About The Beaconsfield Observer

Ciaran is currently a senior studying Classics and History within the Plan II Honors Program at the University of Texas at Austin. He will graduate in May of 2015 and begin a Jefferson Fellowship in History at the University of Virginia this August. His interests include country music and college football. He hopes to teach History or to work in the US State Department. Jake is an Economics major at Washington University in St. Louis. Like Ciaran, he enjoys History and current affairs. He is currently pursuing a career in finance.

Town and Country in Modern China

In this paper I will argue that the divide between rural and urban areas is the most prominent cause of inequality in China today. To convey this point I will first show that the Mao regime favored industry and cities at the expense of the countryside during and after the Great Leap Forward. Next I will argue that the reform period that began in the 1980s exacerbated inequalities between town and country. Finally, I will argue that institutional barriers in the present day in the realm of education are most restrictive for rural citizens. My ultimate goal is to evoke an image of favoritism toward urban residents and sustained, institutionalized discrimination against rural citizens during the last half century of Chinese history.

The Mao regime pursued policies that had detrimental effects upon the Chinese countryside. A recent article in Economic and Political Weekly noted that the state “has structured inequality in the form of rural-urban hierarchy, producing what in essence is an unequal citizenship regime.” Lee and Selden look to the actions of the Chinese government during and after the Great Leap Forward in order to discern the origins of this hierarchy. Following the failure of the Great Leap Forward to place China on an industrial par with the West, the state tightened the household registration (hukou) system that had been instituted in 1955. As Lee and Selden note, the effect of this policy was to “lock rural people into their villages and cut off most remaining intra-rural and urban-rural exchanges that were not sanctioned and controlled by the state” (Lee and Selden, p. 29). Furthermore, the state requisitioned grain from the countryside at artificially low prices in order to feed the urban population, a policy that worsened famine when it was augmented by rural cadres’ exaggerated reports of grain production.

Discrimination toward the countryside under Mao did not end with grain requisition. Lee and Selden identify the social benefits that accrued to urban residents under the hukou system during the Chairman’s tenure. In spite of low wages, city dwellers received cash incomes—whereas peasants received payment in kind—guaranteed lifetime employment, pensions, healthcare, subsidized rations, and superior schools. “The result,” comment the authors, “was a formal two-track system differentiating city and countryside, state sector and collective enterprises with hukou as the mediating institution” (Lee and Selden, p. 30). The authors adduce the high percentage of the 10-30 million deaths resulting from the Great Leap Forward that occurred in the countryside as an illustration of the consequences of these discriminatory policies.

Compounding the hukou designations and the grain requisitions were the regime’s multiple attempts to “send down” urban dwellers to the countryside, a practice that exhausted much needed rural resources. By sending 20 million urban workers to the countryside in 1961, Lee and Selden note, the state “shifted its burden of feeding and providing work for them in famine times to a countryside that already had a large labour [sic] surplus and confronted acute hunger” (Lee and Selden, p. 30). Here we see the Chinese state’s exploitative manipulation of population controls, which it continues to use today by tolerating migrant laborers without extending the benefits of urban citizenship to them—thus benefitting from their cheap labor without assuming the costs of providing them with social security. This was not the only wave of urban dwellers to be “sent down” to rural communities. Between 1964 and 1976, around 20 million urban schoolchildren were moved out of the cities. “Ostensibly,” comment Lee and Selden, these forced migrations were meant “to bridge the urban-rural gap through their contributions as farmers to rural development” (Lee and Selden, p. 30). “In fact,” they continue, the movement “relieved the state of the obligation to provide jobs and benefits for them,” for “to be sent down was to lose (in most cases permanently) the largesse of the state.” By this account, the Mao regime seems to have viewed the countryside as an auxiliary to the cities.

Inequality between urban and rural areas did not improve with the marketization of the Chinese economy during the 1980s. All indications are that the chasm between town and country has widened during the reform period. An article published in MIT’s Review of Economics and Statistics makes this point particularly vivid. “Chinese income inequality,” write Ximing Wu and Jeffrey M. Perloff, “rose substantially from 1985 to 2001 because of increases in inequality within urban and rural areas and the widening rural-urban income gap.” Wu and Perloff report that some scholars believe “the rural-urban income gap is the driving force for increased overall inequality” (Wu and Perloff, p. 764). Furthermore, they contradict Kuznets (1953)—who wrote about inequality in developing countries—in suggesting that the “institutional structure of China” will prevent adjustments that might equalize the distribution of income from occurring. Though “migrants from rural areas may seek jobs in urban areas,” they write, “China’s strict residence registration system usually prevents them from obtaining urban residence status (and hence access to the welfare benefits and subsidies and higher-paying jobs enjoyed by urban residents).” We see, then, that the restrictive consequences of China’s hukou system have by no means abated since Deng Xiaoping’s ascension.

