Lincoln’s Rhetoric on the Struggle Between Good and Evil: Relevance to the Present

In writing a chapter on Puritanism for my projected book on the Western liberal tradition, I came across a fascinating portrait of Lincoln by conservative intellectual M. E. Bradford — a portrait that is quite pertinent to the current political climate. Bradford, incidentally, was an early victim of the neocon takeover of the conservative movement during the Reagan Administration. Bradford was a prominent candidate for the director of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The battle, which Bradford lost,”pits so-called new conservatives [neocons] against more fundamentalist conservatives [paleocons].” The neocons were particularly energized by Bradford’s views on Lincoln.

As noted in TOO several times (e.g., here), a consistent strand of American political thought deriving originally from the Puritan strand of American culture (and exploited by Jewish intellectual movements for their own purposes, as noted in The Culture of Critique) is to cast political opposition in moral terms.

This is particularly noticeable on the left. The Kavanaugh circus and pretty much everything about Trump beginning with his candidacy in 2016 are good examples. As the politics of the country become ever more polarized by race and gender, these moral posturings are increasingly phrased as condemnations of White people as evil. This recent New York Times op-ed is a good example:

After a confirmation process where women all but slit their wrists, letting their stories of sexual trauma run like rivers of blood through the Capitol, the Senate still voted to confirm Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. …

These women are gender traitors, to borrow a term from the dystopian TV series “The Handmaid’s Tale.” They’ve made standing by the patriarchy a full-time job. The women who support them show up at the Capitol wearing “Women for Kavanaugh” T-shirts, but also probably tell their daughters to put on less revealing clothes when they go out. …

We’re talking about white women. The same 53 percent who put their racial privilege ahead of their second-class gender status in 2016 by voting to uphold a system that values only their whiteness, just as they have for decades. 

This moralistic tradition in American politics has a long history. Lincoln was of New England stock and is a good example of millenarian spirit that pervaded nineteenth-century American thought. Bradford emphasizes this aspect of Lincoln’s thought, describing Lincoln’s view as essentially “secular Puritanism” that “must replace Church with State”[1]  while retaining the moralistic, redemptive overtones. In the end, force, apocalyptic force should be used: this utopian future must be achieved as a result of the victory of the forces of good over the forces of evil. And against the forces of evil, there can be no accommodation, no compromise.

Such rhetoric obviously presages civil war. Here’s Bradford on Lincoln rejecting compromise in his Peoria speech of October 16, 1854:

For the great difficulty with Lincoln’s Peoria presentation is that it finally refuses accommodation, the sacrosanct principle of Clay and of the Founders, and in its place threatens apocalypse if the alternate principle of exclusion is not applied to all Western territories of the Republic [i.e., that slavery could be excluded from new states by federal mandate as opposed to popular attitudes, as required by the Missouri Compromise of 1820 but repealed by the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854]. To accept the notion of that there is any policy superior to these alternatives is called both “monstrous” and “worthy of hate.” We are now returned to the false dilemma. Ordinary persuasion is forsworn. A new political religion is implied. And though Lincoln still pretends civility and claims not “to question the patriotism or to assail the motives of any man, or class of men,” we are well on our way to a full-fledged Puritan rhetoric of perpetual war against the “powers of darkness”: “to universal armed camps, engaged in a death struggle against each other.”[2]

Ultimately, it is a moral struggle, as Lincoln stated in his 1858 debate with Stephen Douglas:

It is the eternal struggle between these two principles—right and wrong—throughout the world. They are two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time; and will ever continue to struggle.[3]

The current political climate is more and more being conceived on the left as a struggle between good and evil in which their enemies are, in Lincoln’s words, “monstrous” and “worthy of hate.”It is a polarization that “refuses accommodation” and “threatens apocalypse.” There can be no compromise with evil. In such a situation, anything is justified, including, in Lincoln’s case, a civil war that resulted in 700,000 dead White men.

We are now seeing prominent public figures justify behavior that until quite recently would have been considered beyond the boundaries of acceptable political behavior. For example, Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI), a leader in the battle against Kavanaugh, refuses to condemn public harassment of senators opposing the confirmation. Such harassment of Republican senators and other public officials connected to President Trump has been going on for months. We have already seen numerous examples of cooperation between city and state officials in condoning and facilitating violence by the antifa. It’s a short step from that to refusing to condemn assassination attempts on public figures.

And a short step from that to Civil War II.

[1] M. E. Bradford, “Dividing the House: The Gnosticism of Lincoln’s Political Rhetoric,” Modern Age (Winter, 1979): 10–24, 13.

[2] Ibid., 17–18.

[3] Lincoln, quoted in Bradford, Ibid., 19.

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