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“Principle Had Made Its Painful Peace with Circumstance”

“Purer souls, sterner moralists, can and do argue that, far from being models for emulation, the architects of American constitutionalism were temporizers, or whistlers in the dark, or even covenanters with Satan himself,” the University of Chicago’s Ralph Lerner has written. Lerner went on to say:

Where such critics may see weakness and confusion, Lincoln unhesitatingly perceives prudence. The premise of his admiration is plain enough: “From the necessities of the case we should be compelled to form just such a government as our blessed fathers gave us.” Again, what Lincoln has in mind is a defense not of every jot and tittle of earlier policies and provisions but of the general stance the founders took toward the actual presence of slavery in the new nation. Its presence was a fact, not less a fact than its being a wrong. Neither fact might be ignored or wished away, and the authors of the Declaration responded to both. At one and the same time they both declared the right of all to the equal enjoyment of inalienable rights and took account of the circumstances standing in the way of an immediate universal attainment of these rights. A moral imperative was embedded in a far-from-yielding world and then left to work its influence…. Principle had made its painful peace with circumstance.

“It is to this policy, at once moral and prudential,” he added, “that Lincoln urges his countrymen to return.”

This strikes me as an elegant and historically informed way to help us think about two virtues that can be, but need not be, in tension: a deep commitment to principles and to prudence. 

The danger facing those who are active in politics is leaning too much toward one at the expense of the other. The result can be people who become ideologues devoted to abstract principles without taking into account actual circumstances (and vilify those who do). Still others will embrace compromise for its own sake, with no sense of what is trying to be achieved when it comes to justice and the ends of government. For principled politicians to make painful peace with circumstances, to shape a far-from-yielding world in a moral direction, is among the hardest balances to strike and the most impressive things to achieve. (None faced more difficult challenges, or met them as well, as did Lincoln.)

It’s perhaps worth noting that this task is made harder, not easier, by those who insist on elevating every debate, and even tactical differences, into an existential struggle between liberty and tyranny. Who have convinced themselves that the road to victory begins with excommunicating the non-pure–the heretics and apostates–in their midst. These voices are loud, often intemperate, and hardly conservative.



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