“Woe Unto the World Because of Offenses”: The Wartime Religion of Abraham Lincoln (Installment I)


“It is very common,” President Abraham Lincoln once said to English journalist Edward Dicey, “in this country to find great facility of expression and less common to find great lucidity of thought.” He continued, “the combination of the two in one person is very uncommon; but whenever you do find it, you have a great man.” If eloquence and lucidity are to be the criteria by which we assess Lincoln’s oratory, his reputation as our greatest president is secure.

For the last year I have immersed myself in our sixteenth president’s collected works. I have been amazed, continually, by Lincoln’s ability to express and to elicit human emotion without sacrificing the mathematical precision of his prose. Reading his personal correspondence, it is easy to believe that Lincoln was not only self-consciously writing for posterity at a precocious age, but was also intent on making his readers share in his internal struggles. “If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family,” he wrote his first law partner John T. Stuart in January of 1841, “there would not be one cheerful face on the earth.” Yet here, too, we have an author capable of infusing his prose with urgency as well as despair. “Once more,” the president wrote to General George B. McClellan in April of 1862 after a Union attempt to flank the Confederate capital of Richmond via the Potomac River faltered due to McClellan’s incorrigible passivity, “let me tell you it is indispensable to you that you strike a blow…I beg to assure you that I have never written you, or spoken to you, in greater kindness of feeling than now, nor with a fuller purpose to sustain you…But you must act.”

I am intrigued by an intellect capable of commanding such varied emotions in writing, and by its development over the course of a tumultuous life. This thesis is an attempt to understand how Lincoln’s inimitable ability to express emotional truths took shape, and how it changed over the course of the Civil War. The abundance of Lincoln biographies and monographs is a source of comment for each successive Lincoln chronicler. It requires no reiteration here except to say that I know Lincoln, of all subjects, is capable of producing trite works of scholarship. It is more productive to comment on the characteristics that make him such an enduring quarry for historians.

Lincoln was, essentially, a man of contradictions. Though his build wavered somewhere between lanky and emaciated for the duration of his life, his 6’4” frame never exceeding 180 pounds, he was possessed of prodigious physical strength. At times buoyantly gregarious, he was also susceptible to periods of prolonged melancholy and introspection. On occasion he would arrive late and disheveled to his Springfield law office, interminably starring off into the prairie. On such occasions his partner William Herndon knew to remove himself, drawing the shades as he went so that his friend might not be disturbed from his personal communion. Irrepressibly ambitious, manifesting at times a monomaniacal devotion to mental exertion, Lincoln adhered rigidly to a moral compass that centered on compassion and empathy. Passionately opposed to the abstract doctrine of chattel slavery as an impediment to self-improvement, he nevertheless retained a peerless ability to pragmatically manipulate the levers of political power and predict, if not influence, the course of public opinion, never going too far for his constituents while always remaining one moral step ahead of them. Perennially skeptical of organized religion and formal creeds, he was by example the greatest practical Christian statesman in world history. He was enamored of women, as a species. By all accounts studiously observant of the codes of female honor that prevailed in his day, he failed unequivocally at engaging the affections of those particular women to whom he became attached. Whenever young, eligible women would enter Joshua Speed’s general store, the young clerk Lincoln would withdraw behind the counter, taking up Blackstone’s commentaries or some other improving tome as his partner catered to the customers. He could summarily reprieve the sentences of deserters and yet sentence a captured slave trader to death as an example. Above all, he retained a burning desire to argue and, if necessary, scorch from the face of the earth all who would tyrannize over those weaker than themselves. In short, he was the American we all wish we were, and never will be. He was of the tribe to which that famous Psalm pertained: “Mark the perfect man, and behold the upright: for the end of that man is peace.”

