read a book on Lincoln’s morality that came to bear directly upon his time and area of study, and not on its margins.

Skip Stout’s book, Upon the Altar of the Nation, did address Lincoln’s morality—and the morality of many other historical actors—during the time of the actual war. Stout, the Jonathan Edwards Professor of American Christianity at Yale University Divinity School, published this monograph in 2006.  Stout, a historian of American religion, set out to write “a moral history of the Civil War” in reaction to Confederate General Evander Law’s declaration at Cold Harbor that the slaughter of Union soldiers under fire by cannon during the battle “was not war, but murder.”[36] In response to this statement, Stout attempted to ask and answer the question of whether or not what General Law saw was truly murder or not. 

To answer such a question, Stout selected the Just War Theory as his main moral yardstick in evaluating whether the actions of Union and Confederate soldiers, generals, and Presidents were moral or not. Stout selected this method because he thought that:

In opposition to both pacifism on the one hand and amoral realism (Realpolitik) on the other, just-war theory offers a series of ethical principles that articulate a plausible moral framework. Whether one is dealing with wars in the distant past or contemporary wars, two sets of principles are especially important. The first set of principles offers guidelines for when a war might justly be declared. The second set of principles offers guidelines for governing just and fair conduct in the actual fighting of the war.[37]

After declaring such a moral framework, Stout immediately rejected using Jus ad Bellum, or the guidelines for when a war might justly be declared, as a moral yardstick for the American Civil War. Stout refused to evaluate whether or not the Jus ad Bellum criteria were met or not because of the fact that the War Between the States was a civil war, and not an international one.  Stout claimed that “it often becomes difficult to discern with finality who is the unjust aggressor and who the just defender” is, and so, attempting to do so is just not worth doing.  Stout asked if a nation had the right to secede from a state that it was a part of, such as the South from the North.  His answer was “Yes. And no. Only a civil war would determine the answer.”[38]  Such an answer echoes back to a prior time when Christians who assumed the overarching providence of God in all things believed that the outcome of the war clearly showed which side was just and which side was not.

            However, while Stout was uninterested in answering the question of whether or not the causes of the war were just, he gladly engaged questions of morality for individual actions that occurred during the war.  He engaged in such a work because he believed that “Moral history imbues the present with a heightened sensitivity to what actors might have done, what they ought to have done, and what in fact, they actually did. It is in the distances between the oughts and the actualities that moral judgments emerge. One bears witness to the past with all possible integrity and disinterestedness for the sake of the present and the future.”[39]  Stout, unlike Miller, was interested not in celebrating the ethical worthiness of Lincoln or the Union, but in making objective moral evaluations of the President(s) and the war that often weighed these actors on the scale of justice, and found them severely wanting.

This essay is continued here.


[24] For a full discussion of Lincoln, his views of race, and his development on the race question over time, see Eric Foner, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011).

[25] Ibid, xv.

[26] Ibid.

[27] See Miller’s chapter “Politics and Morals,” 192-230.

[28] Ibid, 192-205.

[29] Ibid, 194-195.

[30] Ibid, 195.

[31] Ibid, 194. 

[32] Scot J. Zentner, review of Review Essay of Lincoln’s Virtues the Second Inaugural Address by James Tackach; Lincoln’s Greatest Speech the Second Inaugural by Ronald C. White: An Ethical Biography by William Lee Miller; Lincoln’s Moral Vision, by William Lee Miller, Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association 25, no. 1 (Winter 2004): 104-18.

[33] Foner, “Education of Abraham Lincoln.”

[34] Ibid.

[35] It also seems that Foner’s dislike for the book (and possibly for Miller) kept him from imagining that this was the case.  Other reviewers also noted that the chronological time period for the book was not satisfying, but were charitable enough to suppose that Miller had another volume in store.  For an example, see Cathal J. Nolan, review of Lincoln’s Virtues, by William Lee Miller, Ethics and International Affairs Review 16, no. 2 (October 2002): 173-76.

[36] Stout, xi.

[37] Ibid, xiii.

[38] Ibid, xiv.

[39] Ibid, xii.

Moral Man, Immoral War?: A Historiographical Study of Morality and Ethics in the American Civil War

Moral Man, Immoral War?: A Historiographical Study of Morality and Ethics in the American Civil War

In this multi-part post, contributing editor Joshua Ward Jeffery begins an examination and discussion of the historiography of morality and ethics in the American Civil War.

The American Civil War is arguably one of the most contentious events in U.S. History. Even now, over one hundred and fifty years after the conclusion of the war, questions regarding the causes of the war, whether the war was just, why the North won and the South lost, or whether President Lincoln was a hero or a tyrant, are continually asked and rehashed by both historians and the public alike. It is well known that the answers that people provide to many of these questions often depend upon the social and geographical location of the individual answering the question. This is amply demonstrated by the various names that are used to denote the war. In the North, the war is typically known as “the American Civil War,” or less often as “the War of the Rebellion.” In the South, the war is often titled “the War Between the States,” or more tellingly, “the War of Northern Aggression.”

