Lincoln and the “New Morality”

Corey Robin has an excellent piece on Robert George and other conservative opposition to marriage equality (e.g. gay marriage in their lexicon, I suppose) and their misuse of Lincoln’s opposition to the Dred Scott decision to buttress their position. I wanted to add a thought or two of my own.

First, as I was reading the Wall Street Journal this morning, there was an interesting essay by the Classicist Mary Beard on “Ancient Rome’s Open Borders.” A little more than midway through the essay Beard has an excellent paragraph on the purpose of history. To wit: “It is naïve to imagine that history can bequeath policy to the future—and simplistic to draw cheap parallels between then and now. There is no Roman [Lincolnian?] magic wand to be waved over 21st-century troubles, however seductive an idea that is. What history can do, however, is refine the way that we think about those troubles, challenge the assumptions we treat as natural and expose differences across time.” A good reminder for us all, without question, and one that David Donald pointed out long ago is particularly problematic for historians of Lincoln (see also Gordon Wood for  a similar argument).

Secondly, I wonder, do George and others in his camp not see that Lincoln and the Republicans, in criticizing Dred Scott, were criticizing a decision that denied the idea that blacks had rights, whereas George et al are opposed to the Obergefell decision, one that expands rights for others?

Finally, this reminds me of an excellent book I read this spring, Edward Rubin’s Soul, Self, and Society: The New Morality and the Modern State. Rubin’s sweeping historical narrative argues that “For the past two centuries, and at an accelerating rate, Western society has been experiencing an epochal transition. Our previous morality is declining, and a new one is replacing it. The norms that guided us for nearly a millennium are losing force, and different ones – unique and unprecedented ones, in fact – are arising in their stead. This process is now well advanced; it is transforming our society, and its consequences will become increasingly wide-ranging and profound as the new morality takes hold” (page 1). What is the new morality? “Very briefly,” Rubin argues, “the traditional morality urges people to direct their private actions to the salvation of their souls and deny themselves the pleasures of the present, while the new morality urges people to develop a life plan for their selves that will maximize those present pleasures over the expected course of their existence” (page 2).

I suspect Rubin is correct, which may help explain a couple of things. First, conservatives today are worried, and rightly so. What some see as overblown rhetoric may well be signs of a movement in its death throes. I believe this is an argument of Corey Robin’s, and to me at least it has merit. Second, I also think that this allows to see a little more clearly why Lincoln still has a hold on the American imagination. In a way, Lincoln straddled the old and the new morality. On the one hand, he never quite equated the American Union with God’s ways, – he once called Americans the “almost chosen people” – and it seems to me pretty clear that he believed some things were timelessly true: “If slavery is not wrong, then nothing is wrong,” he said in 1864. On the other hand, he advocated for an America that gave “hope to all” , one where the Declaration of Independence gave hope “not alone to the people of this country, but hope to the world for all future time. (Great applause.) It was that which gave promise that in due time the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance. (Cheers.) This is the sentiment embodied in that Declaration of Independence.” This sounds, to some degree, like the new morality that Rubin describes in his wonderful book.