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.

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