William Lee Miller writes like a good professor talks – with a chatty and thoughtful tone that makes his books quite gratifying. His 1994 Business of May Next – a brief examination of James Madison’s work on the Constitution and The Federalist – is practically conversational, but almost before the reader realizes it, Miller engages him in a sophisticated political analysis that reaches a peak in a chapter on the Constitution’s complex relationship with slavery, and Madison’s “odd Federalist paper.” Better still was his 1996 Arguing About Slavery, simply one of the finest American history books ever written. In it, Miller managed to draw, from the details of a seemingly minor event – John Quincy Adams’ quixotic congressional strug- gle in the Petition Crisis of the 1830s- the lessons of that tense epoch in his- tory when the Civil War was just starting to simmer.
Although not as powerful as Arguing About Siavery, Lincoln’s Virtues is casual and entertaining, but insight- ful. Miller is particularly keen on the vital element of Lincoln’s public life – his unwavering insistence on the moral superiority of liberty. While other pub- lic figures of his day, such as Stephen Douglas, shirked this moral impera- tive, Lincoln always insisted that the Declaration of Independence set forth a timeless truth, “applicable to all men and all times,” that all men are created equal. This equality of liberty was the bedrock upon which was founded the right to create a government in the first place; only if all men are created equal can they have the right to government by consent.
The question, then, in the Lincoln- Douglas’debates – and later in the Civil War, and indeed, in today’s war – was whether the Declaration’s con- ceits are true or not. Are all men – and women – created equal? Douglas said no: “I hold that the signers of the Declaration of Independence had no reference to Negroes at all when they declared all men to be created equal,” he said. “They did not mean Negroes nor the savage Indians, nor the Fejee Islanders, nor any other barbarous race.” But Lincoln insisted that the Declaration was true;. aLL men are created equal, and only on that basis could any legitimate government be created. “Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid,” Lincoln wrote.
As a nation, we began by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes.” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will
all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics”. When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving lib- erty – to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy.
Lincoln was th~refore profoundly opposed to moral relativism. Miller notes this in passing in a story in which the young Lincoln once repri- manded some classmates for torturing turtles for sport. “When the boys in your neighborhood put hot coals on the backs of turtles to entertain them- selves,” writes Miller, “there are sev- eral courses of action open to you. . . . As a budding representative of the rel- ativisms of the century to come, you could shrug your shoulders and say: ‘They like to put hot coals on turtles, I don’t like to put hot coals on turtles – preferences differ. Who is to choose? Don’t be judgmentaL'” Likewise, in debating the extension of slavery into the Western territories, Lincoln could have said, like Douglas, that one party wanted slavery, the other did not, and “popular sovereignty” should allow the voters to decide for themselves. Instead, Lincoln blasted this enormity with simple logic: “Popular sove reignty, as a matter of principle, simply is ‘If one man would enslave another, neither that other, nor any third man, has a right to object.'”
Yet while Lincoln was not a moral relativist, what accounts for his toler- ance of others’ differences? Miller notes that although Lincoln did not drink, smoke, swear, sleep around, or (usually) fight, he did not condemn those who did these things. So was Lincoln actually a relativist after all?
The answer – easy for libertarians to understand – is no. Lincoln insisted on the moral superiority of liberty.
What a person did with that liberty – so long as he injured no nonconsenting person – was his own business. Lincoln disapproved of drinking, but respected the right of another person to drink, because, as Miller puts it, “once the protections [afforded to another’s liberty] are breached, it may be your freedom of belief and speech that are suppressed.” Because all men are created equal- because each per- son owns himself – each has the right to destroy himself if he so chooses, unfortunate as such a choice is. But that liberty does not extend to allowing a person to make choices for anyone else – i.e., slavery. “I believe,” Lincoln said, “that every individual is naturally entitled to do as he pleases with himself and the fruits of his labor, so far as it in no way interferes with any other man’s rights.”
This is precisely the moral vision of the Declaration of Independence: All people have the equal right to pursue their own happiness without interfer- ence. One might say that Lincoln (not to mention the Declaration itself) was what Jonah Goldberg of National Review would call an “arrogant nihil- ist.” But in reality, Lincoln’s position – and libertarianism in general· – makes a profound moral statement: It is immoral to force any person to abide by one’s own will, whatever that will might be. Miller describes, for instance, how Lincoln came to reject farming in favor of politics, and yet, “He was not condemning . . . the ‘idiocy of rural life’; he was simply saying that he him-