It is right that such a man should engender such curiosity, which is to be encouraged whenever possible. My thesis argues that Lincoln’s use of religion to understand the Civil War differed from that of Northern Protestants of the period. It further claims that his emotional struggles in early adulthood played a role in his theological development.
The thesis will consist of three chapters. The first chapter will explore Lincoln’s struggles with what may have been manic depression as a young man in Springfield and New Salem and how he converted what some people would call a mental illness into a political and emotional asset. It will focus specifically on a crisis that occurred in the winter of 1840-41 and how he coped with the problems that presented themselves at that point in his life. Here I rely on Joshua Wolf Shenk’s study of Lincoln’s melancholy, Erik Eriskon’s psychoanalytic biography of Martin Luther, and Lincoln’s correspondence during that winter. I argue that the emergence of a movement concerned with the moral issue of preventing the extension of slavery met an emotional need for Lincoln, one that is quite easy to detect in his earliest correspondence and that manifested itself most vividly in the winter of 1840-1841. Notwithstanding his greater theological assertiveness during the second half of the war, the prevailing Northern religious sentiment of triumphalism jeopardized the antislavery narrative Lincoln had by 1865 articulated for himself, calling forth the spiritual magnanimity expressed in his Second Inaugural. This chapter will focus mostly on Lincoln’s response to the acute emotional pain he experienced in 1840, and how it merged his private and public selves for the remainder of his career. I argue that the role Lincoln created for himself within the antislavery movement was intimately related to his battle with depression.

The second chapter will focus on how Lincoln’s theological understanding of the Civil War changed during his presidency. I here use the last four volumes of Lincoln’s Collected Works to illustrate how the president’s attempts to discern God’s will became more assertive as the war progressed. Furthermore, I argue that at times Lincoln seems to have expressed sympathy for the vindictive narrative adopted by many Northern Protestants, creating a divergence between his public and private religious personae. However, I also show that Lincoln’s need to act as a redemptive figure in American history ultimately overcame this impulse to punish Southern slaveholders at the expense of national reconciliation. Attention will be paid to the private and public calamities Lincoln encountered between 1861 and 1865. I argue that the personal and political adversity he faced during the first two years of his presidency forced him to reconsider his long standing opinions on the existence of an afterlife. Of the latter category are the Union defeats at Bull Run and the preliminary uncertainty surrounding the Union war effort that resulted. These setbacks and the tremendous responsibility that devolved upon Lincoln forced the president to appeal to a higher power, and to do so in humble terms.

The third chapter will examine the extent to which a militant brand of Protestantism reminiscent of New England’s Calvinist heritage permeated Northern literature during the Civil War. This chapter will rely heavily on essays from Religion and the Civil War and Edmund Wilson’s Patriotic Gore. It will analyze sermons from prominent Northern divines like Henry Ward Beecher and other manifestations of Northern religious feeling (most prominently, Julia Ward Howe’s Battle Hymn of the Republic).

This part of the thesis will argue that most Northern Protestants saw the war as divine punishment of the South, exclusively, for its past sins. Northern religious leaders argued that God was exacting revenge on slaveholders through the mechanism of Union arms. Lincoln, on the other hand, came to argue publically that the war was intended as God’s punishment on the whole country for the national sin of slavery (though, as we will see, he seems to have sympathized much more with the prevailing Northern narrative than his Second Inaugural would suggest). As president, his theological vision was oriented toward the future. He was concerned with the nation’s suffering as a redemptive event through which the country had been purged of a moral sin. I will use Sacred Scripture, Sacred War (one Vanderbilt professor’s analysis of biblical usage during the American Revolution) and an analysis of Patrick Henry’s famous “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” speech to the Virginia legislature to demonstrate that in this respect Lincoln deviated not only from Northern Protestants of the nineteenth century but also from a broader American tradition of “putting God in a Union uniform.”

My overarching goals is to combine the study of Lincoln’s depression with that of his religion. I think examining these two aspects of Lincoln’s personality at the same time contributes to a deeper understanding of the sixteenth president than has hitherto been presented.

