Steven B. Smith surveys attempts by political theorists to locate Lincoln within the history of their subject:
Unlike Jaffa, who projected Lincoln through the long history of natural law from Plato and Cicero through Aquinas, Locke and the American framers, Burt refracts Lincoln through the philosophy of Kant, Rawls and contemporary liberal political theory. His is very much a Lincoln for our time.
Burt begins from the problem of how to resolve conflict in an open society. Does liberalism presuppose agreement around a common moral core — all men are created equal — or is it merely a modus vivendi for people with different values and interests who consent to work together for purely opportunistic reasons? James Madison, in The Federalist No. 10, thought it was the second. He saw a vast republic of competing factions that would cooperate because none could muster the resources to exercise a permanent dominance over the others. But what happens, as in the case of slavery during the 1850s, when these factions cease to pursue interests that can be negotiated and become wedded to principles central to identity? Compromise over interests is possible; compromise over principles is far more difficult.
I don’t know where the historical Lincoln fits into this debate, but if the film is accurate, he certainly seems to see room for both the pragmatic value of adhering to democratic procedure and the need to be guided by prior moral convictions. The speech about a compass directing you due north but failing to note the chasms along the way wouldn’t really make sense without this. But that in turn makes me wonder whether there really is an ideological conflict at all here.
To demonstrate, my position runs something like this. Of course the moral status of minority rights shouldn’t be determined by the whims of prejudiced people, so that the victimised only have legitimate claims if a majority deems them to do so. In that sense, most contentious issues are about how democracy is framed. Rights aren’t the material content that people should deliberate about. They are the presuppositions that regulate how things are deliberated about. So in that respect, I have no objections to judicial review and all sorts of values being integrated legally through constitutional provisions. And this isn’t to be seen as undemocratic. It is, rather, a precondition for genuine democracy.
At the same time, however, I recognise that this method, whilst perhaps right in principle and the most respectful to the claims of victimised parties, is also empirically less effective. When passions run high, the number one way to arouse and intensify opposition and make progress even trickier is to attempt to change things this way. Engaging with dissenters through deliberation and winning over hearts and minds in legislatures or through referenda is far more likely to stir lasting success and social change.
The marriage equality movement is a perfect example of this phenomenon. No, I do not think the legitimacy of marriage equality is contingent on whether fifty per cent of American citizens happen to understand the arguments for it. But yes, I do see that change is moving so quickly because the courts have shied away and left sentiment to shift state by state. In that respect, a top-down federal decree would be polarising and counter-productive. So how could it be justified, even if it is in principle the right way to do these things?
I think Lincoln will have grasped this distinction. His commitment to the immorality of slavery was surely unwavering, and in this respect he was on board both with natural law theorists like Locke and constructivists like Kant. But that’s consistent with understanding that when we leave the halls of academia and turn to enacting actual change, we need to consider competing factions with the colder eye that Madison emphasised. And this is why purist philosophers could never make great politicians.