Indeed, Wu and Perloff see the restrictions placed upon migrant workers and rural peasants as one factor ensuring the continuance of socioeconomic inequality in China. “If barriers to migration remain,” they argue, “then inequality is unlikely to diminish in the future” (Wu and Perloff, p. 764). As we will see, access to education and social services in China hinges upon the possession of an urban hukou, from which rural residents and migrant laborers are restricted. These hukou restrictions—originally instituted by the Chinese Communist Party to provide for the urban proletariat it hoped would usher in the age of industrialization—have congealed into a system for perpetuating inequality in the countryside. A large part of rising income and consumption inequality, argue Wu and Perloff, stems from the fact that “the Chinese government restricts free migration from rural to urban areas” (Wu and Perloff, p. 774). Yet, “even if such migration were permitted,” they note, “it probably is not possible for the urban economy to accommodate the majority of the gigantic rural population,” and thus “gaps between rural and urban incomes may persist and cause overall inequality to rise for an extended period.”

Lee and Selden corroborate this bleak analysis. “Class labels,” they write in reference “both to social class origins (chengfen) and spatial class designations (hukou),” “have been constitutive elements defining not only changing economic and social positions but also political positions and subjectivities in Chinese society from the revolutionary epoch of the 1940s through the reforms of the 1980s to the present” (Lee and Selden, p. 28). Though “relaxation of certain hukou restrictions since the 1980s has made possible the flood of migrant labourers [sic] into Chinese cities,” they note, “the second class citizenship and stigma on rural residents, including those who have lived and worked in cities for decades,” has not been eliminated (Lee and Selden, p. 30). “Even in today’s cities,” they continue, “access to education for migrants’ children, housing subsidies helping employees to purchase their homes, and even voting rights still hinge on having a local urban hukou” (emphasis in the original). The effect of this requirement—as the authors note above—is to prevent migrant laborers who have resided in cities for decades for from availing themselves of the social services offered to native urbanites. In spite of the household registration system’s origins in the 1950s, “it has only been in the reform period since the 1970s that the implications of wide disparities between rural and urban residents have been widely recognized in terms of discriminatory citizenship practices,” a fact most vividly illustrated by “the blatant, at times even fatal, abuse sustained by migrants as a result of the hukou system” (Lee and Selden, p. 30).

Such abuse—and, more broadly, the socioeconomic divide between rural and urban residents—is particularly egregious in the realm of education. Jacka, Kipnis, and Sargeson have noted the difficulties that migrant workers encounter when it comes to enrolling their children in urban schools. “Migrant workers,” they write, “sometimes have difficulty enrolling their children in schools because they do not hold a local hukou (household registration), because some urban public schools discriminate against migrant children, either charging them higher fees or denying them entry.” Furthermore, in China universities favor residents of the provinces in which they are located in their admissions decisions. “Consequently,” write the authors, “it is easier for students from provinces with a higher number of universities (especially prestigious universities) per capita to get into a good university than those from other provinces” (Jacka, p. 163). Such universities are overwhelmingly located on China’s urbanized, eastern seaboard. “Most notoriously,” continue Jacka and her colleagues, “many of the best universities in the country, including Peking University and Qinghua University, are located in Beijing, and a student who holds a Beijing hukou can get into a Beijing university with a much lower UEE score than students from other parts of the country.” College admissions, we see, are heavily tilted in favor of urban schoolchildren. Added to this institutionalized discrimination is the poor quality of rural elementary and middle schools. “In the most impoverished of rural areas, the schools are not good enough to give students a chance of competing with those from wealthier districts in the race to secure academic senior secondary school places” (Jacka, p. 171). In this fashion rural students are confronted with institutional inequalities even before the college admissions process.

The evidence presented above clearly demonstrates that governmental discrimination against rural residents has been a preeminent feature of modern Chinese society, and has had major implications in accentuating inequalities between town and country. The Mao regime sought to make the countryside an adjunct of its rush to industrialize along Western lines. This legacy is reflected today in the social inequalities perpetuated by the household registration system, which disenfranchises rural residents, migrant laborers, and their children. The inequalities resulting from this institutionalized discrimination are particularly evident in the realm of education, where rural students face an uphill battle to compete with their urban counterparts. The rural-urban divide, we have seen, is an imminent and perennial problem for the Chinese government.

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“Woe Unto the World Because of Offenses”: The Wartime Theology of Abraham Lincoln (Installment 3)

Chapter 3: 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 and Northern Democratic anxiety over more militant religious organizations, “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.” It was this tradition from which Lincoln’s theological development during the Civil War dramatically departed. The presence of “cruel righteousness” in the rhetoric and imagery of Northern Christianity threatened the narrative of national suffering and redemption that Lincoln had established leading up to and during his presidency. Such rhetoric also threatened his role within that narrative. Since he had overcome the identity crisis of his early adulthood by occupying that role, Northern millenarianism also jeopardized Lincoln’s sanity. This threat, more than any other factor, explains the magnanimity of his Second Inaugural address.

Edmund Wilson once 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. Abolitionists were politically marginalized until the second half of the war; indeed, George M. Fredrickson has said, “for the most part [during the 1830s], the ministers of the mainstream denominations did not embrace the radical antislavery cause.” Nevertheless, the biblical militarism with which they went about their work came to characterize much of the North’s wartime rhetoric.