Chapter 1: Crisis And Recovery

In his psychoanalytic biography of Martin Luther, Erik Erikson notes “the curative as well as the creative role of work which…is so prominent in young Luther’s life, and in his views about work—and ‘works.’” Speaking of his own clinical experience Erikson writes, “experiments with the work life of…young patients indicate that patients in a climate of…planful work…can display an adaptive resourcefulness.” This observation, borrowed from psychoanalysis, has tremendous implications for the study of nineteenth-century American history. “Planful work” enabled Abraham Lincoln to overcome the most grueling trial his chronic depression posed. For Lincoln, the work to which he devoted himself in the wake of personal disappointment became inseparable from his identity and his existence. As we will see, the threat that militant Northern Protestantism posed to Lincoln’s identity and the purposeful work it entailed called forth the magnanimity of his Second Inaugural.

Lincoln himself understood the role that work had to play in overcoming psychological torment. In the winter of 1840-41, his best friend Joshua Speed announced his intention to move from Springfield back to his native Kentucky. Speed was by all accounts the most intimate associate Lincoln ever had. Having arrived in Springfield as a penniless, ungainly journeyman in 1837, Lincoln moved in with Speed above the latter’s general store. According to Speed, it was Lincoln’s mournful aspect and his solicitude over contracting a debt as small as $17 in exchange for room and board that induced him to offer Lincoln accommodation.
Speed’s impending move coincided with the temporary eclipse of Lincoln’s political fortunes in the Illinois state legislature. Since his first, unsuccessful bid for a seat in the state assembly in 1832, Lincoln had aligned himself with the policies and doctrines of Henry Clay’s Whig party. The Whig’s “American System,” staunchly opposed to the democratic agrarianism of Andrew Jackson, favored a high protective tariff as an encouragement to domestic manufacturing, a national bank, and a system of internal improvements that would facilitate commerce. In Sangamon County, for which district Lincoln sat as a representative, the dredging and navigation of the Sangamon River became a favorite project of the Whig state representatives, and a pet project of Lincoln in particular. Economic recession in 1840 curtailed the amount of funding Illinois could set aside for improvements, undermining the Whig’s electoral prowess and diminishing somewhat Lincoln’s stature as an up-and-coming politician.

Crowning these two sources of distress was yet another crisis in Lincoln’s personal life, the dissolution of his engagement to Mary Todd in January of 1841. Lincoln once referred retrospectively to this moment in time as “that fatal first of January.” Previously, at New Salem in 1835, Lincoln had contracted an engagement with Ann Rutledge. He was by all accounts deeply in love with Rutledge, later confessing during his presidency that he often thought of her. Her death, and the unbearable thought that reportedly occurred to Lincoln of rain falling upon her grave, drove Lincoln into the first of his two major depressive episodes, during which he wandered aimlessly in the wilderness to the consternation of New Salem matrons. Though Lincoln’s courtship of Mary Todd may have owed itself in part to the political and social stature of her brother-in-law Ninian Edwards and though his married relationship with her often seemed more committed than passionate, the concurrence of personal and political disappointment and the recurrence of romantic trauma culminated in January of 1841. It was during this time that Lincoln wrote to his law partner John T. Stuart, “I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on the earth. Whether I shall ever be better I can not [sic] tell; I awfully forebode I shall not. To remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be better, it appears to me.”

This quote conveys the urgency of Lincoln’s need for a method to cope with his chronic depression. As Shenk notes in his examination of Lincoln’s melancholia, the two major depressive episodes during Lincoln’s early adulthood were instances in which a confluence of factors triggered profound emotional torment. In the case of Ann Rutledge, the image of rain falling on her grave unleashed Lincoln’s sadness at her passing, perhaps reminding him of the previous deaths of his biological mother and sister in Indiana. In the case of Mary Todd, Speed’s departure and Lincoln’s falling political stature intensified an already strenuous period of adversity. It is impossible to assign preeminence to any one factor in either case. It is, however, conceivable that similar, simultaneous disappointments would arise later in Lincoln’s life. As the incidents of 1835 and 1840-41 had both elicited concerns from Lincoln’s associates that he might attempt suicide, coping with his past and the anguish to which his disposition predisposed him became a matter of life or death for Lincoln.