While there is no way to eliminate geographical or social bias in attempts to answer these historical questions, a cadre of historians have attempted to find a more objective framework for the evaluation of these and other questions. A natural genre of history for the exploration of more objective frameworks for these critical questions is the field of religion and war. As this subfield has expanded from an almost ignored area of study to one with that is gaining more and more attention, it is unsurprising that historians interested in the interplay between religion and war would attempt to answer these questions through a moral framework.[1] Thus, some historians have turned to the use of religious and philosophical ethics, just war theory, and international law in order to provide a more balanced analysis of these questions. Specifically, most of these historians have focused their work on President Abraham Lincoln, the U.S. head of state and the Commander and Chief of the Union’s armed forces. Sifting through massive amounts of monographs and articles on Lincoln and the war as a whole, these scholars have created an interesting and notable contribution to the scholarly understanding of Lincoln and the war.

However, while the historians that have examined the war and Lincoln through this lens have done an excellent job in engaging the historiography of these two subjects as a whole, they have largely neglected to take notice of the fact that they have begun their own historiographical tradition. In this historiographical study, I will show that while the subject of Lincoln’s morality and ethics have begun to be covered fairly well for the small number of books which have been issued, more work remains to be done, especially with regards to the historiography of this new genre in Civil War studies.

In this essay, I will examine four monographs that have closely scrutinized Lincoln through the lens of ethics, morality, and law, and which have provided a more objective framework for the examination of critical questions in the historiography of the American Civil War. Additionally, I will examine a fifth text in juxtaposition to these works, due to an interesting scholarly dispute that began between two historians because of the questioning of Lincoln’s wartime ethics.

These five works include Lincoln’s Virtues: An Ethical Biography by William Lee Miller[2], Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War, by Harry S. Stout[3], Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, by James McPherson[4], Act of Justice: Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the Law of War, by Burrus M. Carnahan[5], and Lincoln on Trial: Southern Civilians and the Law of War, also by Carnahan[6].

The first historian that examined Lincoln’s life and work specifically through the lens of ethics and morality was William Lee Miller. Miller, who at the time of publication was the White Burkett Miller Center Scholar in Residence at the University of Virginia, and had served previously as the Commonwealth Professor of Political and Social Thought at the University of Virginia. Miller considered himself an ethicist, not a historian, and had earned his PhD from Yale Divinity School in Religious Social Ethics[7]. While Lincoln’s Virtues is a biography and history of the President from his early life until his inauguration, Miller’s training as an ethicist and philosopher easily shined through the text. Miller’s work was not simply a moralistic retelling of the Lincoln’s life; it was a serious socioethical analysis.

In that vein, Miller intended to demonstrate that Lincoln was “an unusually worthy human being,” and to reexamine Lincoln’s life story in order to demonstrate the “moral meaning” of “his rise to power.”[8] Miller believed this work badly needed to be done because he thought that the “mythic picture” of Lincoln as the great emancipator, savior of the federal union, and then martyr for those causes tended to have a “perversely damaging effect on our understanding of Lincoln as a real human being in a real world… his actual moral achievements are discounted.”[9]

One of the main ethical successes that Miller found in the life of Lincoln was his self-education. Miller spent much time and energy on Lincoln’s lack of a formal education, and then demonstrated that despite this deficit, Lincoln worked hard to acquire knowledge that would allow him to escape farming (a pursuit he detested) and provide him with access to a career that would permit him to exercise his mind over his muscles. Lincoln’s cousin Dennis Hanks reported that Lincoln “was always reading, scribbling, writing, ciphering, writing Poetry, etc.”[10] Lincoln learned law not by attending law school, but by borrowing a copy of Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England and studying them thoroughly. Through his own self study he was able to gain enough knowledge and skill to be admitted to the bar, and then quickly became a partner in a law firm.[11] After being elected to Congress in 1847, Lincoln found lodging in a small house across the street from the Library of Congress, and spent almost all of his free time in the Library studying the issues that he had to confront in office. Among the topics that Lincoln studied were Euclid’s geometry, with Lincoln saying that he “nearly mastered” all six volumes.[12] He continued to use the Library when he was elected President. Miller was highly impressed by Lincoln’s personal scholarship, stating, “It is not every president who would get books on military science from the Library of Congress, studying the subject in order to deal with the generals. Lincoln would develop rare powers of concentration, and he would use them all of his life. He developed a confidence that he could dig into books for what he wanted, and would do so repeatedly in the years ahead.”[13]