Lincoln shunned the gratuitous triumphalism that undergirded much militant Protestant rhetoric. His understanding of the Civil War’s religious significance was distinctive in that it was, above all else, progressive. He, too, came to see God’s presence in the suffering the nation endured from 1861 to 1865. However, he also believed the conflict was a national rather than a sectional expurgation of sin. Furthermore, he believed that expurgation of sin had to lead to some further end state that would bring the nation’s political practice into close alignment with the principles espoused by the Declaration of Independence. His Second Inaugural was composed around the idea that both North and South bore responsibility for the national sin of slavery, and that God had exacted punishment upon the United States through the suffering of the Civil War.

During the antebellum period many abolitionists (Garrison foremost among them) had predicted such a national reckoning would occur. The difference between Lincoln and Garrison is that Lincoln saw this chastisement as a corrective. The emphasis for him was not on the punishment itself. It was on the end that the punishment served: returning the nation to its moral and philosophical foundations. In part this view can be attributed to Lincoln’s fatalistic albeit harmonious view of the universe, to which he adhered in his 1846 handbill refuting charges of infidelity. In contrast to Old School Presbyterian theologians like Charles Hodge, “the ‘infidel’ writers whom the young Lincoln had so admired also spoke of providence, but instead used it to describe how natural processes worked generally to secure harmony and progress in the universe” (Guelzo, p. 318). Garrison simply foresaw divine punishment and looked no further.

In his introduction Guyatt says, “northerners—led by Abraham Lincoln—suggested that the abolition of slavery might purify the United States and allow the nation to resume its providential course.” The quote correctly accords Lincoln a prominent role in defining the Northern interpretation of God’s purposes in the Civil role, but it underplays the degree to which other prevalent interpretations differed from it. Lincoln viewed the nation’s suffering as an essential part of the triumph of a good cause, much as he did his own personal sacrifices during the winter of 1840-41 and his own political sacrifices after the 1858 election. Lincoln came to think of suffering as fundamental to growth. He reconciled himself to so much of it because his personal and political experience assured him that good would come of it.

By contrast, judicial providentialism, the anticipation of and enthusiasm for God’s apocalyptic judgment, had by the 1830s become a commonplace in Christian critiques of the American government. It was this tradition to which Garrison adhered with his references to the Book of Isaiah. Surprisingly, judicial providentialism came to prominence as a hermeneutic for radical Northern Protestants during debate over Indian removal rather than slavery. “This warming—that judicial providentialism would bring the United States to account for its treatments of nonwhites…was…one of the more radical northern arguments against Indian removal” (Guyatt, p. 200). When Jackson refused to enforce an 1832 Supreme Court decision that favored the Cherokees, Justice Joseph Story wrote his wife, “I fear, and greatly fear, that in the course of Providence there will be dealt to us a heavy retributive justice” (Guyatt, p. 201). The emphasis for such Protestant exegetes was on the retributive rather than the redemptive qualities of God’s justice.

Lincoln departed from this legacy in that he insisted God’s justice was not arbitrary or gratuitous. In one letter to Isaac Cogdal Lincoln wrote, “Punishment is parental in its object, aim and design, and intended for the good of the offender; hence it must cease when justice is satisfied” (Guelzo, p. 120). On the one hand, “Lincoln could not, even in allusions, tear himself free from the idea that God was a Judge who demanded the washing of tribulation and blood” (Guelzo, p. 193). On the other hand, “[h]e could not believe in ‘Eternal punishment as the christians [sic] say,’ because ‘his idea was punishment as Educational.’” It served the same purpose as pain in the human body–it called attention to things that were wrong. By contrast, “it was a judicial understanding of God’s will–the providentialism of wrath–which came to dominate the free black and white abolitionist response to racial injustice after 1830” (Guyatt, p. 206). “The chief promoter of this wrathful message was William Lloyd Garrison,” who seemed to dwell on wrath for its own sake. His rhetoric offered no suggestion for what was to be done after God’s wrath had been wrought. Wrath became an end in itself.

It is a mistake to attribute the religious militancy of Northern Protestant activists solely to Garrison. Abolitionism was inherently militaristic, and it derived its militancy from its Christian elements. “[The] movement arose,” writes Eric Foner, “as the joining of two impulses: black anticolonization and white evangelicism.” Abolitionists diverged from the “white-dominated, gradualist” groups linked to colonization. They were “immediatist, interracial, and committed to making the United States a biracial nation.” Awareness of abolitionism’s Christian ethos makes Joshua Speed’s comment regarding border state emancipation in September of 1861 seem more pointed. “You might as well attack the freedom of worship in the North,” Speed had said, “as to wage war in a slave state on such a principle” (Foner, p. 153). In effect, Speed was here comparing the slavery’s foothold in Border South society with Protestantism’s foothold in New England. In contrast to Border State slaveowners, many Northerners who did wage war on such a principle took great pride in worshipping freely in the North. Their freedom of worship, as we will see, was intimately related to their willingness to wage war on that principle.