In the clinical sense, he met Erikson’s definition of a “patient.” Quoting Kierkegaard’s claim that Luther was “a patient of exceeding import for Christendom,” Erikson writes, “patienthood [is] a sense of imposed suffering, of an intense need for cure, and…a ‘passion for expressing and describing one’s suffering’” (Erikson, p. 13). There can be little doubt that Lincoln met this definition in the winter of 1840-41. Speed, who tarried in Springfield through January, later said of this period, “Lincoln went Crazy-had to remove razors from his room-take away all Knives and other such dangerous things.” That Lincoln evinced a passion for describing his suffering is indisputable. As his letters to John Stuart demonstrate, it is during this period that Lincoln’s peculiar capacity for refining human emotion through English prose becomes most evident. Whether or not he would take constructive action on the basis of the clarity that his depressive eloquence gave him remained undecided in the winter of 1840-41.

A year thence, however, it seems Lincoln had reflected on his experience in a way that paid curative dividends. After recovering from his second depressive episode, Lincoln was quickly called upon by Speed to offer encouragement as the latter grappled with grave doubts about his impending marriage. In a remarkable letter composed in early January of 1842, immediately before Speed left for his family’s plantation, Lincoln wrote, “it is reasonable that you will feel verry [sic] badly yet…because of three special causes, added to the general one which I shall mention” (Basler I, p. 265). The second “special” cause Lincoln identified as “the absence of all business and conversation of friends, which might divert your mind, and give it occasional rest from that intensity of thought, which will sometimes wear the sweetest idea thread-bare and turn it to the bitterness of death.” Here we see Lincoln using his intimate knowledge of the causes of depressive thought to ameliorate his friend’s anxiety. Lincoln adduced as the first “special” cause “your exposure to bad weather on your journey, which my experience clearly proves to be verry [sic] severe on defective nerves,” directing our attention of the effect that poor weather had in unleashing the pent-up emotion that Lincoln concealed after Rutledge’s death. We can say, then, that very soon after he overcame his own emotional crucible Lincoln quickly turned to helping others through theirs. This capacity for creative empathy would become one of Lincoln’s greatest political assets.

The letters I have quoted from demonstrate that, in addition to feeling an unusual amount of solicitude for his close friends, Lincoln also had a profound self-awareness of his own moods. Dorris Kearns Goodwin notes this aspect of Lincoln’s character in the introduction to Team of Rivals, her study of Lincoln’s cabinet and wartime leadership. It is impossible for students of the period to envision the self-confident William H. Seward introspecting as assiduously as Lincoln. One of the remarkable things about Lincoln was that he turned this self-awareness into constructive thought and action. By 1842 Lincoln had begun to develop methods for coping with his melancholia. The letter to Speed is autobiographical; Lincoln writes of “my experience.” It anticipates later letters in which he would say things to the effect of “You will soon feel better. I know this to be true” before offering practical advice to younger correspondents about adversity and toil. In December of 1862, for instance, Lincoln wrote to young Fanny McCullough after the death of her father, whom Lincoln had known from his time on Illinois’ Eight Judicial Circuit. “You can not now realize that you will ever feel better,” wrote Lincoln. “And yet it is a mistake,” he continued. “You are sure to be happy again. He concluded, “I have had experience enough to know what I say.” This was the trait that Shelby Foote had in mind when he said, “[Lincoln] had a remarkable ability to remove himself from himself as if he were looking at himself.” It was, as Foote concedes, “uncanny,” but also necessary to Lincoln’s existence. The first step in Lincoln’s recovery from emotional trauma was the pursuit of self-knowledge. The second step was making that self-knowledge relevant to other people.

To gauge the seriousness of the problem Lincoln was engaging it is necessary to turn to psychoanalysis. Between 1840 and 1841, Lincoln experienced an “identity crisis,” for which Erikson provides the following definition:

“it occurs in that period of the life cycle when each youth must forge for himself some central perspective and direction, some working unity, out of the effective remnants of his childhood and the hopes of his anticipated adulthood; he must detect some meaningful resemblance between what he has come to see in himself and what his sharpened awareness tells him others judge and expect him to be” (Erikson, p. 14).

