It must be tough working as one of only two conservative columnists for the New York Times. And that is why, aside from my profound respect for David Brook’s intellect and abilities as a preeminent wordsmith, I afford him a pass every so often.
Still, I can’t help but take exception to a couple of observations in his latest column, “The Enlightenment Project,” in which he projects a sort of “When they go low, we go high” theme.
First, Brooks is correct in characterizing Lincoln as a “classic Enlightenment man.” Even so, Lincoln’s constitutional excesses during the Civil War presented a mixed blessing to subsequent generations of Americans and, for that matter, to the whole Enlightenment Project. Yes, he paved the way toward undertakings that simply, for the sake of national survival, had to be completed – not only the full enfranchisement of blacks but also their full investiture of U.S. citizenship, for example. But his struggle to preserve the American Union and, with it, of course, the American Enlightenment project, also smoothed the way for a lot of constitutional excesses, too.
The steps leading up to the emergence of Woodrow Wilson’s administrative state, and, ultimately, to the pervasive, labyrinthine bureaucracy known as the Deep State arguably could not have occurred barring a Union victory. And even if something resembling this apparatus had arisen in the 20th century United States or Confederate States, it likely would not be as deep or as pervasive as the one that exists today.
Simply put, a scathed and blemished American Republic emerged in the years following the conflict. To gain a few things, we arguably sacrificed a lot – a helluva lot, actually.
This topic should be a subject in this nation’s publicly funded secondary and post-secondary institutions. A frank discussion of Lincoln’s legacy would go a long way toward helping refine debate about the future of this Republic in a digital era when the tenets of the administrative state increasingly seem threadbare and outdated. And the strong case could be made – and should – that political correctness accounts for much of the absence of reasoned, frank discourse within classrooms today.
And, yes, one could argue, rather convincingly I would contend, that this pernicious doctrine was nurtured in the fertile soil of one of the principal byproducts of the Lincoln’s legacy: the Wilsonian administrative state. It’s only one example among many of how Lincoln sacrificed a lot, a helluva lot, to save the American Enlightenment Project.
But that’s a subject for another discussion.