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Lincoln's Tragic Pragmatism: Lincoln, Douglas, and Moral Conflict [Kindle Edition]

John Burt
3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)

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Book Description

In their famous debates, Lincoln and Douglas struggled with how to behave when an ethical conflict like slavery strained democracy’s commitment to rule by both consent and principle. What conscience demands and what it can persuade others to agree to are not always the same. Ultimately, this tragic limitation of liberalism led Lincoln to war.

Editorial Reviews


John Burt has written a work that every serious student of Lincoln will have to read...Burt refracts Lincoln through the philosophy of Kant, Rawls and contemporary liberal political theory. His is very much a Lincoln for our time. (Steven B. Smith New York Times Book Review 2013-02-17)

I'm making space on my overstuffed shelves for Lincoln's Tragic Pragmatism. This is a book I expect to be picking up and thumbing through for years to come. (Jim Cullen History News Network 2013-03-18)

Burt treats the [Lincoln-Douglas] debates as being far more significant than an election contest between two candidates. The debates represent profound statements of political philosophy and speak to the continuing challenges the U.S. faces in resolving divisive moral conflicts. (E. C. Sands Choice 2013-10-01)

John Burt writes with real penetration about the arguments that informed the rise to power of the greatest genius of American democracy. At once a detailed history of the crisis of the 1850s and a searching essay on the moral basis of politics, this book goes far to answer two questions: why did Lincoln believe that compromise was the heart of normal politics, and how did he come to define a moment when normal politics must end? (David Bromwich, author of A Choice of Inheritance)

Thoroughly informed by historical learning and philosophical sophistication, literary critic John Burt provides a detailed analysis of the Lincoln–Douglas debates in their original context, scrupulously fair to both parties. This is the most profound exploration of the enduring significance of Lincoln's rhetoric since Harry Jaffa's classic [Crisis of the House Divided] of 1959. A magnificent achievement. (Daniel Walker Howe, author of What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815–1848)

Lincoln's Tragic Pragmatism is a brilliant, ground-breaking book with fresh insights on almost every page. No one has analyzed the ironies and problems of liberal politics with the rigor, depth, and subtlety Burt displays here. He redeems (or recovers) Stephen Douglas's reputation as a writer, speaker, and political thinker, and, through his deep engagement with Lincoln's writings, Burt also makes the best case available for the significance of Lincoln as a literary figure. And Burt's conclusions about the limits of liberal politics, about democracy itself being the barrier to ending a pervasive evil, have deep resonances for nations today. (John Stauffer, author of The Black Hearts of Men)

About the Author

John Burt is Professor of English at Brandeis University.

Product Details

  • File Size: 1400 KB
  • Print Length: 832 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (January 7, 2013)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • Language: English
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
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  • Word Wise: Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #653,980 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

3.9 out of 5 stars
3.9 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Lincoln as Philosopher April 20, 2013
Abraham Lincoln continues to inspire Americans. Beginning with Harry Jaffa's books, "Crisis of the House Divided" (1959) and "A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the American Civil War" (2004) various scholars have tried to develop what they see as Lincoln's philosophy from the welter of his political speeches and writings. The most recent book to do so is John Burt's massive, "Lincoln's Tragic Pragmatism: Lincoln Douglas, and Moral Conflict." (2013). Burt is Professor of English at Brandeis University. While Jaffa interpreted Lincoln within the natural law tradition that begins with Aristotle, Burt offers a highly modern, liberal Lincoln whose thought resembles features of John Rawls and Kant.

As did Jaffa, Burt concentrates on the Illinois debates between Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in 1858 for election to the Senate. He tries to be fair to Douglas and to explain how his position differed from Lincoln's. He argues that Douglas tried to compromise on a somewhat ad hoc basis with the goal of preserving the Union and saving it from bloodshed. For Burt, Douglas is frequently but unjustifiably portrayed as a relativist, moral skeptic, or apologist for slavery, The risk of Douglas' willingness to compromise, for Burt, was a moral relativism. Burt offers insightful comparisons and contrasts between Lincoln and Douglas throughout his study. They shared more in common than sometimes supposed.

