(This essay was published in Hong Kong Economic Journal on 3 April 2013)


Last week I discussed the nature of politics and the functions of rhetoric (the language of persuasion) and heresthetics (the strategic use of language to persuade). If misrepresentation and manipulation are inescapable features of all political rhetoric, then what is morally acceptable in political life? There are two kinds of considerations, and each is very different from the other.


First, it is morally acceptable to take action that aims to promote some basic moral principles held collectively by human society and does not violate others. This approach starts from first principles. Abolishing slavery could then be justified for realizing the supreme moral principle that all men are equal and have the same intrinsic rights.


Second, it is morally acceptable if the outcome of a collective action achieves a better life for the people in terms of living together in harmony and for mutual benefit. This is the consequentialist approach. In the case of the United States in 1865, abolishing slavery could be justified as benefiting all or at least most.


The Difficult Path of Racial Equality


The most compelling and moving scene in the Lincoln movie was the conversation between Lincoln and his wife’s black companion Elizabeth Keckley, which I provide below. This conversation makes clear the fundamental moral principle that ultimately justified the war and the Thirteenth Amendment is the intrinsic right to freedom for all.


Elizabeth Keckley: I know the vote is only four days away, I know you’re concerned. Thank you for your concern over this, and I want you to know, they’ll approve it. God will see to it.


Abraham Lincoln: I don’t envy him his task. He may wish he’d chosen an instrument for his purpose more wieldy than the House of Representatives.


Elizabeth Keckley: Then you’ll see to it.


Abraham Lincoln: Are you afraid of what lies ahead? For your people? If we succeed?


Elizabeth Keckley: White people don’t want us here.


Abraham Lincoln: Many don’t.


Elizabeth Keckley: What about you?


Abraham Lincoln: Mm…I don’t know you, Mrs. Keckley. Any of you. You’re familiar to me, as all people are. Unaccommodated, poor, bare, forked creatures such as we all are. You have a right to expect what I expect, and likely our expectations are not incomprehensible to each other. I assume I’ll get used to you. But what you are to the nation, what’ll become of you once slavery’s day is done, I don’t know.


Elizabeth Keckley: What my people are to be, I can’t say. I never heard any ask what freedom will bring. Freedom’s first. As for me, my son died, fighting for the Union, wearing the Union blue. For freedom he died. And I’m his mother. That’s what I am to the nation, Mr. Lincoln. What else must I be?


Starting from first principles grounded in intrinsic rights alone will not guarantee that the consequences can be foreseen in its entirety. History is open-ended – the past shapes the future but does not pre-ordain its inevitability. The human cost of the Civil War and the Thirteenth Amendment could not be known and Lincoln himself in the movie was troubled by what would happen to the black people “once slavery’s day is done”.


In the aftermath of the Thirteenth Amendment, the Civil War ended, the confederate states rejoined the union to begin a gradual process of economic reconstruction, and the rise of commercial and industrial interests ensured a rising and prosperous America. These were laudable achievements; however, for a long time afterwards, the economic and political fate of the slaves who had been liberated continued to suffer and their condition probably worsened.


Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman studied the economics of slavery. Their study directly challenged the long-held conclusions that slavery was unprofitable, a moribund institution, inefficient, and extremely harsh for the typical slave. The economy of the antebellum South was not stagnating. Between 1840 and 1860 per capita income increased faster in the South than in the rest of the country. The Southern slave plantations were profitable for the slave owners and would not have disappeared in the absence of the Civil War. Southern slave farms (with over 15 slaves) were 33% more productive, per unit of labor, than northern free farms. Slaves in the American South lived better than many industrial workers in the North.


In Steven Spielberg’s movie Lincoln, Lincoln’s familiarity with the economics of slavery was revealed in a conversation about his father with George Yeaman, “He [Lincoln’s father] knew no smallholding dirt farmer could compete with slave plantations. He took us out from Kentucky to get away from ’em. He wanted Indiana kept free [of slavery].”


