Lincoln and Northern Millennialism

Following his refusal to recant at the Diet of Worms Luther withdrew to the Wartburg, a castle in the modern German state of Thuringia. There Frederick the Elector of Saxony, having obtained the approval of the Holy Roman Emperor, protected the rebellious priest from his persecutors at Rome. From his seclusion Luther heard that his followers in Wittenberg and Erfurt had turned to iconoclasm. In the former city, where Luther had lectured on the Psalms and the Pauline epistles, the monks disbanded their monasteries, took wives, and joined the students at the University in destroying sacred images. Erik Erikson said of this mob violence, “[h]ere, then, was initiated revolutionary Puritanism-that strange mixture of rebellious individualism, aesthetic asceticism, and cruel righteousness which came to characterize much of Protestantism.” He may have been right. Though benevolent organizations such as the Sanitary Commission drew their inspiration from nineteenth-century American evangelism, “cruel righteousness” defined Northern Protestantism during the American Civil War. Furthermore, it defined the rhetorical tradition that Phillip Shaw Paludan once referred to as “putting God in a Union uniform,” from which Lincoln’s leadership during the Civil War dramatically departed. It was the presence of “cruel righteousness” in the rhetoric and imagery of Northern Christianity that threatened the role Lincoln had crafted for himself within American history. Since he had overcome the identity crisis of his early adulthood by occupying that role, Northern millenarianism also jeopardized Lincoln’s sanity.

Edmund Wilson has noted, “the minds of nations at war are invariably dominated by myths, which turn the conflict into melodrama and make it possible for each side to feel that it is combating some form of evil.” “This vision of Judgment,” he continues, “was the myth of the North.” William Lloyd Garrison, a leading abolitionist whose Boston-based paper The Liberator achieved national renown during the 1830s, was told that the Constitution guaranteed the right to own slaves. He responded by calling the document “a covenant with death and an agreement with hell.” The expression comes from Isaiah 28:18. The King James Version of this verse reads, “And your covenant with death shall be disannulled, and your agreement with Sheol will not last. When the overwhelming scourge passes through, you will be trampled.” Wilson sees the violent imagery contained in the passage as a manifestation of the apocalyptic fervor that would pervade the North during the war. Though abolitionists were politically marginalized until the second half of the war, the biblical militarism with which they went about their work came to characterize much of the North’s wartime rhetoric.

Julia Ward Howe limned the North’s religious fervor with her Battle Hymn of the Republic. In John Brown’s Body, a popular soldiers’ ballad from which Howe took her lyrics, the abolitionist martyr is characterized as “a soldier in the army of the Lord” (Wilson, p. 92). In lending to the tune what Wilson calls “a more dignified set of words,” she, like Garrison, took her cue from Isaiah. Isaiah 63:3-4 reads:

I have trodden the winepress alone…for I will tread them in mine anger, and trample them in my fury; and their blood shall be sprinkled upon my garments, and I will stain all my raiment. For the day of vengeance is in mine heart, and the year of my redeemed is come.

Ward borrows from the imagery of the Isaiah passage in her opening lines: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord./ He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.” “The advent of the Union armies,” Wilson comments, “represents…the coming of the Lord, and their cause is the cause of God’s truth” (Wilson, p. 94). At one point Ward prays, “the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel.” The Confederacy in this stanza is a serpent, an agent of Satan’s will in the world. It is the North’s duty to vanquish it. As we saw in the previous chapter, Lincoln did occasionally speak of the South in this way in his private correspondence and the speeches he delivered on less notable occasions, particularly those given to groups of wounded soldiers. The challenge that Ward and those who thought like her presented was to the religious persona that Lincoln presented to the public, a distinctive creation of his personal struggles and his political career.

Ward’s use of the Holy Trinity intensifies the militaristic tone of her song. Jesus’ role in the Battle Hymn is interesting, for it is peripheral. When he does appear he does so with aggressive intent. “As he died to make [men] holy,” Ward enjoins us to “live to make them free.” Wilson sees in this verse a vestige of New England Calvinism, which had by the 1820s given way to more liberal strains of Christianity like Unitarianism. Jesus’ redemptive role is not as important as what God is telling us to do in the here and now: namely, enlist. “He is a militant, a military God,” says Wilson, “and far from wanting us to love our enemies He gives ‘the Hero’ orders to ‘crush the serpent with his heel’” (Wilson, p. 96). Jesus is relegated to “the beauty of the lilies,” born “across the sea.” His role as savior of mankind became relevant only after Lincoln’s assassination, when the late president was cast in an analogous role by those eager to capitalize on the fact that he was shot on Good Friday.