Just as Garrison was not solely responsible for the militancy of antebellum abolitionism, so abolitionism was not solely responsible for Northern Protestant militancy during the Civil War. Antebellum political divisions that lay beyond the abolitionists’ control had much to do with the character that Northern Protestantism assumed during the conflict. Whigs relied upon the mobilization of moderate Protestants for electoral success. Guelzo writes, “unlike the Democrats,” whose political philosophy emphasized the separation of church and state, “the Republicans were built on a core of old Whiggery which had no reluctance about mixing religion and politics into a single national agenda” (Guelzo, p. 412).

The Whig remnant that would eventually incorporate itself into the Republican Party alongside nativists and Free Soilers clearly understood the political potency of religion. The New School Presbyterian General Assembly’s insistence that the war represented “the final theater” in which “the final problems of history” would be resolved “only underscored how easily Republican Protestants could weld religion and politics together into an expectation that the war would consecrate the United States ‘to Jehovah as a national Israel and servant of the Lord, fit for her Master’s use’” (Guelzo, p. 413). “[T]he Republicans,” Guelzo continues, “brought religion directly onto the public square, without inquiring whether its leaders possessed that piety in their private moments.” Indeed, the Sanitary Commission was founded by Northern Democrats anxious over the millennial fervor of the United States Christian Commission, which sent 5,000 ministers to march with Union soldiers and preach abolition. Both Whigs and Republicans mobilized Protestant zeal in political and then military contexts.

This broader trend of religious mobilization was reflected in the rhetoric of Northern exegetes. Garrison was not alone in his fixation on punishment. In a Brooklyn fast day sermon of 1861, Henry Ward Beecher said of Indian removal, “Either moral government over nations is apocryphal, or judgments are yet to be visited upon us for the wrongs done to the Indian” (Guyatt, p. 208). Harriet Beecher Stowe was an anomaly in that she, like Lincoln, explicitly included the North in this retributive scheme. Guyatt writes, “[i]n the final paragraph of the novel [i.e., Uncle Tom’s Cabin], Stowe offered a way of reconciling the Union around a shared assumption of providential responsibility: ‘Both North and South have been guilty before God,’ she maintained, an insight around which Lincoln would construct his second inaugural address” (Guyatt, p. 213).

Robert Winthrop stood at the opposite end of the providential spectrum from Stowe in that his prognostications of divine retribution expressed an explicitly sectional bias. Speaking of the two ships that brought the first Pilgrims and the first slaves to America (and, metaphorically, of the North and South, respectively), Winthrop said in 1839, “I see these two fate-freighted vessels, laboring under the divided destinies of the same Nation, and striving against the billows of the same sea, like the principles of good and evil advancing side by side on the same great ocean of human life” (Guyatt, 215).

These prognostications are separated chronologically from Lincoln’s wartime theological development. Whereas the authors quoted above had the luxury of speculating on what God’s wrath would look like, Lincoln had to deal with the actual fact of “God’s wrath” as it was manifested during the Civil War on battlefields such as Antietam and Gettysburg. Garrison, Stowe, and Winthrop did not have to worry about the consequences that God’s justice would have on the American Union. “The most militant abolitionists,” writes Guyatt, “tended to bolster their affirmations of the lofty spirit of the age, of the progressive course of American history, or of the benign intentions of providence with a simple restatement of the providentialsm of wrath: the United States would abolish slavery in the near future, or God would intervene directly to punish the nation–and perhaps to destroy it” (Guyatt, 232). The abolitionist conception of judicial providentialism and divine wrath, then, was not “progressive,” but potentially destructive. Such a conception would not do for Lincoln as he struggled to articulate a narrative of redemption that would reincorporate the South into an expurgated nation.

It would do, however, for many Northern combatants. 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 that “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 and politial struggles. 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 more vindictive and triumphalist. He fixated on the retributive aspects of God’s role in American history, a hallmark of the judicial providentialism to which abolitionists like Garrison adhered. 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 is “glad that God hath set such a mark upon treason that all ages shall dread and abhor it.”

It is important to remember that Ward did not promulgate this doctrine in an exegetical vacuum. Such rhetoric reflected the disposition of Ward’s audience, and of Howe’s. George M. Fredrickson has written: [r]ecognizing the extent to which ministers had to tailor their views to conform with those of their parishioners can serve as a useful check on interpretations that adopt a thoroughly “from-the-top-down” view of religious opinion on public issues, making it appear that ministers were completely autonomous agents rather than democratic leaders who were responsive to the views of their followers. Ward did 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. The president’s more considered statements on the war’s significance uniformly eschewed retribution.

Properly considered, Lincoln’s theological leadership during the Civil War amounted to a moderation of the narrative the narrative of judicial providentialism that abolitionists had been developing since the 1830s. By the time of his reelection, writes Manisha Sinha, “Lincoln had come to share the abolitionist and African American view of the Civil War as a providential, apocalyptic event that would not only end slavery but redeem the American Republic and vindicate its founding principles.” After he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln’s task was partly to moderate the abolitionist’s tone in a way that promoted national reconciliation without compromising the integrity of the abolitionists’ narrative.

