Abraham Lincoln Institute Fifth Annual Symposium (Library of Congress, Thomas Jefferson Buidling, Coolidge Auditorium, Saturday, March 16, 2002 from 9am-5pm - The Latest in Lincoln Scholarship

William Lee Miller


William Lee Miller, now Scholar in Ethics and Institutions at the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia, is the author of Lincoln's Virtues: An Ethical Biography, published February 12, 2002, by Alfred A. Knopf. He is the author of a number of other books, including Arguing About Slavery: John Quincy Adams and the Great Battle in the American Congress, which won the D.B. Haldeman Award for the best book on Congress in 1996.

Mr. Miller retired from the faculty of U.Va. in 1999 as Commonwealth Professor, and the Thomas C. Sorensen Professor, of Political and Social Thought. He had taught also at Yale, Smith College, and Indiana University, where he was founding director of The Poynter Center on American Institutions. He has written numerous articles and essays on public affairs; his articles from his days as a writer and editor at The Reporter magazine were collected in Piety Along the Potomac (1964). His memories of serving on the New Haven Board of Aldermen were published as The Fifteenth Ward and the Great Society (1966). He has made several forays into political campaigns, served on the Fund for the Republic's Commission on Religion and a Free Society, and repeatedly been a moderator of humanities seminars at the Aspen Institutute. He received his Ph.D. in social ethics in 1958 from Yale.


Yale University,Ph. D., Religious Social Ethics, 1958.
Yale University, B. D., Summa Cum Laude,1950.
University of Nebraska, A. B. with honors, 1947. Phi Beta Kappa.


The University of Virginia
•White Burkett Miller Center Scholar in Residence, Professor Emeritus 1999-current
Commonwealth Professor of Political and Social Thought, 1992-1999
•Thomas C. Sorensen Professor of Political and Social Thought. Director of the Program in Political and Social Thought, 1992-1999.
•White Burkett Miller Center Professor of Ethics and Institutions, 1987-1992.
•Chairman, Department of Rhetoric and Communication Studies, 1982-1990
•Professor of Religious Studies, 1982-1999.

Indiana University
•Professor of Political Science and Professor of Religious Studies, 1969-1982.
•Founding Director of the Poynter Center on American Institutions, 1972-1982.

New Haven Board of Aldermen
•Member, 1963-69

Yale University
•Associate Professor of Social Ethics, 1962-69.
•Assistant Professor of Social Ethics, 1958-62.
•Instructor in Social Ethics, 1951-53.
•Assistant in Instruction, Philosophy, 1949-51.

The Reporter Magazine
•Staff writer and editor, 1955-58 (regular contributor, 1953-65).

Smith College
•Assistant Professor of Religion, 1953-55.


Arguing About Slavery:The Great Debate in the United States Congress. Alfred A. Knopf, 1996.

The Business of May Next: James Madison and the Founding. University Press of Virginia, 1992.

The First Liberty: Religion and the American Republic. Alfred A. Knopf, 1986.

Yankee from Georgia: The Emergence of Jimmy Carter. Times Books, 1978.

Of Thee, Nevertheless I Sing: An Essay on American Political Values. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975.

The Fifteenth Ward and the Great Society. Houghton Mifflin, 1966.

Piety Along the Potomac. Houghton Mifflin, 1964.

The Protestant and Politics. Westminster Press, 1960.

Author of numerous articles in magazines and journals, including The New York Times Magazine, The Yale Review, The New Republic, and Commonweal.


I have had a life-long interest in Lincoln and in American political ethics (ethics broadly conceived—American "Values," if you will) and I have had this book in mind for a long time—at least since I wrote an essay on the Second Inaugural almost twenty years ago. David Herbert Donald in his reigning Lincoln biography, I am happy to see, cites that essay of mine as "the most thoughtful analysis" of the Second Inaugural. That address will play a large role in this book; one might almost regard this book as a treatment of that other great Lincoln address—some say the greatest—comparable to Wills' treatment of the Gettysburg Address; the Second Inaugural will introduce and conclude my book. But there is to be a good deal beyond that address in this book, as I will say in a moment.

So I have a long interest in Lincoln and have written a well received essay on a central address. And I have had a career as writer and scholar and political participant in which a moral understanding of American Public Life has been the theme.

I went to Yale many years ago specifically to get a degree in a field (or combination of fields) called "social ethics" in the Divinity School and the Graduate School, which I specified for my purposes as "political ethics" (again, think of both of these words broadly), and that has been my "field," in the academic world, ever since.