The stakes of this crisis are high: “Some young individuals will succumb to this crisis in all manner of neurotic, psychotic, or delinquent behavior,” while “others will resolve it through participation in ideological movements, passionately concerned with religion or politics, nature or art.”

Lincoln clearly fell into the latter category. The result of his identity crisis was to some extent predetermined. Like other depressives, Lincoln was fanatically concerned with the esteem of others. On April 28, 1832 Lincoln published a “Communication to the People of Sangamo[n] County” in preparation for his unsuccessful bid for a seat in the Illinois state legislature. After paying homage to Whig support for internal improvements, Lincoln concluded his letter with an introspective appeal. “Every man is said to have his peculiar ambition,” he wrote. “Whether it be true or not, I can say for one that I have no other so great as that of being truly esteemed of my fellow men, by rendering myself worthy of their esteem” (Basler I, p. 8). The eclipse of his political fortunes in 1840, together with the concurrent rise of Lincoln’s rival Stephen Douglas, introduced the possibility that Lincoln might not render himself worthy of other men’s esteem after all, and that a competitor for Mary’s hand might do so in his stead. His solicitude for his friends and his capacity for making his own emotional torment relevant to other people were commendable traits, but they did not suit the enormity of his ambition. His 1838 speech to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield had evoked the accomplishments of the revolutionary generation before observing that the present generation would give rise to some “towering genius” who would not be content to maintain their edifice, and would instead devote himself to tearing it down. Though Lincoln made explicit at the conclusion of the speech that he conceived of himself as a foil for just such a man, it is equally clear he considered himself to be, like his “towering genius,” “of the tribe of the eagle.”

In this sense the emergence of the expansion of slavery as the national issue during the 1850s was a profound psychological as well as political blessing for Lincoln. It allowed him to attach his name to a moral cause, which he foresaw would garner the esteem of future generations. As Shenk has noted, the moral consciousness of Northern free labor came to be embodied in the Republican Party, an organization founded upon resistance to the expansion of slavery into the Mexican Cession. By bringing the slavery crisis to a head, the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, and the Dred Scott decision of 1857, alongside the formation and rise to national prominence of the Republican Party, met Lincoln’s psychological, as well as his political, needs. Any movement that jeopardized the organization’s and Lincoln’s progressive, redemptive role in American history was a threat to Lincoln’s emotional stability.

Lincoln, of course, had no way of knowing this in 1841. All he knew then was that his brief and relatively obscure political career seemed to be unraveling alongside his personal relationships, leading to his second major depressive episode, which he would have referred to as “the hypo[chondriasis].” Erikson detects in the stories of Luther’s first Mass as an Augustinian novitiate an identity crisis that traced its roots to a similar loss of self-esteem. At one point during the service Luther is reported to have fallen to his knees, screaming “Ich bin’s nicht!” (“I am not”) in the Erfurt choir. Erikson writes of this curious story, “The fit in the choir…belongs to a period when his career, as planned by his father, was dead; when his monastic condition, after a ‘godly’ beginning, had become problematic to him; and when his future was as yet in an embryonic darkness” (Erikson, p. 24).

Erikson evokes this “embryonic darkness” in relation to Luther’s “premonitions of death.” He writes:

“I could not conceive of a young great man in the years before he becomes a great young man without assuming that inwardly he harbors a quite inarticulate stubbornness, a secret furious inviolacy, a gathering of impressions for eventual use within some as yet new configuration of thought-that he is tenaciously waiting it out for a day of vengeance when the semideliberate straggler will suddenly be found at the helm, and he who took so much will reveal the whole extent of his potential mastery. The counterpart of this waiting, however, is often a fear of an early death which would keep the vengeance from ripening into leadership; yet the young man often shows signs of precocious aging, of a melancholy wish for an early end, as if the anticipation of prospective deeds tired him. Premonitions of death occur throughout Luther’s career, but I think it would be too simple to ascribe them to a mere fear of death. A young genius has an implicit life plan to complete; caught by death before his time, he would be only a pathetic human fragment” (Erikson, p. 83).

