Loyola University Chicago

Department of Philosophy


Dr. Thomas Carson’s new book combines history and philosophy through discussion of Abraham Lincoln’s virtues

Dr. Thomas Carson’s new book combines history and philosophy through discussion of Abraham Lincoln’s virtues

An interview by Molly Clasen

Dr. Carson discusses his upcoming book, Lincoln's Ethics, in which he assesses Lincoln's moral character, his many morally fraught decisions regarding slavery, and the rights of African-Americans, as well as his actions and policies as Commander in Chief during the Civil War. Lincoln's Ethics will be published May 2015 by Cambridge University Press and is available for advance purchase on Amazon.com andCambridge.org.

How did you become interested in Abraham Lincoln?

I read most of Carl Sandburg’s six-volume biography of Lincoln while I was in graduate school. I purchased it on a lark in a used bookstore in Providence, RI during the summer of 1974. I really loved the book. I found Lincoln to be an appealing and compelling figure. At that time, there was a widely held view that he was racist and that he didn’t care very much about slavery. I was in the grips of that kind of view until I read a variety of books about Lincoln.

When did you start working on this book specifically?

There’s a biography of Lincoln by David Herbert Donald. He discusses a class about Lincoln that he co-taught at Harvard with the philosopher John Rawls. Rawls was a great admirer of Lincoln. Twenty years ago, I read that, and I wished I could have taken that class. About ten years later, there was a book called Lincoln’s Virtues by William Lee Miller that highlighted Lincoln’s ethics. It occurred to me that I could use that book to teach my own class on the topic. Around the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth, I decided that I wanted to teach this class that I’d been thinking about for so long. I hadn’t planned to write anything or do much scholarly work on it; I just wanted to teach the class. I enjoyed it so much that I became obsessed with the topic. One thing led to the other, and I started writing the book.

What interests you about the intersection of philosophy and history?

It strikes me that most philosophers don’t know much history, so they often make up trite or absurd hypothetical examples when discussing moral questions. There are many very interesting and important people and historical events that they could talk about instead. I had the perception that there was a chance for me to do something new. I think it’s astonishing that no other philosopher has ever written a book about Lincoln’s ethics! He was a very interesting and complicated person. There is a strong case for saying that he was a very good person, maybe an exceptionally good person. His actions and policies before and during the Civil War regarding slavery raise many serious ethical issues.

What are some Lincoln’s policies that your book discusses?

The first half of the book deals mainly with Lincoln’s policies about slavery and as Commander in Chief during war. I don’t think people appreciate the extent to which he helped to bring about the American Civil War. The South wanted a peaceful secession from the US. Many abolitionists didn’t want to fight a war either. But Lincoln was determined to fight a war rather than let the country fall apart. Given that he wasn’t trying to abolish slavery at the time, did he have a good enough reason to fight a war to keep the country together? That’s a very important question that I address in great detail. I also talk at some length about the Emancipation Proclamation, which declares the freedom of most American slaves but left slavery intact in the border states of Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware.

Why didn’t Lincoln go further to abolish slavery in the Emancipation Proclamation?

Lincoln didn’t think that he had the legal or constitutional authority to abolish slavery in states that stayed in the Union. He took his oath of office very seriously. If the constitution or the law itself is extremely unjust, some would say that leaders should defy the law. And although I’m very sympathetic with that argument, I defend what Lincoln did. I don’t think he could have possibly been successful if he had tried to defy the law or the Constitution in that way.

How does Lincoln help start the Civil War?

In the First Inaugural Address, Lincoln said that he would occupy, hold, and defend federal property which included Fort Sumter in South Carolina, but would not begin a civil war. He knew that in order to unite the country in case of war, the Confederates must be perceived as the aggressors. Right after he became president, he learned that the garrison at Fort Sumter was running out of food. Most of the military leaders and cabinet members said he should give it up. Instead, Lincoln publicly announced that a naval flotilla would resupply Fort Sumter with food, water, and medicine, but not troops or ammunition. All but two members of his cabinet opposed that and said that this would start a war. And Lincoln replied that he thought that it probably would lead to a war. He said that, if there was to be a war, it was important that the Confederates should start it. That is exactly what happened. The Confederates attacked Fort Sumter, which united the Northern states behind Lincoln to fight the war.

What questions does your book raise about Lincoln’s character?

I talk about various moral virtues that he had. He was a very kind, benevolent person. There is a great deal of evidence for that. It was pronounced when he was a boy. It was also reflected in his tender-hearted treatment of animals. He was extremely magnanimous. He worked with people who attacked and slandered him. And, to a really remarkable degree, he was able to act for the good of the country without taking things personally or settling scores. There’s a case for saying that he was an exceptionally good person.

How do you see Lincoln’s character and personality change throughout his life?