Henry Ward Beecher exulted in similarly militaristic tones when he was called upon to address a crowd of Unionists at Fort Sumter following its recapture in the spring of 1865. Though he was not as bashful about divining God’s will, Beecher seems to be making the same points Lincoln made in his Second Inaugural. His tone is simply a lot more vindictive and triumphalist. He refers to secession as the “grittiest and bloodiest rebellion in time.” He says that his audience has congregated “to rejoice that the hands of those who defend a just cause and beneficent government are mightier than the hands that assaulted it.” Gazing toward the “dilapidated” city of Charleston, he says he’s “glad that God hath set such a mark upon treason that all ages shall dread and abhor it.” He does pay lip service to reconciliation by observing, “We should be unworthy of that liberty entrusted to our care, if, on such a day as this, we sullied our hearts by feelings of aimless vengeance.” But he nullifies this by thanking “Him who hath said, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord.'” We can imagine (and have seen) Lincoln speaking in these terms to a private correspondent and small gatherings, but never to a national audience.

Lincoln was an anomaly in this respect. There was some precedent for the crusading rhetoric of Garrison, Beecher, and Howe. Patrick Henry’s famous “Give Me Liberty Or Give Me Death Speech” is shot through with militaristic appeals to his audience’s Christianity. The speech, delivered to the Virginia legislature on March 23, 1775, came almost a month before shots were fired at Lexington and Concord. His tone is foreboding. He invokes “the great responsibility which we hold to God” in his prefatory paragraph. Addressing those who would be more tactful towards Great Britain, Henry says, “Are we disposed to be of the number of those who, having eyes, see not, and, having ears, hear not, the things which so nearly concern their temporal salvation?” The allusion, as most if not all of his auditors would have known, is to Mark 8:18, in which Jesus rebukes the Pharisees after they reprimand his disciples for eating leavened bread. Henry does not equivocate about whom good Christians should side with in the impending Revolution.

He becomes even less equivocal as the speech reaches its conclusion. Reviewing the British ministry’s preparations for war and concluding that “There is no longer any room for hope,” he insists that “An appeal to arms and to the God of hosts is all that is left us!” Dr. Steven White has used passages from both Testaments to demonstrate how loaded the title “God of hosts” is. It evokes the tradition, popular in the Psalms of David, of appealing to God to annihilate one’s enemies. It was natural for Lincoln, whom Lord Charnwood called “a master of language and…a life-long peacemaker,” to shy away from such a phrase. Yet once he has made his appeal to the “God of hosts,” Henry goes on to sanctify the Revolution by framing it in terms of a crusade. Responding to concerns that Great Britain was “so formidable an adversary,” Henry declares, “we are not weak if we make a proper use of those means which the God of nature hath placed in our power.” He even exhorts the Virginia legislature to support the “holy cause of liberty” by arming themselves. A suitable juxtaposition is Lincoln’s skepticism, expressed in the Second Inaugural, over anyone who would “ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces.” Henry’s “just God,” like Lincoln’s, “presides over the destinies of nations.” Unlike Lincoln’s, however, He also “raise[s] up friends to fight our battles for us.” Lincoln never presumed to speak on behalf of God in public.

Henry’s use of civil religion was not anomalous. At least some of the founders recognized the role that religion could play in forging a national identity, particularly during times of adversity, and viewed it as a necessary precondition of civil society. James P. Byrd’s Sacred Scripture, Sacred War analyses biblical rhetoric before and during the American Revolution. Two aspects of his analysis, both of which show the degree to which Lincoln’s departed from previous articulations of America’s civil religion, stand out. First, Byrd shows how American colonists of the prerevolutionary and revolutionary periods established a link between (Protestant) Christianity and republicanism. Virtue, ran the thinking of men like John Adams, is essential to republicanism; the propagation of Christianity is essential to virtue; therefore all good republicans must practice Christianity. This syllogism is relevant to the study Lincoln’s religion because Lincoln did away with the second premise and the conclusion. Edmund Wilson quotes Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens as saying that the Union had assumed for Lincoln a sort of “religious mysticism” (Wilson may have gotten the quote from Stephens’ memoirs; he never says explicitly). Short of the fatalism that Lincoln references in his 1846 defense against charges of impiety, it seems that a belief in an American Union dedicated to freedom as it was expounded in the Declaration was the closest Lincoln ever got to religious faith prior to the Civil War. In that sense, Lincoln was an irregularity. The relationship between religion and republicanism was not symbiotic for him. Republicanism, as republicanism, was his religion.