Both Luther and Lincoln faced moments at which their lives seemed utterly deprived of meaning. Historical forces beyond their control coincided with their search for meaning. Luther and Lincoln resolved their identity crises by devoting themselves to the causes that grew out of these historical forces. Erikson writes, “[t]he need for devotion…is one aspect of the identity crisis which we, as psychologists, make responsible for all these tendencies and susceptibilities” (Erikson, p. 42). He continues:

“[a]nd when he [i.e., Luther] at last did embark on his stupendous lifework, he was almost delayed further by neurotic suffering. However, a creative man has no choice. He may come across his supreme task almost accidentally. But once the issue is joined, his task proves to be at the same time intimately related to his most personal conflicts, to his superior selective perception, and to the stubbornness of his one-way will: he must court sickness, failure, or insanity, in order to test the alternative whether the established world will crush him, or whether he will disestablish a sector of this world’s outworn fundaments and make a place for a new one” (Erikson, p. 46).

The abstractness of Erikson’s language allows us to apply this description to Lincoln. What was his political career but a disestablishment of slavery as one of the fundaments of American society? As we will see, Northern Protestantism jeopardized the redemptive role that Lincoln envisioned this disestablishment playing in American history. Thus, when Lincoln wrote to supporters in the wake of his election as president that he “brought a heart devoted to the work,” he meant it.

Lincoln’s devotion to the work of resisting the expansion of slavery represented a delayed resolution of the identity crisis he encountered in the winter of 1840-41. Additionally, it was the method by which he tempered depressive fears of his own insignificance. Erikson writes that identity crises are resolved when the patient acknowledges “the satisfaction of duty by accepting a limited position and its obligations…[H]e derives from the accrual of his sacrifices a coherent measure of historical identity” (Eriskon, pp. 112-113). In Lincoln’s case, this “coherent measure of historical identity” and its effect upon his emotional health is most evident during November of 1858, in the reaction to his loss to Stephen A. Douglas in a race for one of Illinois’s U.S. Senate seats. Writing to his political associate Norman P. Judd on November 15, 1858, Lincoln said, “let the past as nothing be. For the future my view is that the fight must go on…I shall be in no ones [sic] way for any of the places” (Basler III, pp. 336-337). In promulgating on a national stage the Republican Party’s moral repugnance over slavery and its unequivocal resistance to the institution’s expansion, Lincoln felt he had “rendered himself worthy of other men’s esteem.” This enabled him to absorb the shock of losing to Douglas.

Indeed, Lincoln almost seems to have relished his loss. “You are feeling badly,” he wrote to Judd on November 16. “’And this too shall pass away.’ Never fear.” Recurrent in letters to Henry Ashbury, Anson S. Miller, Eleazar A. Paine, M.M. Inman, and B. Clarke Lundy is his insistence that “the fight must go on.” Lincoln explained his good spirits to Henry in the following way: “I am glad I made the late race. It gave me a hearing on the great and durable question of the age, which I could have had in no other way; and though I now sink out of view, and shall be forgotten, I believe I have made some marks which will tell for the cause of liberty long after I am gone” (Basler III, p. 339). There is a characteristically Lincolnian sense of irony to this statement. But, just as he could not have anticipated his role in the 1858 race during the winter of 1840-41, after his loss to Douglas he could not have conceived of the historical stature to which he would ascend over the course of the next seven years.