He was a pretty rough and tumble politician as a young guy. He engaged in dirty tricks, such as writing anonymous letters attacking people in local newspapers. At one point, he ridiculed the Auditor of the State of Illinois, who became so furious that he challenged Lincoln to a duel. Lincoln also suffered debilitating depression and seriously contemplated committing suicide twice in his early adulthood. But eventually, he calmed down a lot. Despite all of his troubles with Mary Todd Lincoln, he maintained a much better emotional equilibrium after he married. And as time passed, he held more and more enlightened views on racial questions and eventually became an abolitionist. He was very open to learning from the criticism of other people, including some abolitionists who attacked him and called him “poor white trash.”

What did you learn about Lincoln’s personal life?

His personal life was very troubled. He had an unhappy marriage. He also had a very troubled relationship with his father. I think it’s very disturbing that, even though Lincoln was the only living natural child of his father, Lincoln’s children never met their grandfather. His stepmother, who was a wonderful person, never met Lincoln’s children either. Lincoln had a very distant, cold relationship with his father, but he loved his stepmother very much. Mary Todd Lincoln was from a prominent family and she looked down on Lincoln’s parents. She didn’t want her sons to meet them, and I think that Lincoln deferred to her wishes about that.

Can you talk about the book’s theoretical underpinnings of the book?

I claim—with qualifications—that Lincoln was a utilitarian. I think that many controversial things he did can be justified on utilitarian grounds. But I don’t presuppose that utilitarianism is true, and I argue that what he did can be justified according to other reasonable moral theories. To those who say that Lincoln should have declared the emancipation of American slaves the day he took office, I reply that that would have been a self-defeating action that could not have succeeded. It would have led to the independence of the Confederate States of America.

What is something you discovered through your research that surprised you?

I learned how troubled his personal life was. He had an unhappy marriage. Two of his sons died during his lifetime. His mother and surrogate grandparents died when he was a young boy. His sister died. His first sweetheart, Anne Rutledge, also died. There was a great deal of sorrow and loss in his life; Lincoln was a melancholy man who often brooded about death and human morality. But the thing that surprised me most was his role in bringing about the Civil War. It was not inevitable that there would be a war to stop Southern secession. The South did not want a war. They wanted a peaceful secession, and many people in the North would have been happy with that.

If you could ask Lincoln one question, what would it be?

I’d ask him about his marriage. By the end of the life, in his heart of hearts, did he love Mary anymore? Would he have been glad to be divorced?

If Lincoln had lived, what would his intention have been for post-Civil War America?

Maybe there’s no answer to that question. He was shot before the war was over and before the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified. I don’t think Lincoln had the time or energy to think about the future in much detail, but we don’t know for sure. If I could ask Lincoln a second question it would be about this.

What can philosophers contribute to discussions about history?

Take the question: “Was Lincoln a racist?” It’s very widely discussed, but I’ve never seen a single discussion of this that includes a careful definition of racism. Philosophers are rigorous about defining concepts and making distinctions. There are many questions that combine ethics and history, but almost all the writing that addresses them has been done by historians rather than philosophers. A philosopher’s understanding of moral theory helps him/her to better understand the moral significance of historical events. My book applies several theories of “Just War” to the question of whether the Union had just cause for fighting the American Civil War. No Civil War historian has done anything like that.

Has this process differed from writing your other books?

It was very different. I had to master quite a bit of historical material. As part of that, I emailed many historians. Sometimes a short answer to a question saved me weeks of fruitless searching in the library. Historians are very collegial!

Have any other professors at Loyola assisted you with your research?

I am a friend of Loyola’s Civil War historian, Ted Karamanski. I pestered him with many many questions, especially at the beginning of my work. He and I helped organize a commemoration of the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth at Loyola which included many speakers. In the Fall of 2008, we also organized a conference about Lincoln’s character. That went very well. Doris Kerans Goodwin, the Pulitzer-Prize winning biographer and historian, visited Loyola the day before Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday and gave us the memorable talk that she also presented to Congress the next day. Eric Foner and Joshua Wolf Shenk also presented outstanding lectures about Lincoln at Loyola during that time. I am also greatly indebted to Jane Currie, Loyola’s library specialist in History and Philosophy. I would also like to thank Bob Bucholz, Jon Nielson, Jackie Scott, J.D. Trout, Vicki Wike, Al Gini, Art Lurigio, and my several of my Teaching Assistants: Marcella Russo, Amelia Rhys, and David Atenasio.

Is there anything else you would like to share about the book or Abraham Lincoln?

I really enjoyed this work a great deal. Abraham Lincoln is a fascinating person. He is probably the greatest leader that the United States has ever had. In 1861, it was very unlikely that the North would both win the war and end slavery. Very few people, perhaps no one else, could have brought that about. That was an astounding achievement. Lincoln was a great leader and a very good and very brilliant man. Cynics would be surprised and confounded by how well he holds up under close scrutiny. The story of Lincoln’s greatness and goodness that many of us heard as children is not a myth. He fully deserves his very honored place in our national memory.