The Fogel and Engerman study considered how slave owners treated their slaves. The authors based this analysis largely on plantation records and claimed that slaves worked less, were better fed, and whipped only occasionally. Slaves were actively encouraged to lead Christian and family lives. Slave owners approached slave production as a business enterprise and there were some limits on the amount of exploitation and oppression they inflicted on the slaves. Over the course of a slave’s lifetime, a field hand received 90% of the value of his production. The authors were careful to state explicitly that slaves were still exploited in ways that were not captured by measures available from records.


When slaves became freed after the Thirteenth Amendment, they ceased to be property. Their former slave masters ceased to have any incentive to look after their interests. They had to build a life in a world where many if not most whites discriminated against them, and some hated them. The Ku Klux Klan was born as a secret organization of racial hatred after the Civil War. In some Southern states where blacks were in the majority, registration barriers began to be established to effectively limit them from voting. Other public and private resources also became restricted. Many blacks migrated to the North in search of work, but they had neither skills nor money to build a new life.


Slavery Ended But Reconstruction Failed


The authors were not apologists for slavery; in fact, they objected to slavery on moral grounds. Their description of the slave system and the life of the black people suggest that while the Thirteenth Amendment had to be justified as a moral act insofar as slavery was concerned, there were no provisions for realizing racial equality. The economic life of the black people subsequently took a turn for the worse and their political life was not improved. A century had to pass before racial equality and the black vote would be taken up seriously again as a policy concern in America.


Spielberg’s movie portrays Lincoln on the night of April 14, 1865 at a meeting where he is considering moderate, qualified steps to enfranchise the black people. In the middle of the meeting he is reminded he has to leave for the opera with Mrs. Lincoln. The president begins to dress hurriedly. As he walks away he mutters, “I suppose it’s time to go, though I would rather stay.” With these fateful words, he sadly forebode his assassination that evening at the opera house.


What would have happened if Lincoln had survived the assassination? This is of course an impossible question to answer, but one can always speculate. The answer would depend in part on one’s opinion of the Reconstruction.


In the past historians viewed the attempt to give the right to vote to the South’s freed black men, who were allegedly unfit to exercise it properly, as a mistake mandated by the victorious North. Today historians view the Reconstruction as a noble if flawed experiment, the first attempt to introduce a genuine inter-racial democracy in the United States. The tragedy was not that Reconstruction was attempted, but that it failed, leaving the problem of racial justice to future generations.


It would be wrong to think that Lincoln had a fully worked-out postwar blueprint for Reconstruction. Lincoln was not a Radical Republican. Before the Civil War, he had never supported voting rights for free blacks, and he did not see Reconstruction as an opportunity for a sweeping social revolution in the South (apart from emancipation itself) — unlike such Radicals as Thaddeus Stevens. Universal black male suffrage, already being demanded by Radicals as the war came to an end, was the furthest thing from his mind.


The hallmarks of Lincoln’s greatness were his ability to grow and his willingness to change his mind. During the war, he had come to embrace the Radical position on immediate emancipation and the enlistment of black soldiers (both policies he had initially opposed). In April 1865, shortly before his death, Lincoln for the first time publicly stated his support for allowing some blacks to vote, singling out the educated, propertied free blacks and those who had served in the Union army; a kind of limited black suffrage.


Andrew Johnson, who succeeded Lincoln, lacked his predecessor’s qualities of greatness. While Lincoln had been open-minded, willing to listen to criticism, attuned to the currents of Northern public opinion, and able to get along with all elements of his party, Johnson was stubborn, deeply racist, and insensitive to the opinions of others, and his policies alienated not only Radicals but the vast majority of Republicans. If anyone was responsible for the wreck of his presidency, it was Johnson himself.


Johnson firstly established new governments in the South in which blacks had no voice whatsoever. When these governments sought to reduce freed blacks to a situation akin to slavery through the Black Codes, he refused to heed the rising tide of Northern concern, even in the face of congressional opposition.   Congress responded by sweeping aside Johnson’s Reconstruction plan and enacting a series of radical measures that accorded blacks equality before the law. The Civil Rights Act of 1866, the Reconstruction Acts of 1867 and 1868, and the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1868 were all passed in frustration. The amended Constitution mandated the establishment of new governments in the South, enabling black men to vote for the first time in U.S. history. Despite the Constitution’s injunction that the president should enforce the laws, Johnson did everything in his power to obstruct the implementation of these measures.


