Abe Lincoln the surveyor, or the essential role of strategy

There’s a great scene in the movie Lincoln when the president tells Thaddeus Stevens:

A compass, I learnt when I was surveying, it’ll—it’ll point you True North from where you’re standing, but it’s got no advice about the swamps and deserts and chasms that you’ll encounter along the way. If in pursuit of your destination you plunge ahead, heedless of obstacles, and achieve nothing more than to sink in a swamp, what’s the use of knowing True North?

These are the words of Tony Kushner, not (as far as I know) of President Lincoln himself. But they make an important point. Knowing where we ought to end as a society tells us very little about our best next move. Sometimes a tactical retreat or a sidestep is well advised. Thus political philosophy does not address the question, “What should be done?” unless it is married to political strategy–and the division of disciplines and departments makes that combination rare.

I would actually push the point further. There is no end, no literal True North. As we move through time as a people, we keep deciding where we ought to go. Moving in the right direction is important, but so is holding ourselves together as a community so that we can keep deciding where to go. Sometimes, the imperative of maintaining our ability to govern ourselves is more important than forward motion.

In his fine book, Reconstructing the Commercial Republic: Constitutional Design After Madison (University of Chicago Press, 2007), Stephen Elkin introduces this metaphor:

Those who wish to constitute a republican regime are like shipbuilding sailors on a partly uncharted sea who know the direction in which they sail, since the kinds of ports they prefer lie that way. This much they can agree on. To attempt to agree on anything more specific will defeat them, their opinions on the matter differing significantly. They also know too little for substantive agreement to be possible. … It is clear that the relations among the shipbuilders are fundamental. Because they must build, rebuild, repair, and modify the vessel as they sail and learn–and because they must alter their course… — it matters whether the shipbuilders’ modes of association are such as to facilitate this learning and the decisions they must make. … These modes of association are then at least as important as the ports toward which the shipbuilders sail [pp. 107-108].

So it is with a republican regime, Elkin adds; the “essential problem is one of creating a design that provides the capabilities that are needed to keep the regime oriented in the right direction.”

Lincoln provides a rich example for thinking about this problem. He knew the North Star (in that case,  abolition) but he also strove to keep the ship of state together because abolition was not the only or final destination our ship could reach. Lincoln’s was the great case, but the same situation confronts every leader–and every citizen. For instance, our president named the North Star in his Second Inaugural: “We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American, she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.” But how can a divided America move closer to that objective?

(see also “a real alternative to ideal theory on philosophy” and “beyond civic piety

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.