Miller found that Lincoln was not just unique in going to the library to gain the knowledge he needed to get ahead in the world, but also that young Abraham’s moral sense appeared to be unique compared to those around him. Miller enumerated Lincoln’s moral distinctiveness by observing that:

In a society of hunters, Lincoln did not hunt; where many males shot rifles, Lincoln did not shoot; among fishermen, Lincoln did not fish; among many who were cruel to animals, Lincoln was kind… in a world in which men smoked and chewed, Lincoln never used tobacco; in a rough, profane world, Lincoln did not swear; in a social world in which fighting was regular male activity, Lincoln became a peacemaker; in a hard-drinking society, Lincoln did not drink; when a temperance movement condemned all drinking, Lincoln the nondrinker did not join it; in an environment soaked with hostility to Indians, Lincoln resisted it; in a time and a place which the great mass of common men in the West supported Andrew Jackson, Lincoln supported Henry Clay; surrounded by Democrats, Lincoln became a Whig; in a political party with a strong nativist undercurrent, Lincoln rejected that prejudice; in a southern-flavored setting soft on slavery, Lincoln always opposed it; in a white world with strong racial antipathies, Lincoln was generous to blacks.[14]

Miller challenged the notion that the President was “a ‘white supremacist’ and even… a racist.”[15] Miller spent a page of his short preface, as well as a full chapter in the main text, to defend Lincoln’s reputation from allegations of this type.[16] According to Eric Foner[17], Miller was writing in response to Lerone Bennett, who denigrated Lincoln as total racist with little to no true moral vision.[18] Miller referenced Bennett in a footnote in his chapter where he defended Lincoln, but only mentioned that Bennett’s selection of Alexander Trumbull as a heroic non-racist foil against Lincoln was both bizarre and incorrect.[19] In order to defend Lincoln from the charges of racist and white supremacist, Miller had to first attempt to explain Lincoln’s statements during his U.S. Senate campaign against Stephen Douglas where Lincoln unequivocally stated that he was not in favor of “social and political equality” for African-Americans.[20] Miller explained and defended Lincoln in three ways. First, Miller pointed out that Lincoln’s critics of today who accuse him of gross racism are engaging in “presentism,” that is, not recognizing that Lincoln was a “man of his time,” a time where most if not all white men were in fact racists.[21] Second, Miller pointed to the fact that Lincoln was not monolithic, but instead that his ethics and morals continued to grow as he experienced life and learned new lessons.[22] Finally, Miller emphasized that Lincoln was in fact a politician, and that as a politician, he was bound to agree with some racial generalization or else he would be made unelectable. However, Miller argued that by agreeing with some of the standard racial generalizations of his time during political debate, Lincoln was then was able to create space that allowed him to argue against other generalizations. For example, by arguing against political and social inequality for African-Americans, Miller saw that Lincoln was able to then create space to contend that blacks were at least entitled to the same natural rights as whites, as found in the Declaration of Independence. Arguments such as these served to set Lincoln apart as more morally advanced than his white male peers that surrounded him.[23] In this way, just as Lincoln the politician was ethically unique with regards to alcohol, tobacco, and cursing, so too was he in his actual attitudes toward black Americans.

Part II of this post can be found here.


[1] For more on how religion has been often ignored in American history, and specifically how the interplay of religion and war has been almost completely overlooked by scholars, see Harry S. Stout, “Religion, War, and the Meaning of America”, Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation 19, no. 2 (Summer 2009): 275-89.

[2] (New York: Vintage Books, 2003).

[3] (New York: Penguin Books, 2007).

[4] (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).

[5] (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2007).

[6] (Louisville: University Press of Kentucky, 2010).

[7] For Miller’s description of himself as an ethicist and not a historian, see William Lee Miller, interviewed by Brian Lamb, June 14, 1992, Booknotes, CSPAN, Washington, DC. For Miller’s educational background, see Margalit Fox, “William Lee Miller, Scholar on Abraham Lincoln, Is Dead at 86,” New York Times, June 5, 2012.

[8] Miller, xii.

[9] Ibid, xiii.

[10] Ibid, 31.

[11] Ibid, 130.

[12] Ibid, 52.

[13] Ibid, 53.

[14] Ibid, 43.

[15] Ibid, xiii-xiv.

[16] See Miller’s chapter, “Lincoln’s Defense of Our Common Humanity”, 340-374.

[17] Eric Foner, “The Education of Abraham Lincoln,” review of Lincoln’s Virtues, by William Lee Miller, New York Times, February 10, 2002, 1, accessed March 23, 2015,

[18] Forced into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream (Chicago: Johnson Pub. Co., 2000), 1.

[19] Miller, 362-3n*.

[20] Ibid, 354.

[21] Ibid, 355.

[22] Ibid, xiv-xvi.

[23] Ibid, 353-363.