Tuesday, January 3, 2006

Abraham Lincoln: Compromising Politician or Cunning Idealist? WC Professor Looks Anew at "The Great Emancipator"

Chestertown, MD, January 3, 2006 — Should we remember Abraham Lincoln as "The Great Emancipator" with an ingrained vision of justice and human equality? Or, as a compromising politician who held the common racist ideas of his era and who pragmatically-and reluctantly-chose to free the slaves? Richard Striner, Professor of History at Washington College, challenges recent theories of Lincoln's "passive abolitionism" in his new book Father Abraham: Lincoln's Relentless Struggle to End Slavery, just released by Oxford University Press.

While recent scholarship has tended to focus on Lincoln's contradictions and dualities, Striner sees instead a moral genius utilizing a shrewd logic to manipulate the political and social forces of his day to achieve a larger vision of justice and equality in the United States.

"The genius of President Lincoln was his ability to harmonize morality and cunning to save the nation by changing it," Striner asserts.

According to Striner, if you examine the speeches that Lincoln made in the 1850s, you will have no doubt of his passion to end slavery. These speeches illuminate the anger, vehemence, and sheer brilliance of candidate Lincoln, who worked up crowds with charismatic fervor as he gathered a national following. But if he felt so passionately about abolition, why did he wait so long to release the Emancipation Proclamation?

"Lincoln was driven by an ethical sense, but he was also driven by a Machiavellian understanding of politics," he says. "He was a genius at orchestrating power. Indeed, his strategic sense could lead him to some compromises with the truth, but these compromises were always ethical in intent. Lincoln was never a shortsighted idealist. Quite to the contrary. He would readily juxtapose truth and calculated deception if it served a higher good."

As Striner points out, politics is the art of the possible, and Lincoln was a consummate politician, a shrewd manipulator who cloaked his visionary ethics in the more pragmatic garb of the coalition-builder. He was at bottom a Machiavellian prince for a democratic age. When secession began, Lincoln used the battle cry of saving the Union to build a power base, one that would eventually break the slave-holding states forever.

Striner argues that Lincoln was a rare man indeed: a fervent idealist and a crafty politician with a remarkable gift for strategy. It was the harmonious blend of these two qualities that made Lincoln's role in ending slavery so fundamental. According to Striner, Father Abrahamchallenges the conventional views of Lincoln in a number of ways. It challenges the notion of Lincoln as a "moderate" by demonstrating the strategic dynamism of his program. It puts the "unionism" of Lincoln in better perspective by showing how his fight to save the Union was always contingent on the ultimate phase-out of slavery. It also challenges the claim that Lincoln was a racist. To the contrary, Striner suggests, Lincoln's goal was to hold white supremacy at bay while he reduced the power of the slave states.

Ultimately for Striner, Lincoln's presidency is a case study in the problems of democratic leadership. By perfectionist standards, Lincoln's leadership was problematical, but he argues that Lincoln's willingness to balance lesser evils with greater good led to a moral success of even greater magnitude.

Striner has taught history at Washington College since 1988 and is a Senior Writer with the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Commission. His academic study and research have focused on the history of ideas, using this field to delve into subjects as diverse as the evolution of conservative and liberal ideology to the poetry of Alexander Pope, from the symbolism of Art Deco architecture to the problem of ethics in the field of historic preservation. His writings on history, politics, economics, and historic preservation have been published by outlets as diverse as William & Mary Quarterly, Smithsonian Institution Press, and The Washington Post. Striner's interest in the concept and arts of moral leadership in democracy led him to the subject of Lincoln. His next book project is a study of the long-forgotten modes of statecraft that passed from Lincoln to both of the Roosevelts, Theodore and Franklin.

Striner lives with his wife, Sara, in Pasadena, Maryland.

Washington College is a private, independent college of liberal arts and sciences located in historic Chestertown on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Founded in 1782 under the patronage of George Washington, it was the first college chartered in the new nation.

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