The abolitionists had contributed an expurgatory element to the narrative Lincoln was promulgating before and during his presidency; it was left to him to describe the redemptive aspects of the upheaval he oversaw. The Second Inaugural is an eloquent, and largely successful, attempt to do just that. Lincoln was a conciliator by temperament. “In Lincoln,” writes Andrew Delbanco, “we encounter…a mind searching for transcendent meaning in the carnage and asserting that meaning for both sides.” Abolitionism’s zeal for redemptive justice gave meaning to the Civil War, but Lincoln could not allow the movement’s vindictiveness to overrun the cathartic, progressive meaning he had imparted to the conflict. North and South had suffered for the “national sin” of slavery. Further talk of exacting revenge upon the South was gratuitous. Lincoln’s relationship to the militant Protestantism that suffused abolitionism was, therefore, necessarily ambivalent.

Northern Protestantism writ large, alongside abolitionism, provided a retributive element to the religious rhetoric percolating throughout the nation before and during the war, largely because Northern divines seemed content simply to lambast the South. “What,” Fredrickson asks rhetorically, “are we to make of the apparent antislavery militancy of so many prominent northern clergymen during the crisis of the 1850s” (Fredrickson, p. 116). At one point he speculates, “[t]he sympathy of recent historians for the side that clergymen espoused in the debate over the expansion of slavery may have obscured the extent to which the clerical activism of the Civil War era concealed quasi-theocratic ambitions and threatened the Jeffersonian view of the relationship between church and state” (Fredrickson, 118). “The full dimensions of this threat would become apparent during the war itself.”

Fredrickson discerns in the rhetoric of Northern divines impulses there were more belligerent than humanitarian. He writes, “[a]nti-southern passions generated by the war and a new application of the law-and-order conservatism that had earlier engendered hostility to abolitionism were more conspicuous in clerical advocacy of wartime emancipation than humanitarian revulsion at human bondage” (Fredrickson, p. 119). Such “law-and-order conservatism,” fused with “clerical advocacy of wartime emancipation,” is evident in the rhetoric of Garrison, Ward, and Howe, but also in the rhetoric of less prominent Northern exegetes. The Congregationalist minister J.M. Sturtevant posited warfare as “the necessary corrective” to the “want of reverence for a strong government” (Fredrickson, p. 121). Horace Bushnell claimed, “[t]he war was demonstrating that the un-Christian political doctrines espoused by some of the Founding Fathers had bred secession, anarchy, and revolution.” At one point in 1862 Beecher even broached the topic of monarchism, arguing “large portions of this country cannot be governed by anything but a monarchy now, and there is danger that such will be the case with the entire nation…Whenever from any cause large portions of any community become barbarous, they necessitate monarchies.” He never said explicitly whether the portions he had in mind lay above or below the Mason-Dixon line.

“Patriotic euphoria,” argues Fredrickson, “had lessened their distrust of the nation’s secular leadership and had many of them to idealize the dominant political party” (Fredrickson, p. 124). Part of the explanation for this transition to a more assertive Christianity is denominational. The tone of Northern clergymen during the 1850s and 1860s had much to do with developments in America’s religious landscape during the early nineteenth century. By the early 1830s, Connecticut and Massachusetts had disestablished their Congregationalist churches. The lack of state support forced these denominations to compete with the Methodists and Baptists, whose profiles had risen immensely during the Second Great Awakening, for followers. This change in the church’s relationship to the state affected how the more established branches of New England Protestantism conveyed their message. Writes Fredrickson, “Recognizing that persuasion and not coercion was now the key to denominational success, Congregationalists and Presbyterians emulated some of the revivalistic methods pioneered by the Methodists and the Baptists” (Fredrickson, p. 113). “As a result,” he continues, “the mainstream of American Protestantism became aggressively evangelical.” The “non-Calvinist” churches, the Lutherans and Episcopalians foremost among them, were alone in their resistance to the new methods.

Though the causes of the renewed militancy of Northern Protestant rhetoric during the 1850s and 60s were new, the manifestation of Christian militancy in American oratory was not. Patrick Henry’s famous “Give Me Liberty Or Give Me Death Speech” is replete 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. L. Michael 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. Allen Guelzo recognizes as much when he writes, “politics aside Lincoln simply could find no comfort in the Radical temperament, which resembled nothing so much as the purism of New School moralists, demanding action where Lincoln was inclined to calculate necessity” (Guelzo, pp. 290).

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 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. Guelzo has said of the “Old School” Presbyterian emphasis on virtue, “Every good liberal knew that republics were politically fragile and, unlike monarchies, depended for their existence on the virtue of their peoples. But the excesses of the French Revolution had demonstrated that the ethical formulas of Jefferson’s deism did not offer much protection from anarchy and the guillotine” (Guelzo, p. 16). There was a “need for a public theism as the basis for republican virtue.” 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. Guelzo expresses it this way: “new public order required virtue…virtue required belief in God…the Christian God was the most obvious nominee” (Guelzo, pp. 16-17). This syllogism is relevant to the study Lincoln’s religion because Lincoln did away with the second premise and the conclusion.