But I intended to be a writer as much as, or more than, a scholar. After I had finished my graduate course work (quite diversified, centering around that arena) and had taken my exams, but had not yet finished my dissertation, I began selling articles to a good magazine of those years, The Reporter, a magazine that was for 19 years one of the nation's best political magazines. I was given a flattering offer to join the staff of this much-respected magazine in New York, which, leaving the academy for the time, I accepted. For five years I was a writer in the higher journalism. I wrote articles about politics, especially in relation to ethics and religion—not academic articles, but topical ones, about Nixon and Eisenhower and Dulles and Kennedy and the like. These had certain themes running through them, with which I came to be identified in those days.

When my former teacher gave up his courses in social ethics and I was offered a position back at Yale, I finished my dissertation and returned to the academy, but in that and my subsequent academic appointments I have continued to be as much a writer for the general public as a proper scholar writing for colleagues (although on topics like this one, one can come closer to doing both than on some other topics.)

I acquired along the way a wider acquaintanceship in Washington and elsewhere among politicians and political journalists than may be the case with others in university positions, and did some active politics. I was a young speech writer for Adlai Stevenson (a particular admirer, and quoter, of Lincoln) in a presidential campaign; I was a ghost writer of a book signed by Hubert Humphrey; I worked on presidential messages in the old HEW for Lyndon Johnson and John Gardner. I myself ran for alderman, not in the Yale ward but in a ward with real people, in Mayor Dick Lee's day in New Haven, and retired undefeated after three terms and many battles over race and other matters (I wrote a book about this experience.) I was invited by my teacher Arnold Wolfers and Paul Nitze to be a member of a foreign policy thinking group and commuted to Washington to attend. I was repeatedly a moderator of summer humanities seminars at Aspen. I wrote a book about Jimmy Carter that C. Vann Woodward went out of his way, in his review of another book, to call the best book about Carter (perhaps not a very exacting standard.) I was the founding director of a center at Indiana University that brought in visitors, and sponsored studies and classes, dealing with American public life. All of this can form an implicit background and be a source of occasional illustrations in this book.

Although I wrote some books in these years, the articles I wrote were more central to me than the books; the books were offshoots of articles and other activities. I knew, however, that one day I would draw back and write the best books I could write as my major, summary activity.

And I began to do so with a book called The First Liberty. That book, dealing with religious liberty, grew out of two other activities: I had been invited to be the younger Protestant (the older Protestant: Reinhold Niebuhr) on the commission on Religion and the Free Society of the Fund for the Republic, headed by Robert Hutchins, in which about a dozen of us discussed religious liberty in the United States, and published widely read pamphlets; (America's "civil religion" was an important subject in those discussions, and Lincoln was a considerable figure with respect to that topic). While in New Haven I was invited to join two law school professors in giving a Yale Law School course on church and state, which I did for three years.

The First Liberty and the books that followed, were cast in an historical setting partly because of named lectures I was asked to give dealing with the nation's Bicentennial, but by my own design as well; historical settings give the concreteness one can use in writing about intellectual subjects for a general readership. My purpose in that and subsequent books, as I said, was to examine America's moral and intellectual foundations by telling and interpreting historical episodes. The First Liberty tells the story of the passage of Jefferson's Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom—I think I can claim that it is a definitive telling of that story. I have since written two other books with an American historical setting, one of them a book about James Madison's thinking through of the national foundations in the 1780s. (Comparisons to Madison, Jefferson, and the other "fathers," with whom Lincoln felt his strong sense of continuity, will appear in this book). Most recently I have produced Arguing About Slavery: The Great Battle in the United States Congress, which "recreates" and comments on John Quincy Adams' long fight against the gag rule that excluded abolitionist petitions. In those books I anticipated this book about Lincoln. The last scene in ARGUING ABOUT SLAVERY shows Adams collapsing at his desk in the House while "in the back row, in a not very good seat, there was a young Whig congressman from Illinois, serving his first and only term in the House, Abraham Lincoln."

Those are the last words of that book.
Now I am ready to write this Lincoln book, which will be the culmination of this historical series, and also of a longer enterprise in what I have written on American Values in politics—from my personal point-of-view, the coming together of these two streams. From the point-of-view of a reader who does not care about that, nevertheless, as I hope, an important book in its own right.

Library of Congress
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