Civil War 150

Birkner examines Ike & Abe's principle, pragmatism in sponsored NY Times piece

History prof says the two presidents shared pragmatic approaches to their pursuits of human dignity.

Gettysburg College Prof. Michael Birkner '72 P'10 authored a piece on the similarly pragmatic approaches of Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Abraham Lincoln in their pursuits of human dignity for all Americans. The piece appeared in the Oct. 13 New York Times Sunday Review.

His piece is the sixth in a seven-part series sponsored by Gettysburg College, and designed to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War and generate thoughtful discourse about its legacy.

Michael BirknerThe full text of Birkner’s piece is below.

Principle and Pragmatism in Pursuit of Human Dignity

Steven Spielberg’s hit film “Lincoln” had box office appeal thanks in part to a great performance by Daniel Day-Lewis but also because the film’s premise touched a contemporary nerve. Gridlock can be broken with the right kind of leadership. Lincoln, like other great presidents, was not an above-the-battle idealist. He had the courage of his convictions and a pragmatic temper that helped him achieve worthy goals.

As we approach the 123rd birthday anniversary of another great president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, it is worth thinking about the ways Eisenhower’s approach to one especially controversial issue – African-American civil rights – changed America for the better.

As president, Eisenhower is perhaps best known for ending the Korean War, promoting the Interstate Highway System that bears his name, and giving a Farewell Address emphasizing that eternal vigilance is the price of sustaining democratic institutions.

Eisenhower’s contribution to human dignity tends to be overlooked. This despite historians’ approval of his actions at Little Rock to crush “interposition” – nullification of federal laws and federal court rulings that local majorities did not like.

Eisenhower revered the Constitution and believed deeply in the rule of law. As a student of Abraham Lincoln’s statecraft and admirer of Lincoln’s linguistic genius, Eisenhower shared Lincoln’s belief in a “fair go” for all citizens. Like Lincoln, Eisenhower was willing to employ necessary means to achieve desirable ends in pursuit of a great principle. This was exemplified during his presidency on various tracks, including his appointments of jurists to the federal bench who were sympathetic to civil rights and his support for federal legislation that angered segregationists. He did not get all he wanted in the 1957 Civil Rights Act, but what he did get was meaningful.

After his presidency Eisenhower remained committed to fulfilling Lincoln’s promise to African-Americans. Writing for the New York Herald Tribune in May 1963, Eisenhower called civil rights “the nation’s most critical domestic challenge.” He suggested that no Republican who opposed the Kennedy (and later Johnson) civil rights bill was worthy of the party’s presidential nomination.

When Barry Goldwater, one of six Republican senators who voted against the 1964 bill, emerged as the GOP standard bearer, Eisenhower made it clear to Goldwater that unless he endorsed the new law Eisenhower would not endorse him. He told CBS President William S. Paley that he could have no truck with an appeal to “white backlash” on the issue of civil rights. Should Goldwater identify with such appeals, Eisenhower said he would “vote the other side.”

Goldwater sought to mend fences. After a hastily arranged meeting at Gettysburg College with Eisenhower, he promised to enforce the law. Goldwater’s candidacy failed miserably in November 1964, but Eisenhower had won a small victory. As late as 1968, in the final months of his life, he encouraged the newly elected President Richard M. Nixon to name a strong civil rights advocate – former Attorney General Herbert Brownell – as chief justice of the Supreme Court.

As president, Eisenhower told a colleague that he did not need to “win” legislative battles outright, so long as he got 60 or 70 percent of what he was seeking, with the promise of further advances. Lincoln operated in the same spirit. Despite the level of partisanship evident in Washington politics today, this combination of principle and pragmatism can work as it did in Lincoln’s – and Eisenhower’s – day.

Michael J. Birkner is the Benjamin Franklin Professor of the Liberal Arts and a professor of history at Gettysburg College.

Find out more about Gettysburg College's Sesquicentennial Commemoration of the American Civil War and the New York Times series at

Founded in 1832, Gettysburg College is a highly selective four-year residential college of liberal arts and sciences with a strong academic tradition. Alumni include Rhodes Scholars, a Nobel laureate, and other distinguished scholars. The college enrolls 2,600 undergraduate students and is located on a 200-acre campus adjacent to the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.

Contact: Nikki Rhoads, senior assistant director of communications, 717.337.6803

Posted: Sun, 13 Oct 2013

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