Pericles, Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill each had a career as supreme leader which culminated in a catastrophic war. “Their” wars were, in turn, the Peloponnesian War, the American Civil War, and the Second World War. Each of these wars included unprecedented devastation.
The American war of 1861-1865 is explicitly recognized these days as a civil war. But the generation-long conflict between the Athenians and their Spartan-led adversaries can be understood as a deadly division among Greek poleis that had long had much in common. And the Second World War, in turn, can be understood as the culmination of a Thirty Years War among European “cousins” that began in 1917 (if not even in 1870).
Each of our three statesmen issued grim warnings about the impending conflict of his day. It can be wondered, of course, whether any of them could have foreseen, at the outset, not only how dreadful the conflict of his day would indeed be, but even what should have been considered the “outset” of hostilities in each case. One can be reminded, upon encountering the shortcomings of political leaders, how limited even the most gifted of them may have to be, not least with respect both to what can truly be known and to how much one is apt to be simply open to the truth (or indeed capable of recognizing and developing it) –that is, how limited one can be when one is moved ultimately with a view to action (however momentous and even highminded that action might be), not with a view to thinking about and perhaps even understanding the most enduring matters.
It is generally recognized that the ill-fated Sicilian Campaign contributed significantly to the eventually disastrous Athenian defeat during the Peloponnesian War. Pericles, the most celebrated Athenian at the outset of a war during which he soon died of the Plague, warned his fellow-Athenians that they should consider this war as completely defensive. Such an innovation as the Sicilian venture had been clearly ruled out by him.
But consider his most acclaimed speech, the Funeral Address at the conclusion of the first year of the great war. Much is made by him in that speech of Athenian accomplishments. It is emphasized by him that several generations of Athenians in turn had surpassed their predecessors.
Had the Athenians succeeded in Sicily they might have, for better and for worse, accomplished what the Romans later did as rulers of the Mediterranean world. A critical lesson of the Funeral Address had been, in effect, that Athenians should not be satisfied with what they had inherited at any particular time. Thus, was not the spirit of Pericles such as to encourage dangerous adventurism in the most ambitious?
Abraham Lincoln can seem to be the least complicated of the three statesmen in our survey. He was stalwart in his resistance to Southern adventurism. But the crypto-abolitionism that apprehensive Southerners could see in the Republican Party’s “Free Soil” policy did seem to make civil war likely, if not even inevitable, once that party appeared (as during the Election of 1860) to be destined to rule in the United States.
It can be wondered, of course, whether the Civil War significantly deepened the American soul (just as the Athenian defeat in the Peloponnesian War evidently contributed to the remarkable development of Philosophy in Athens). But it can also be wondered what the mode of emancipation made possible by the Civil War has done to long-term race relations in the United States. It can be wondered as well what that war has contributed to a vast expansion of Executive Power at the expense of parliamentary vitality in this Country.
Are these questions that Lincoln himself ever entertained? Indeed, he may well have been the most complicated of our three statesmen. We may even presume to ask about my fellow Southern Illinoisan, How well did Lincoln know himself?
Winston Churchill, in the 1930s, was vigorous in his warnings about the developing Nazi regime in Germany. He could do this even as he continued to express longstanding reservations about the Soviet Regime in Russia. It was Hitler’s folly that could drive the British to ally themselves even with Stalin’s tyranny in the cause of Freedom.
But Stalin and Hitler had come to power when they did only because of the terrible consequences of the First World War. Those four years of mindless slaughter wrecked longstanding dynastic arrangements that had served Europe fairly well for centuries. One consequence of that war –the monstrous absurdity of which had become generally apparent during the 1920s– was to make it much harder than it should have been to mobilize decent Europeans, politically and hence militarily, in the 1930s against the ominous Nazi threat.
This was particularly true in Britain, despite Churchill’s desperate pleas. But, it should not be forgotten, Churchill himself had been imprudently enthusiastic at times about the First World War, whatever reservations he may have had about some of the devastating tactics employed by the combatants (the very Churchill, by the way, whose overall career could move my wife and me to sign the Condolence Book at the British Consulate in Chicago when he died in 1965). Of course, the United States itself should have been disciplined enough to insist from the beginning of that devastating war upon a negotiated settlement that would have included the perpetuation of vulnerable royal houses in Germany and Russia.
I have had occasion to ask about the First World War, “Did anyone ‘in charge’ know what he was doing?” Thus, it is instructive to notice how Barbara Tuchman opens her 1962 Guns of August volume depicting the outbreak of that war. She begins with the magnificent funeral for King Edward VII in London in 1910.
