William Lee Miller sets out in Lincoln’s Virtues: An Ethical Biography to rescue our memory of Abraham Lincoln from the burden of mythology and presentist attacks on his character to show the sixteenth president as a real man operating in the real world. Rather than a dry recitation of events and issues, Miller presents a detailed examination of Lincoln’s life and career through the lens of ethical and moral growth, and their influence on his political stances and methods. Miller takes this tack not only to rescue his hero from modern cynicism about Lincoln’s goals and methods, but because he is convinced that history is not a wave of inevitability. A key argument of Lincoln’s Virtues is that the actions of individuals matter in determining the course of peoples and nations. In this view, people are rational moral agents who make conscious decisions that influence history. Lincoln acts as a moral exemplar through which we can examine American moral life. Miller argues that Lincoln’s moral reasoning and growth are evident through an exhaustive study of his speeches, letters, and the recollections of his closest associates. A detailed analysis of Lincoln’s rhetoric forms the core of Miller’s presentation.
Reaching back to Lincoln’s youth, Miller argues that his main dictum was to try to always do the right thing. For the young Abraham, this included not hunting or fishing, drinking or gambling, and not being cruel to animals. In a theme that pervades Lincoln’s Virtues, he not only avoids these vices in his own behavior, but urges others to follow his lead. What separates Lincoln from other moral reformers, Miller contends, is that Lincoln refrained from claiming his own moral superiority for avoiding sin, instead exhorting those around him to do the right thing for its own sake. As a boy this behavior included telling his friends that they should not torment turtles by placing hot coals on their backs, while an adult Lincoln would tell temperance societies that their own abstinence from alcoholic beverages did not denote moral superiority over drinkers. Similarly, after becoming an outspoken abolitionist in 1854, Lincoln argued that the United States should end the expansion of slavery due to its immorality, but did not argue that slaveowners were immoral. Miller asserts that Lincoln exempted slaveowners from moral condemnation because they inherited the institution.
Lincoln did not condemn others for their moral failings because he did not believe that perfection was achievable. This was the case because Lincoln based his moral judgments on the fruits of reason rather than those of faith. Miller believes that while Lincoln knew the Bible quite well, and increasingly referred to Christian theology as he campaigned against the Kansas-Nebraska Act, he remained unchurched his entire life. Lincoln accepted the values of Christianity based on his ability to reason that they were morally correct rather than out of faith or belief. Basing his moral judgments on reason allowed Lincoln to avoid the doctrine of “purity” espoused by many abolitionists, temperance advocates, or other evangelical reformers.
Miller argues that the moral realism embodied by Lincoln’s worldview informed the rhetoric he used, policies he advocated, and methods he used. Moral realism is the source of the apparent contradiction Lincoln’s modern detractors see between the man and the myth. He condemned slavery, but not slaveowners. He advocated for freedom of the slaves; but not for their political equality. While Lincoln detractors see this dichotomy as evidence of corruption, excessive pragmatism, or political opportunism, Miller contends that they represent Lincoln’s understanding of his audience and the belief that striving for better circumstances as a community should be the goal.
Despite the apparent hero-worship pervading Lincoln’s Virtues, Miller attempts to illustrate Lincoln as a real human being, complete with missteps and failings. Despite Lincoln’s stated intentions to strive to always do the right thing, he uncharitably describes Mary Owen, who rejected his romantic intentions, as Falstaffian. During his short tenure in Congress, Lincoln launched personal attacks on President James K. Polk as part of his denunciation of the Mexican War, leading even Miller to wonder if Lincoln had yet reached his moral maturity in 1848. Lincoln’s condemnation of Polk so soon after taking his seat in Congress represents his overwhelming ambition to make his mark in the world, and be reckoned as a great man not only in the United States, but to be known beyond its borders. In this desire, Miller shows Lincoln as envious of Stephen Douglas’ international fame, and illustrates a certain desperation to escape obscurity.
Lincoln also took on the role of party operative. As an Illinois Whig, he pushed his party to adopt the tactics of the Democratic Party machine, organizing conventions, voting as a block, and dispensing offices as the perquisite of party patronage. In contrast to other Whigs, Lincoln saw these tactics not only as necessary for the Whig’s electoral success, but as the means for advancing the Whig agenda of national improvement. The Whig platform of an energetic government encouraging growth, improving the wilderness, and sustaining reform efforts was worthy of campaigning for. Miller argues that Lincoln’s choice to become a Whig rather than joining the more powerful Democratic Party illustrates that his devotion to national improvement was more important to him than mere personal ambition.
With the exception of defending the language, form, and substance of the Emancipation Proclamation as a legal document allowed only by Lincoln’s war powers, Miller’s analysis ends with Lincoln’s election as president in 1860. The Emancipation Proclamation, he says was not cynically designed to convince European powers that the war was solely about slavery, but the most Lincoln could do to free slaves before the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. Lincoln’s dedication to America’s founding law prevented him from doing more.