Lincoln could reconcile himself to his defeat by subsuming himself under the cause of the Republican Party, consoled by the thought that he had played some marginal role in its ultimate success. To Sharpe he wrote on December 8, “though I fall early in the contest, it is nothing if I shall have contributed, in the least degree, to the final rightful result” (Basler III, p. 344). On December 11, he wrote to Lyman Trumbull, the antislavery Democrat to whom Lincoln had ceded a prospective Senate seat in 1855. Trying to persuade his friend to desert Douglas’ party Lincoln wrote, “the Republican principle can in no wise live with Douglas; and it is arrant folly now…to waste time, and scatter labor already performed, in dallying with him” (Basler III, p. 345). Here we see Lincoln dispatching his fear of premature death by relying on an ideological movement that would outlast him. Indeed, in stark contrast to his correspondence with John Stuart in January of 1841, Lincoln wrote to Alexander Sympson on December 12, “I have an abiding faith that we shall beat them in the long run…I write merely to let you know that I am neither dead nor dying” (Basler III, p. 346). The work to which Lincoln devoted himself had overwhelmed his identity crisis.
Throughout the crisis Lincoln held to the conviction that there is meaning in human suffering, and that one had to imbue one’s suffering with that meaning oneself.

His correspondence with Speed between 1840 and 1841 represents one instance of how this conviction played out in his private life. Lincoln gently tells Speed that his marital anxieties will pass. When they do, Lincoln speculates that God intended him as a mechanism for bringing Speed and “Fanny,” Speed’s fiancée, together. “I was always superstitious,” he wrote to Speed on July 4th of 1842. “[A]s part of my superstition,” he continues, “I believe God made me one of the instruments of bringing your Fanny and you together” (Basler I, pp. 289-290). He said something similar when Speed frets over an illness of Fanny’s. Lincoln detected in this concern divine assurance that Speed loved his wife as he should have. “I hope and believe,” he wrote to Speed in February of 1842, “that your present anxiety and distress about her health and her life, must and will forever banish those horid [sic] doubts, which I know you sometimes felt, as to the truth of your affection for her” (Basler I, p. 268, emphasis in the original). “If they can be once and forever removed,” he continued, “(and I almost feel a presentiment that the Almighty has sent your present affliction expressly for that object) surely, nothing can come in their stead.” We do not necessarily need to take Lincoln seriously when he invokes divine providence on these occasions. However, they do epitomize a trait that Shenk dwells on during the second part of his book: Lincoln’s willingness to look his own and others’ suffering in the eye and to develop methods for coping with it. Casting himself in a dramatic role allowed Lincoln to weather emotional hardship.

When that role became obscured, things fell apart. Shortly before Speed’s marriage (in October 1840-January 1841), a confluence of factor–the eclipse of Lincoln’s political fortunes, the dissolution of his engagement to Mary Todd, and Speed’s return to his Lexington plantation–drove Lincoln into what Shenk, Goodwin, and (apparently) most other Lincoln biographers identify as one of two major depressive spells. Lincoln may have been questioning at this point whether his suffering really did serve a purpose. When he told his law partner John Stuart that he would have to “get better or die,” he said he felt that he could die, but that he hadn’t done anything to make a single mortal remember he had lived. In this sense the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment were tremendous personal as well as political triumphs for Lincoln; through them he conquered an existential crisis.
For Lincoln, the effort to construct a meaningful narrative about his life began with the 1832 address to the voters of Sangamon county, in which he discussed his “peculiar ambition” to achieve honorable distinction. It ended with his assassination. When the narrative seemed to be breaking down, he sensed that his emotional struggles were to no end. Hence the collapse of 1840-41.

As Dr. Tom Palaima said when he first recommended Shenk to me, the centrality of slavery to the national dialogue during the 1850s gave Lincoln a cause onto which he could graft his personal narrative. He could sustain political defeats like the one he suffered (voluntarily) to his friend Lyman Trumbull and to Stephen Douglas because he felt both elections advanced the antislavery cause: Trumbull was an anti-Nebraska Democrat and Douglas’ admission that a territory could proscribe slavery by designing its laws such that slavery could not exist drove a wedge between Northern Democrats and the Southern slavocracy in the presidential election of 1860.

Between the election of 1860 and the assassination of 1865, the narrative Lincoln had established for himself and for his country began to take on a religious tone. It therefore began to conflict with other popular religious narratives of national suffering and atonement. The story of his administration is at least in part the story of how these narratives interacted with each other, and with the events of the Civil War. It is that story with which the rest of this thesis is concerned.


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