The vast majority of white Southerners, supported by the Democratic Party of the North, were deeply opposed to any equality for the former slaves. Johnson encouraged them to resist the implementation of congressional measures, helping to set the stage for the wave of terror by the Ku Klux Klan and kindred groups that did much to undermine Reconstruction. In 1868, fed up with his intransigence and incompetence, the House impeached Johnson; after a trial in the Senate, he came within one vote of conviction.


It is impossible to imagine Lincoln, had he lived, becoming so alienated from Congress, the Republican Party, and the Northern public as to be impeached and almost removed from office. Nor does it seem likely that he would have enunciated a policy and stuck to it in the face of self-evident failure. Lincoln’s ideas would undoubtedly have continued to evolve during Reconstruction. If he had set in motion the establishment of the right for black people to vote in the South in 1865, he undoubtedly would have listened carefully to complaints about the Black Codes and been willing to heed the outcry in the North.


Lincoln had always been willing to work closely with all factions of his party, including the Radicals on numerous occasions. It is quite plausible to imagine Lincoln and Congress agreeing to a Reconstruction plan encompassing basic civil rights for blacks (as was enacted in 1866) plus limited black suffrage along the lines he proposed just before his death. The Radicals would have demanded more, but moderates, not Radicals, dominated Congress. Ironically, it was Johnson’s intransigence that pushed moderates toward the Radical position, resulting in the Reconstruction Acts.


Had Lincoln and Congress reached an agreement in 1866, universal black male suffrage might not have followed, at least not immediately. It is impossible to say what choice Lincoln would have made under those circumstances. All we do know is that his assassination brought to the White House a man unable to rise to the demands of one of the most challenging moments in America’s history.


The subsequent economic, political and human sufferings that resulted from the Thirteenth Amendment were colossal. To be morally acceptable, the amendment has to be considered as a defense of the rights of black people to live in freedom. It is doubtful that one could also claim that it created a better life for Americans, as there were many losers among the black people and poor Southern whites. The consequentialist approach to moral justification is an important and relevant consideration that is often forgotten and ignored when one relies only on moral principles that focus only on intrinsic rights. Few policy changes can ever benefit all peoples without redistribution consequences. Moreover, the consequences of policies are difficult to foresee, especially their long-term effects when politicians with short-term horizons have long left the stage.


Contributions of Heresthetics and Damages of Casuistry


The use of misrepresentation and manipulation in politics is not a genuine moral issue; heresthetics cannot be avoided if we are to act collectively. The moral issue surrounding the Civil War and the Thirteenth Amendment is whether as a political act it was morally justified given that public opinion cannot be a guide for collective action. This is an important question because all too often we hear politicians justify their short-term populist actions on the grounds that they represent “what the people want”, when in reality what the people want are many different and opposite things.


Equally dangerous are those politicians who urge the public into action based on first principles without considering the consequences it will bring. The difficulty in foreseeing the future is not an excuse for not attempting to do so. Such politicians commit the ultimate irresponsible act.  At the risk of being called a moral eclectic, I prefer to apply both consequentialist and intrinsic rights approaches to evaluating the moral dimensions of collective actions. On matters of grave importance and consequence any proposed action should be required to pass two tests, not just one; and certainly not just any one principle that so happens to provide a convenient answer.


Many populist politicians practice casuistry (詭辯術). This is an approach to moral practice that allows exceptions to moral principles in particular cases, thereby violating those principles. The casuist approach can be dangerous because it shortcuts the application of moral principles in favor of blind advocacies of intrinsic rights or populist conceptions of what the people want. Very often these two appear to be rather similar in nature and can be a disguise for the self-interest of the decision maker, for example, to become elected or re-elected. Casuistry is an argument that different principles are applicable to different situations and in different roles. Thus it confuses politics with ethics. The movie Lincoln shows the President at his best not only as a master heresthetician but also as a politician struggling with the enormous moral burden of working out a solution to a colossal and almost impossible challenge.




Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman, Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery, 2 Volumes, Little, Brown and Company, 1974.


Eric Foner, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, W. W. Norton & Company, 2010.

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