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” (Wilson, p. 8). 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” (Wilson, p. 9).

Paul Tillich has said, “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, p. 84). Wilson insists repeatedly, “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” would 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” (Wilson, p. 90). 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, indubitably a religious skeptic in the sense that he was reluctant to take on faith the absolute truth of any creed to which those around him adhered by force of habit. “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. Allen C. Guelzo has noted, “geology had become a subject of particular intellectual anxiety in the Anglo-American world of the 1830s, especially after Sir Charles Lyell’s three-volume Principles of Geology (1830-1833) produced unsettling evidence from the record of fossils and erosion that the earth’s geology was the product of long-duration build-ups rather than the sudden creation or the catastrophic flooding described in the first book of the Bible” (Guelzo, p. 108). “Lyell’s conclusions,” writes Guelzo, “more than the scientific details of his geology text…may have piqued Lincoln’s religious skepticism.” Lincoln thoroughly read Robert Chambers’ Vestiges of Natural History (1844), which applied Lyell’s geological theories to the development of organic life, thus becoming “an evolutionist of sorts…even before Darwin’s theory of evolution arrived in 1859.”

When Lincoln 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.” 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 theological 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.” 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 speech, 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 show–as has been said in another plac–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.

This was partially due to his upbringing. Referring to a utopian colony established by Robert Owen in the vicinity of Thomas Lincoln’s Indiana farm, Geulzo has observed, “[Lincoln] certainly developed more in common with New Harmony’s religious skepticism than with his father’s religion; in fact, on no other point did Abraham Lincoln come closer to an outright repudiation of his father than on religion” (Guelzo, p. 36). His parents attended Little Mount Separate Baptist Church, “a congregation linked to one of a plethora of rigidly predestinarian Calvinist Baptist congregations scattered throughout central Kentucky and Tennesse.” “Although these churches and their county-based associations found enough differences among themselves to split into Separate, Regular, and even ‘Two-Seed-in-the-Spirit’ factions, they were all (according to James Ross) ‘staunch Predestinarians, and gloried in the doctrine they preached.”

Lincoln’s civil religion retained vestiges of the predestinarianism so prominent in these Calvinist churches without succumbing to their emotionalism. 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. Lincoln’s theological impulse towards modesty was not shared by all Northern commentators. A dispatch from the London Star reprinted in the New York Times April 2, 1865 calls the Second Inaugural “very remarkable” “from [sic] the manner in which he holds the slave interest as responsible for the war.” The piece likely alludes to the excerpt in which Lincoln declared, “slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war.”

By fixating on this passage, the Times glosses over the reconciliatory tone of the address’s penultimate paragraph, which distills Lincoln’s understanding of the war’s meaning into a few sentences. Said Lincoln, “He [i.e. God] gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came.” The London Star dispatch overlooks this sentence, saying only, “the people of England…cannot but regard with warm admiration the tone in which the war is recognized as a judgment of God because of the offense of slavery.” Where Lincoln is explicit on who was responsible for that offense, the Star dispatch is mute. The tone is sanctimonious, not humble. It bears the exact relation to the South that self-righteous temperance activists bore to alcoholics during the first half of the nineteenth century, a relationship that Lincoln criticized in his 1844 address to the Washington Temperance Society.

Not all of the Times’ journalists indulged in triumphalism, though. A report concerning the arrival of mail packets in Canada, published May 30, 1865, said of the Second Inaugural, “This address appears to be intended to repress the more sanguine expectations of the Northern people.” This author had a much better understanding of what Lincoln was trying to accomplish with the speech. He wanted to mitigate the crusading impulse of Northern abolitionists and appeal to “the better angels of our nature.” The extent to which the narrative of the Civil War established in the Second Inaugural derived from Lincoln’s personal odyssey becomes evident in a eulogy delivered by Bishop Simpson at Lincoln’s Springfield funeral. Simpson begins by noting that the North did indeed have reasons to exact revenge on the South. Referring to the abysmal conditions of Confederate prison camps such as Andersonville, he said, “Then came a feeling to deepen sadness, as the story came of prisoners tortured to death or starved through the mandates of those who are called the representatives of chivalry.”

Lincoln, however, was not susceptible to this animosity. “His early life,” continued Simpson, “with its varied struggles joined him indissolubly to the weeping masses.” The ultimate effect was to vest “the deepest affections of our hearts…around some human form in which are incarnated the loving thoughts and ideas of the passing age.” Whereas some have said (surely, somewhat truthfully) that Lincoln’s reconciliatory image arose because he was spared the torment of Reconstruction, Simpson here provides an explanation for Lincoln’s magnanimity that derives from his intense personal suffering. The question of whether or not Lincoln believed in what he was saying in the Second Inaugural, 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 (and perhaps the prospect that Stephen Douglas, a suitor of Mary Todd’s, might fulfill it in his stead) 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.

