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.

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