Secondly, Byrd shows how American Christianity and American biblical rhetoric of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were fundamentally militaristic. In making this argument he reaches farther back into America’s colonial history than his subtitle (The Bible and the American Revolution) might suggest, starting with King Philip’s War (1675), continuing through the wars between France and England for control of the eastern seaboard (1702-1763), and finally moving into a consideration of common usages of the Bible during the Revolution. Preachers always shouldered the burden of explaining the meaning of these conflicts to the general public, and they always put God in the camp of his “new Israel,” America. The argument I have been honing is that Lincoln departed from this tradition in a way that profoundly affected his statesmanship. He shouldered the burden of explaining the Civil War, and he did so using a religious idiom. But it was stripped of the standard American triumphalism and self-righteousness.

Nevertheless, Lincoln’s fatalism interacted with and responded to Calvinistic beliefs in America’s millennial significance. The Puritan conception of America as an instrument of God’s will persisted through the nineteenth century. According to Wilson, Harriet Beecher Stowe stripped Congregationalism of some of its doctrinal orthodoxy, but still claimed the stories contained in Cotton Mather’s Magnalia “made [her] feel the very ground [she] trod on to be consecrated by some special dealing of God’s providence.” This faith was inherently militaristic. Byrd talks about how during the Revolution it fulfilled a fundamental need of the modern nation state: it melded patriotism with religion and encouraged thousands of young men to enlist in the military. “The heroic element was strong in me,” said Stowe, “having come down by ordinary generation from a long line of Puritan ancestry, and just now it made me long to do something, I knew not what: to fight for my country, or to make some declaration on my account.”

Paul Tillich has said that “the cultural vocation of the United States was to realize the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, that the motive behind the American Dream and the American Way of Life…was primarily a religious one.” Wilson insists repeatedly that “this vision, brought over to New England by the Pilgrims and carried on by the New England divines, had blazed up against the twilight of the Calvinist faith, at the beginning of the Civil War.” The Calvinist strain in New England theology cultivated an image of God as a vengeful administrator of judgment. Dred, one the protagonists of Stowe’s wildly successful Uncle Tom’s Cabin whom she modeled after Nat Turner, “is made to embody the Old Testament spirit of righteous wrath which the professional preachers in the story are too crass or too prudent to imitate, and to prophesy the downfall of planter society.” Stowe confronted the Old School Presbyterian doctrine of predestination, and even converted to a much more moderate Episcopalianism, “yet her God was still a God of Justice rather than a God of Love.” The extent to which that conception of God had permeated the Union cause might be gauged by the heavy use of language and imagery from the Book of Isaiah in Julia Ward Howe’s Battle Hymn of the Republic.

Like the Puritans, Lincoln, too, thought of himself as the agent of some higher purpose. At least, he styled himself after that fashion. Professor George Forgie and I have spoken about his 1838 address to the Young Men’s Lyceum, in which he predicts some “towering genius” will seek to topple the accomplishments of the Founders. One wonders if he did not already see himself as a foil. New England clergy thought “that they might be chosen vessels, commissioned to bear the light of liberty and religion through all the earth and to bring in the great millennial day.” Lincoln certainly cast himself in an equally heroic role. Francis Grierson relates the story of a Methodist preacher describing “the Dominion of Christ” in a revival meeting that Lincoln and his friends attended. The preacher, Peter Akers, foresaw a civil war that would vanquish slavery. When Lincoln was asked what he thought of the sermon, he responded: “Gentlemen, you may think it strange, but when the preacher was describing the civil war, I distinctly saw myself, as in second sight, bearing an important part in that strife.” He then showed up late to his law office the following morning, looking disheveled. When Billy Herndon asked him what was the matter, Lincoln replied, “I am utterly unable to shake myself free from the conviction that I shall be involved in that terrible war.” If this anecdote lacks the sort of authoritative proof that would satisfy Don E. Fehrenbacher, it does convey Lincoln’s belief in fatalism, that, as Hamlet would say, “there’s a divinity that shapes our ends, rough hew them as we will.” There is an element of predestination about this doctrine, perhaps a remnant of Lincoln’s Hard Shell Baptist parents.