The most prudent commentary on Lincoln’s religion may have come from his close friend David Davis. Asked by Lincoln’s law partner William Herndon about the president’s religion, Davis replied, “I don’t Know anything about Lincoln’s Religion…don’t think anybody Knew. The idea that Lincoln talked to a stranger about his religion or religious views…is absurd to me…I Know the man so well: he was the most reticent-Secretive man I Ever Saw-or Expect to See” (Carwardine, p.224). In religion, as in politics, Lincoln seems to have thrived on ambiguity. He created and to a remarkable degree inhabited a religious persona that cast him in the role of Jesus, one who suffered for the redemption of others. But we are limited in what we can say about his theology, by his own reticence as much as the paucity and reliability of our primary sources.

What can be said with some certainty is that Lincoln was a man for whom questions of morality were of cardinal significance. Though “he warmed to Robert Burns’s poetry, including his satire on Calvinist self-righteousness,” writes Carwardine, “Lincoln’s immersion in the scriptures-alongside his keen appetite for Shakespearean soliloquies with anxious self-examination and moral wrestling-points to a man for whom profound private reflection on ethical matters was an essential part of his being” (Carwardine, p. 227). When Orville Browning suggested Lincoln emancipate the slaves in the wake of Lincoln’s post-Bull Run proclamation for a national day of fasting and prayer the president replied, “Browning, suppose God is against us in our view on the subject of slavery in this country, and our method of dealing with it” (Carwardine, p. 230). This response, reminiscent of his “Meditation on the Divine Will,” impressed Browning and indicated to him “that [Lincoln] was thinking deeply of what a higher power than man sought to bring about by the great events then transpiring.”

Conclusion

I have in this thesis attempted to answer two questions: (1) How were Abraham Lincoln’s emotional and psychological struggles in early adulthood related to his theological development during the Civil War? and (2) In what ways did the militancy of Northern Protestantism jeopardize Lincoln’s recovery from those struggles?

My argument is that he relied upon his role within a narrative of national suffering and redemption to weather personal and political disappointment. This explains his buoyancy after his loss to Stephen Douglas in 1858, which is made more notable by the contrasting note of despair Lincoln struck in his correspondence with John Stuart during the winter of 1840-41. In January of 1841, Lincoln had no narrative to promulgate that would explain the suffering through which he was passing and no dramatic role to which he could cling, hence his morose speculation about his own demise. However, the wedge he created between Northern and Southern Democrats in the election of 1858 created an opportunity for the Republicans to win the presidency in 1860, allowing Lincoln to believe—before he ever knew he would be the Republican’s candidate—that he had “struck a blow that would tell” for the antislavery cause.

After he ascended to the presidency, the narrative Lincoln established took on a more overtly religious tone. His “Meditation on the Divine Will,” his correspondence with Eliza P. Gurley, and his Second Inaugural are evidence that the vast loss of human life the nation incurred on Civil War battlefields and the personal tragedy Lincoln encountered in the death of his son Willie directed his attention to the war’s religious significance. He subsumed his personal suffering, atonement, and redemption into an identical process that would encompass the entire nation. Just as he relied upon his own suffering in January of 1841 to understand, describe, and alleviate the marital anxiety of his friend Joshua Speed, in a like manner he would use his own experiences to describe to the nation the significance of the suffering through which it had passed in a transcendent idiom. This enterprise was fundamentally progressive. It was oriented toward national healing, just as Lincoln’s suffering from 1840-41 was oriented toward personal healing.

The rhetoric of Northern Protestants jeopardized this narrative of redemption, so critical to Lincoln’s conception of his own role in American history and—by implication—his recovery from psychological trauma. I have illustrated the extent to which a vindictive Christianity reminiscent of New England’s Calvinist heritage reemerged during the Civil War as a major feature of Northern society. The mentality of Ward, Beecher, Howe, and their peers could not, in Lincoln’s mind, come to define the Civil War’s religious significance. Suffering had to have meaning. His Second Inaugural was an attempt to imbue the carnage of Civil War with a meaning that would move the nation toward reconciliation rather than fixation on gratuitous punishment.

As we have seen, this was as much a psychological as a political imperative for Lincoln.

Preserving Plato

Plato’s Meno contains several instances in which Socrates imparts knowledge to his interlocutor’s slave. These instances belie Socrates’ claims that he is simply eliciting a recollection of mathematical knowledge. In imparting knowledge, however, Socrates demonstrates that mathematical inquiry requires the presence of a teacher. By defining more precisely the role that the teacher has to play in Socratic learning, we can reformulate the dialogue in such a way as to preserve Plato’s mathematical epistemology. This reformulation requires that we recognize that the teacher has an auxiliary role to play in Socratic inquiry and that Socrates curtails the amount of geometrical knowledge he makes explicit in the dialogue.

Some of the mathematical knowledge that Socrates imparts is trivial. In describing the area of a rectangular figure he says, “If it were two feet this way, and only one foot that way, the figure would be once two feet?” After the slave acknowledges this claim Socrates continues, “But if it is two feet also that way, it would surely be twice two feet” (82d). In so many words, Socrates has told the slave that the proper way to calculate the area of a rectangle is to multiply its length by its width. Socrates had previously stipulated that the ability to speak Greek was the only prerequisite for the slave’s participation in geometrical inquiry (82b). Meno later affirms that no one has taught the slave geometry (85e). The slave’s rapid acknowledgement of an item of geometrical knowledge (i.e. the area of a rectangle is its length times its width) therefore bears two interpretations: (1) Socrates has imparted that item of knowledge to the slave or (2) in depicting such a figure and describing it Socrates recommends that item of knowledge so strongly to the slave’s recollection that he has no means to resist admitting it as a truth.