The opening pages of her book recall the magnificent show put on by the British on that occasion. It is pathetic to notice (considering all the devastation that followed a few years later) that the most celebrated visitor in London on that grand occasion was the German Kaiser, a grandson of Queen Victoria (and hence a nephew of the dead king). He particularly exulted in the recognition accorded him as a guest in Windsor Castle (where his mother had grown up).
That four years of disastrous war should soon have followed this “family gathering” can now seem incomprehensible, a war that (as I have indicated) Churchill had been (as least at times) enthusiastic about. He did come to be appalled by the futile horror of trench warfare, even promoting instead plans to carry on the war more efficiently. But it can be wondered whether recourse to more effective ways of conducting Total War on that occasion was what the British public needed to hear about.
It can be wondered as well whether the Periclean emphasis upon a steadily-advancing polis, one generation after another, was really what the Athenian public of his day needed to hear. Among those who heard this remarkable exhortation to daring ambition was Pericles’ ward, Alcibiades. And so, long after Pericles’ death, he could effectively promote the disastrous Sicilian Campaign.
Should not Pericles have “known better” than to celebrate civic innovation as much as he did? I presume to ask such a question even about someone who provided a name both for my maternal grandfather and for one of my brothers. That is, should not Pericles have recognized that dangerous ambitions were being nourished by the spectacular history he offered his fellow-citizens?
How dangerous such ambitions can be is suggested by the treason Alcibiades himself could shamelessly resort to when his enemies in Athens recklessly conspired against him. This kind of self-centeredness among Athenians contributed to the crippling debacle in Sicily. It can again be wondered, in short, how well had Pericles provided for the civic discipline necessary for an enduring regime.
What can we now presume to add, in turn, to our preliminary assessment on this occasion of Abraham Lincoln? The most instructive challenge for us here may not be with how he conducted himself as President, however important that obviously was. Rather, there is the challenge of how he and others of like mind chanced to conduct themselves in the decades leading up to the Civil War.
How was slavery to be checked and eventually eliminated? Critical here was the apprehensiveness (if not also the unsettling “guilt”) of the South. An aggressive (and even provocative) abolitionism, which had been dramatized decades earlier by so venerable a figure as John Quincy Adams in the House of Representatives, did not seem prudent.
On the other hand, Lincoln himself could exalt Henry Clay as his model for statesmanship. It can be wondered, however, how Lincoln understood the significant role played by Henry Clay (along with John. C. Calhoun) in promoting the War of 1812. That conflict, whose Bicentennial we are barely celebrating this year, could even be understood by many New Englanders as promoting slavery interests in the United States.
What, then, should have been done (and by whom) between 1840 and 1860 (when a vigorously ambitious Lincoln was in his thirties and forties)? Could not, for example, much more have been done than seems to have been done with the 1776 assessment of slavery by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations. He had insisted that slavery did not pay for a community, that it merely served the general desire to dominate others, however much some individuals might profit from it.
Could not much have been done, that is, to make slavery (encouraged though it was by the invention of the cotton gin) ever more expensive, especially once the international slave trade had been substantially suppressed in the Western World? Was it ever seriously considered what the effect would have been, for example, of a steady purchase of slaves by American abolitionists? Might not this have made slavery ever more expensive, encouraging its gradual peaceful abandonment nationwide?
A determined buying of slaves in American slave markets (and their subsequent emancipation by abolitionist purchasers) need not have required the cooperation of the governments of slaveholding states. Also of use, as a measure designed to reduce dangerous controversy, would have been a program of insurance (subsidized, if need be, also by abolitionists) to reimburse slaveholders for fugitive slaves (once they managed to get to a Free State). It is hard to overestimate the hostility, and even the dangerous recklessness, aroused in some quarters in the North by the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 (legislation which Lincoln did consider himself obliged to support).
President Lincoln recognized now and then during the Civil War that the money spent on that war could pay for all the slaves held in the Country. But the program he sometimes seemed to advocate here depended on the cooperation of the governments of Slaveholding States. What would have happened if, instead, abolitionists and any governments they influenced had systematically compensated slaveholders by buying their slaves from, say, 1830 on?
Such an expensive program would not have been politically popular in the North. As such, therefore, it probably would not have appealed to the pre-War Abraham Lincoln, who was always sensitive (as a canny politician) to public opinion. Needed to encourage such a self-sacrificing venture would have had to have been someone such as the saintly John Woolman, the Eighteenth Century Quaker abolitionist in Colonial America.
Also instructive here is the determination of a William Wilberforce, the remarkably successful Nineteenth Century British abolitionist (of whose career Lincoln was very much aware). Far more complicated, it seems, was the soul of our sixteenth President. It is no wonder that it can be said that more than fifteen thousand books have been devoted to studies of him –and that that number (as well as the engaging mystery of the man) keeps growing.
The Basic Program Symposium on Statesmanship
The University of Chicago
October 27, 2012