Lincoln was, however, an indubitable religious skeptic in the sense that he was reluctant to take on faith the absolute truth of any creed to which his society adhered. “He was not a member of any church, and it is plain that in his earlier days, before he had become a great public figure, he has what was called a free-thinker,” well-read in the deist works of Paine and Volney (Wilson, p. 99). William Herndon, Lincoln’s Springfield law partner and one of his first biographers, tells us that during his early adulthood in New Salem Lincoln had been influenced by eighteenth-century skeptics like Voltaire. To this he added a strong belief in evolution that he imbibed from the copies of Darwin that Herndon brought with him to the office. When he first ran for Congress against a Methodist preacher in 1846, he was forced to defend himself in print against a charge of infidelity. The handbill Lincoln published in his own defense takes no definitive stand on the tenets of Christian faith. Lincoln simply says, “I have never spoken with intentional disrespect of religion in general, or of any denomination of Christians in particular” (Wilson, p. 101). No positive declaration about his faith in Jesus, or even in a personal God, appears. This is the religious disposition that characterized Lincoln during the first half of the Civil War, when the outcome was uncertain.

His cautious language is important. If Lincoln did not believe in orthodox Christianity, he understood that many of his constituents did. Like Henry, he was not above invoking God’s power over the nation’s political fortunes. Where he differed from his predecessor (and many of his contemporaries) was his refusal to associate God’s will with a particular side, at least in public. Indeed, as we have seen, Lincoln’s rhetorical insistence on neutrality created a rift between his public and his private religious personae. This rift was largely due to the methods Lincoln used in divining God’s purposes in the conflict he oversaw. Writes Ronald C. White, “Sometimes this reflection was done in private, as in his ;Meditation on the Divine Will,’ written in the summer of 1862 after a crushing Union military defeat. Most often it was worked out in public addresses and comments.”

His public pronouncements remained circumspect. His First Inaugural address, a legalistic argument against the constitutionality of secession, does contain a reference to “universal law” and its support of a perpetual Union. But in the same address he goes on to say, “If the Almighty Ruler of Nations, with his eternal truth and justice, be on your side of the North, or yours of the South, that truth and that justice will surely prevail by the judgment of this great tribunal of the American people.”

The latter statement is more representative of Lincoln’s pragmatic use of religion prior to 1861. In 1858 he was chosen by Illinois Republicans to run against Democrat Stephen Douglas for a seat in the U.S. Senate. Speaking in the state legislature to those who had appointed him, Lincoln used his famous “House Divided” line, lifted directly from Matthew 12:25, to explain the state of the Union. He had given the speech to Herndon, who tried to dissuade him from using what he thought was inflammatory language. Responding to Herndon’s concerns, Lincoln said:

The proposition is indisputably true, and has been true for more than six thousand years. And I will deliver it as written. I want to use some universally known figure, expressed in simple language, that may strike home to the minds of men, in order to rouse them to the peril of the times.

Lincoln, who had learned to write in the language of Shakespeare and the King James Bible because of the limited access to books his impoverished childhood afforded him, saw his audience’s familiarity with biblical language as a rhetorical resource to be tapped. Wilson insists, “he must now have deliberately adopted the practice of stating his faith in the Union and his conviction of his own mission in terms that would not be repugnant to the descendants of New England Puritans and to the evangelism characteristic of the time” (Wilson, p. 103). Wilson discusses how “history” as an inexorable and interdependent chain of events had assumed a religious aspect for Lincoln, referring to his annual address to Congress in December of 1862: “Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and of this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us” (Wilson, p. 103, emphasis in the original). But, Wilson adds, “he needed something more in keeping than this doctrine of historical necessity with the Scriptural religious conceptions of most of his fellow Americans.” He would find it in the Second Inaugural.