Much of the book is an explanation of the phrase "tragic pragmatist" that Burt applies to Lincoln in his title and uses to develop Lincoln's thought. Lincoln's position begins with a moral opposition to slavery. But Lincoln showed a willingness to compromise and to accept American constitutional law as it was.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Endless but important and interesting March 26, 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
The book seems endless and yet it reveals a history of the US prior to the civil war that is not really known to most of us. In some ways (but only some) it is like the present period of US history where the underlying struggle is not clear but is clearly important and, I think, not what it seems. It is well written, but philosophical in tone. Not for the faint of heart.
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26 of 33 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Were the editors at Harvard asleep? May 7, 2013
"Moby Dick" was still required reading when I was in high school. Some wag had gone through all the copies in the school library and crossed out, in the table of contents, the chapters on the technical details of the whaling industry with the sage advice "Don't read these." I am not in favor of defacing books, but someone should do the same with the majority of paragraphs in John Burt's "Lincoln's Tragic Pragmatism."
The book concerns the historical, political, and philosophical background of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates; it does not deal directly with the debates themselves. (Nor does it purport to). In this regard it is similar to Harry Jaffa's "Crisis of the House Divided." The problem arises when the author goes beyond the differences between the political philosophies of Lincoln and Douglas and starts to deal with the philosophy of political philosphy itself. He largely analyzes John Rawls and posits what his political philosophy might bring to bear on the philosophical differences between Lincoln and Douglas. The abstruse nature of this focus would be complicated and boring enough, but then Burt compounds that mistake by adopting an outrageously pretentious and pedantic style. Here is an example from pp. 72-73 which is, alas, far from unique but manages to cram so much of what is obnoxious about Burt's style into just a single sentence: "The South was not alone in wielding suicidally apodictic statements, and such statements tend to ratchet each other up in a kind of 'Wechselwirkung' that ought to be familiar to anyone who has ever found himself enmeshed in an argumentative economy of reciprocated vituperation." What? John Burt is an English Professor. Surely he must have heard of Jonathan Swift and the Plain Style...if only he had employed it in this book.
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10 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Tragic Pragmatism Is Liberal America March 29, 2013
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This book simply blew me away. Rarely have I read such a nuanced treatment of the Lincoln-Douglas debates and their significance for today's politics. If you want to be reaffirmed in your confidence in liberalism as a winning political philosophy this is the book. Simply astonishing.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I find the book endlessly absorbing. I enjoy the historic detail and placing the struggle between Lincoln and Douglas in a values context. The study of the Dred Scott decision is quite informative. I am compelled by the vision of Lincoln moving himself and the nation towards the goal of racial equality as implicit in his positions, but perhaps only imperfectly and gradually realized as being so by Lincoln himself. I do think that the book makes a more cogent argument for Douglas' position that politics needs to be a way that controversies are contained short of violence than Douglas did himself - as the author acknowledges. Interest politics could not resolve the question of slavery, as the book makes forcefully clear. I get the sense from this book, as I have from biographies of Lincoln and Douglas, that the two were on historic tectonic plates, each moving past each other, the one into the future, the other not.
Burt's work is a treasure to read.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
1.0 out of 5 stars Edit this book
This book is so poorly written and edited that it is unreadable. The subject matter is fascinating but the work to find meaning in the tangled sentences is just too steep a price... Read more
Published 22 months ago by Brian A. Robideau
5.0 out of 5 stars A difficult book
A challenging read. The author has written a major examination of lLincoln's political philosophy. Well worth the effort needed to stick with it.
Published 23 months ago by William Munn
5.0 out of 5 stars Thoughtful and thought provoking
Fascinating look at the philosophy of Lincoln. Much more than a traditional recitation of the facts, the book shows the evolution of Lincoln's thoughts, in particular in relation... Read more
Published 23 months ago by Nathaniel
5.0 out of 5 stars A great book about a wise man
The writing is superlative. Lincoln comes across as a prescient thinker and master politician. The authors remarks and prestisginations into outer space really make for great... Read more
Published on April 2, 2013 by John E. Banks
1.0 out of 5 stars Ridiculous Price
Buying an electronic book for more than $20 is insane. Where does it end? Put your foot down and send these publishers a message by not buying this book. Read more
Published on February 21, 2013 by Jeff
5.0 out of 5 stars I'm just getting started...
Normally I would not try to review a book before finishing it, but since so far there are only two reviews I decided to pitch in. Read more
Published on February 20, 2013 by Ardelle Cowie
5.0 out of 5 stars NYT Review: Very Much a Lincoln for Our Time
For the first time in over half a century ,
Jaffa’s book has a serious rival. John Burt ,
a professor of English at Brandeis University
, has written a work that... Read more
Published on February 20, 2013 by Jo Anne Preston
5.0 out of 5 stars a fresh view of Lincoln
So much has been written (and now filmed) about Abraham Lincoln--you might think we would run out of new perspectives. Read more
Published on February 19, 2013 by John N. Marsh
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