Monday, May 17, 2010

Was Honest Abe an Animal Rights Advocate? I Don't Have Any Quarrel with Wesley Smith

Wesley Smith, one of the most astute critics of the animal rights movement - a man I respect, even if I don't see eye to eye with him on a number of issues - had an interesting Blog Entry today on Abraham Lincoln. Smith mentions a widely cited Lincoln quote that is featured on Yours Truly's Blog (on the right-hand side): "I am in favor of animal rights as well as human rights. That is the way of the whole human being."

Smith's conclusion? It is difficult - if not impossible - to find the quote in any of Lincoln's published speeches or correspondence.

I've seen the quote in numerous places, but I've never actually gone to the source to find it. Smith insists that Lincoln was not an animal rights advocate. His observations on Lincoln are worth quoting at length here:

Lincoln certainly had a soft heart for animals. He didn’t hunt big game and may not have hunted at all. He owned a dog named Fido in Springfield ... and a lapdog named Jip in the White House, as well as assorted cats. He saved a chick that had fallen out of its nest and once while riding with a friend, he doubled back to save a pig stuck in the mud, even though it meant he would be covered too. He gave what was probably the first presidential pardon to a turkey being fattened for Christmas dinner. But that wasn’t because he was worried about the life of the bird: His son Tad had named the turkey and made it his pet, and so Lincoln didn’t want to hurt his son.

But animal rights? No. He wore leather shoes and boots. He rode horses. He ate meat with relish. Besides, the core belief of “animal rights”–that humans and animals have equivalent moral worth–did not exist in the 19th Century in America, and indeed, would have been astounding and beyond the pale to Honest Abe–particularly given the difficulties of the time concerning the intrinsic equality of all humans.

I don't know of any trustworthy animal rights advocates who actually believe Lincoln was firmly in our camp. As a historian, I can vouch that Smith is right to point out that today's philosophy of animal rights - the insistence that nonhuman animal life deserves the same respect as human life - "did not exist in ... 19th Century America." In fact, the Animal Rights Movement as we know it today is largely a post-World War II phenomenon, even though it - like virtually all social movements - has historical antecedents.

We can point to pioneering animal rights activists and vegetarians (even borderline vegans) from earlier times in history - Leonardo da Vinci, Leo Tolstoy, George Bernard Shaw - who embraced the vegetarian lifestyle and were amazingly pro-animal rights for their times.

Lincoln, as Smith points out, felt tremendous compassion toward animals, even if he didn't think they had rights similar to humans. I've read enough Lincoln to know that he often spoke of the welfare and well-being of animals, and there is a wonderful story toward the end of Jonathan Safran Foer's brilliant book Eating Animals about Lincoln stopping what he was doing to help some baby birds in trouble. Safran Foer, who for my money is the most brilliant critic out there of the factory farm system and the barbaric treatment of animals, points out in his book that Lincoln saw the birds needed help and could not ignore them.

I do not think - and never have thought - that Lincoln was an animal rights advocate, but I still incorporate his profound wisdom into my animal rights philosophy. As long as we're talking about people being the products of their times, Thomas Jefferson was not an advocate for racial equality, but no other political thinker has had a greater influence on me and his enlightenment humanism has helped me develop a position in support of racial equality. And Eleanor Roosevelt's views on human rights were sometimes narrow in scope and often shaped by the times in which she lived, but my love of human rights has always been directly inspired by her living example.

All of this is a way of saying that even important past figures whose political philosophies were shaped by the historical trends and dominant ways of thinking that existed during their lives can still be - and, in fact, often are - inspiring figures to those of us who are fighting the good fight today. To say Abraham Lincoln was not an animal rights advocate is to simply acknowledge the truth.

It is equally true to say that his integrity, goodness, homespun humor and unrelenting desire to do what was right, often against tremendous odds, remains a source of inspiration for those of us who are fighting for the rights of animals.

By the way, for what it's worth, I'm ordering Wesley Smith's A Rat is a Pig is a Dog is a Boy, a book highly critical of the animal rights movement, because I am a firm believer that we should know the arguments of those who disagree with us. This helps us avoid dogma, transcend polarization, and create a dialogue between people with differing points of view. These - not shouting and polemics - are the foundations of a healthy democracy.

No comments:

Post a Comment