His response to Herndon and the “House Divided” speech itself might be construed as an attempt to place God firmly in the Northern camp. Before the soaring coda to his First Inaugural three years later, Lincoln would say, “You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the Government, while I shall have the most solemn one to ‘preserve, protect, and defend it.’” In the context of this and other speeches, however, the reference seems to have been part of a larger attempt to play on Americans’ religious sensibility to avoid bloodshed. In addition to his conditional statement about the “Almighty Ruler of Nations,” Lincoln noted in the First Inaugural, “Intelligence, patriotism, Christianity, and a firm reliance on Him who has never yet forsaken this favored land are still competent to adjust in the best way possible all our present difficulty.”

As the conflict progressed, however, Lincoln relied more and more on religion as a way to understand what had happened to the country rather than as a convenient rhetorical device. “As the struggle continues undecided,” notes Wilson, “he becomes a good deal less sure that the moral issue is perfectly clear, that the Almighty Ruler of nations is committed to the side of the North.” In September of 1862, by which time he had decided to issue his Emancipation Proclamation, he wrote a short memo to himself in which he reflected on the course of the conflict up to that point. The battles of Shiloh and Antietam had dispelled any notion that the war would be swift and bloodless, and the Union defeat at Second Manassas stoked fears that the South might actually win its independence. The document, which has since been called Lincoln’s “Meditation on the Divine Will” after his secretary John Hay removed it from his desk in the wake of his assassination and published it, portrays an intelligent and deeply introverted man trying to grapple with tremendous carnage, and his role in bringing that carnage about :

“The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be, wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purposes of either party-and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to affect His purpose. I am almost ready to say that this is probably true-that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet. By His mere great power, on the minds of the now contestants, He could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest. Yet the contest began. And having begun He could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds.”

Hay’s commentary on the “Meditation” also bears quoting at length:

“Mr. Lincoln admits us into the most secret recesses of his soul…Perplexed and afflicted beyond human help, by the disasters of war, the wrangling of parties, and the inexorable and constraining logic of his own mind, he shut out the world one day, and tried to put into words his double sense of responsibility to human duty and Divine Power; and this was the result. It shows-as has been said in another place-the awful sincerity of a perfectly honest soul trying to bring itself into closer Communion with its Maker.”

In their introduction to Religion and the American Civil War Randall M. Miller, Harry S. Stout, and Charles Reagan Wilson described the theological difference between Lincoln and his evangelical contemporaries (as well as the tradition exemplified in the rhetoric of Patrick Henry) in this way:

“Few public figures were so willing as Lincoln to confess that God had His own purposes that humans could not wholly divine. The conviction that God was on one’s own side provided the certainty that drove the northerners and southerners apart. The war tested that certainty, as it also forced northerners and southerners to rethink their relationship with God and knowledge of His plan.”

Lincoln was uniquely suited to guide this rethinking of America’s relationship with God. The religious idiom had always been there for Lincoln. “It was not really easy for Lincoln’s public to suspect him of a critical attitude towards the Scriptures,” says Wilson, “for the Bible was the book he knew best” (Wilson, p. 103). “He had it at his fingertips and quoted it more often than anything else.” Lord Charnwood, who understood Lincoln and the Civil War, relates this passage from Lincoln’s private correspondence: “[After his election in 1860] Lincoln indeed refused on several occasions to make any fresh public disclaimer of an intention to attack existing institutions. His views were ‘open to all who will read.’ ‘For the good men of the South,’ he writes privately, ‘-I regard the majority of them as such-I have no objection to repeat them seventy times seven…’” (Charnwood, p. 120, emphasis mine). The expression comes from Genesis 4:24, in which Lamech speaks to his wives after killing a man. “If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy and sevenfold.” In addition to having been discussed by Jim Adams as an instance of “Old Testament justice” prior to the promulgation of the Decalogue, it also shows the degree to which biblical imagery and language had permeated Lincoln’s intellectual life. His political insight was to deploy this language in a way that facilitated reconciliation rather than retribution.

This shift in Lincoln’s religious sensibility is reflected in the differences between his First and Second Inaugural addresses. As has been previously noted, the First Inaugural was an historical and constitutional defense of the Union’s perpetuity. With the exception of his appeal to “every patriot grave across this broad land” (which was added only after consultation with Seward), the document runs to three printed pages of references to the nation’s founding and its development. He enlists the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution, and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 in his defense. Lord Charnwood comments that:

“By Seward’s advice Lincoln added to an otherwise dry speech some concluding paragraphs of emotional appeal. The last sentence of the speech, which alone is much remembered, is Seward’s in the first conception of it, Seward’s in the slightly hackneyed phrase with which it ends, Lincoln’s alone in the touch of haunting beauty which is on it” (Charnwood, p. 128).

