Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Lincoln the Uncompromiser

Kudos to Adam Gopnik for this good piece in The New Yorker about the new Lincoln movie.  We are often told that Lincoln is a great man, and that compromise is a great virtue, and therefore it is easy to conclude that Lincoln must have liked compromise.  And you can put together a story of Lincoln that makes it appear that he was open to compromise.  As Gopnik rightfully points out, however, that's not the primary strain in Lincoln's character.  Yes, Lincoln was a founder of the Midwest, and like many in the Midwest, Lincoln loved to be fair -- he loved the idea that everyone should play by the rules.  But also like many in the Midwest, Lincoln believed in punishing those who, in his opinion, had violated the rules.

For almost 100 years, Americans had been dancing around the possibility of what horrors might take place if the North tried to end slavery in the South.  Even after the war began, many in the North recoiled at what was happening.  (I think this explains, in part, why McClellan fought the war with such little enthusiasm.)  It was Lincoln (and his fellow Midwesterners, Grant and Sherman) who saw, more clearly than everyone else, that to preserve the Union and end slavery would require hundreds of thousands of deaths.  And it was Lincoln, and his Midwestern generals, who showed a willingness to kill, and kill, and kill, on an enormous scale.  It all worked, and we're all better for it.  But it wasn't done in the spirit of compromise.

This doesn't mean that compromise is always wrong, or that fighting for principle is always right.  We live in a fallen world, and statesmen have to make difficult -- and often tragic -- decisions, often with little guidance from the past.  We would all be better served by a political culture that took those facts more seriously.

1 comment:

  1. I think too it should be noted that there are some things that you simply should never compromise about. Slavery being one of them. Taxes are not.