The Second Inaugural, like the “Meditation,” is the work of a mind that had been driven into deep thought by four years of war. It runs to only one printed page. After some prefatory remarks that, quite in contrast to his First Inaugural, identified slavery as the cause of the conflict, he said of the North and the South:

“Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. ‘Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.’ If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that he gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war might speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn by the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

The distinctive feature of this address, writes Paludan, is its humility. In a sense Lincoln had traveled in a theological circle over the course of the war, beginning it in a state of uncertainty and ending it in a state of profound introspection. Says Paludan:

“The temptation when dealing with Lincoln is simply to focus on an analyze the substance and style of the Second Inaugural Address. But I believe Lincoln embodied the three goals that the prophet Micah says are necessary for someone to do what God requires: “Do justly, and to love mercy and to walk humbly with thy God” (Micah 6:8). The last of these is the most important for understanding Lincoln and the importance of his religious ideas in the Union war effort.”

The question of whether or not Lincoln believed in what he was saying, and to what extent, is an interesting one. Wilson has this to say:

“If the need on Lincoln’s part, as a public man, to express himself in phrases congenial to his public may have had some part in inducing him to heighten and personify the formulas of his eighteenth-century deism, if it is true that as the war went on and gave rise to more and more disaffection, it became more and more to his interest to invoke the traditional Lord of Hosts, it is nevertheless quite clear that he himself came to see the conflict in a light more and more religious, in more and more Scriptural terms, under a more and more apocalyptic aspect. The vision had imposed itself (Wilson, p. 106).

He then imposed it on the United States. “The molding by Lincoln of American opinion,” says Wilson, “was a matter of style and imagination as well as of moral authority, of cogent argument and obstinate will” (Wilson, p. 123). What Wilson does not account for in this analysis is the centrality of Lincoln’s historical legacy to his psychological health. The role that Lincoln came to play between 1854 and 1865 fulfilled the “peculiar ambition” he had articulated in his first address to the voters of Sangamon county in 1832, to garner the esteem of other men and to render himself worthy of that esteem. It was the temporary eclipse of this ambition that plunged Lincoln into an emotional abyss between 1840 and 1841. Any departure from the redemptive role Lincoln came to occupy, any gratuitous dalliance with retribution, would have compromised not just his legacy but also his psychological health.

Shelby Foote, a narrative historian of the war interviewed in Ken Burns’ documentary, has noted, “everything he did was calculated for effect.” Perhaps that is why Lincoln performed his role so effectively. Wilson argues, “the poetry of Lincoln has not all been out into his writings. It was acted out in his life” (Wilson, p. 122). The most chilling parts of his essay on the sixteenth president come when he discusses Lincoln’s recurrent premonitions of his own assassination. Lincoln would often relate these to his friends and family. The recent Spielberg biopic opens with one of them, Lincoln’s recurring dream of traveling on a boat towards some indiscernible shore at an incredible rate. The day before his assassination he is reported to have told his cabinet of a dream in which he followed a frantic crowd into the East Room of the White House to look upon his own corpse (it should be noted that the authenticity of the anecdotes related in this passage, though characteristic of the impressions Lincoln left on his contemporaries, have been challenged by Don E. Fehrenbacher).

All of this should be read as dramatic scaffolding. Before and during his presidency, Lincoln created a narrative about the Civil War and about himself, one in which the war accomplished some higher purpose that featured him in a redemptive role. He adhered to the narrative fiercely, and would not have it upstaged by Northern triumphalism. “What strikes the modern reader,” Ronald C. White has written, “is not that Lincoln was sure he knew the will of what he called a ‘living God,’ but rather that he was continually wrestling, often out loud and in public, with the meaning and manner of a God whom he became increasingly certain acted in history.” Lincoln’s theology was intensely self-critical. “Lincoln,” continues White, “was much less assured about God blessing America. He was continually striving to discern exactly how God was dealing, in both judgment and redemption, with the United States.” For Lincoln, his role in God’s plans for the United States had become an issue of life or death. Therefore his theological ruminations were more rigorous than any other president’s before or since. We may attribute this in part to the magnitude of the crisis over which Lincoln presided. More important, however, was the peculiar relation that Lincoln’s role as an agent of God’s will in American history bore to his psychological struggles.


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