These two interpretations are not mutually exclusive. Part of the difficulty in adjudicating the role that Socrates plays in the Meno may derive from a lack of logical precision. Option (2) might be construed as an analysis of the term “teaching.” If such an analysis is correct, then we must take the “teacher” to be an auxiliary albeit necessary role in Socratic inquiry. He or she is to commend items of knowledge to the student’s consideration in such a way that the student’s intellect is overwhelmed by the truth of the proposition he or she is considering. Such a definition of “teaching” does not preclude the possibility that “knowledge” amounts to “recollection.” In this case, the slave admits the proposition that the area of a rectangle is its length times it width not on the authority of Socrates per se, but rather because he is confronted with an arresting mental depiction of a rectangle. The slave would not have acknowledged that item of knowledge without the mediating role of Socrates. Yet once that role has been fulfilled, the slave’s intellect is subdued by logical necessity and not by didactic fiat.

In addition to commending items of knowledge to their students’ recollection, the Socratic teacher also has a role to play in exposing ignorance. When he is first asked to identify the length of the line that would double a square’s area, the slave confidently asserts that such a line would be double its original. By illustrating just such a square, Socrates proves that the slave has proposed a method of quadrupling rather than doubling the original square’s area. After he has been brought to acknowledge this, the slave is asked again how long the required line must be, to which he responds, “By Zeus, Socrates, I do not know” (84a).

At this point in the dialogue Socrates suggests that he and his interlocutors have reached an epistemological tipping point. “You realize, Meno, what point he has reached in his recollection,” says Socrates. He continues, “even now he does not yet know, but then he thought he knew, and answered confidently as if he did know, and he did not think himself at a loss, but now he does think himself at a loss, and as he does not know, neither does he think he knows.” Just as the Socratic teacher is to commend mathematical truths to the unfettered consideration of their students, so too are they to expose assumptions that conflict with those truths. Here again, false assumptions are undermined not because of Socrates’ authority, but because Socrates has directed the student’s attention to a higher authority—that of mathematical proof. By forcing the student into a state of aporia, or perplexity, Socrates has accomplished two things. First, he has diminished the student’s propensity to speak falsehoods confidently. Secondly, he has imbued the student with a desire to rectify his ignorance. In short, Socrates has “taught.”

Once the slave’s ignorance has been exposed, Socrates stipulates the constraints under which their inquiry will proceed. “I shall do nothing more than ask questions and not teach him,” he tells Meno (84d). He instructs his interlocutor to “Watch whether you find me teaching and explaining things to him instead of asking for his opinion.” In a literal sense, he never transgresses these constraints. The conclusion toward which the dialogue’s slave interlude moves—the length of the side of a square that doubles that square’s area is its diagonal—proceeds through a series of diagrams, rhetorical questions, and succinct assents. What troubles the reader interested in maintaining Plato’s contention that knowledge is recollection is how rhetorical the questions and how succinct the answers seem to be. Socrates constructs a diagram of a square of area 16 units, bisects each constituent square 4 feet in area by its diagonal, and commends the resulting square to the slave as one of area 8 units, or double the area of the original 4-foot square (84d-85d). We can be forgiven for thinking that Socrates is doing all the work here.

Consider, for instance, the point in the dialogue at which Socrates and the slave are on the verge of reaching their conclusion regarding the doubling of a square’s area. Socrates has bisected the constituent squares of his 16-foot square. He then asks the slave how large the figure enclosed by the 4 bisections is, to which the slave responds, “I do not understand” (85a). To this interjection Socrates replies, “Within these four figures, each line cuts off half of each [constituent square of area 4 feet], does it not?” This seems to us a rhetorical bridge too far. The diagram has been composed. Lengths have been allocated to each constituent part of the figure. Trivially, it seems that a thorough examination of the figure would lead the slave to the conclusion that the bisections of the constituent squares yield a 16-foot square whose area has been bisected, i.e. a square of area 8 feet. Once we have admitted that the teacher has an auxiliary role to play in mathematical inquiry, we would be more sympathetic to the manner in which Socrates proves his claim that knowledge is recollection if he were to commend the completed diagram to the slave’s unaided reason. Stated simply, Socrates makes too much explicit.

It is conceivable that this objection stems from the literary and stylistic constraints under which Plato was working. Perhaps the logical necessity of the final diagram is made explicit more for Plato’s audience than Socrates’ interlocutor. Still, we would feel more comfortable if the character of Socrates confined himself to the composition of diagrams and the allocation of numerical values. These would be the premises from which the slave’s unaided recollection would proceed to geometrical conclusions. Once we have stipulated that it is the Socratic teacher’s role to provide such premises, the slave’s arrival at the proper geometrical conclusion would provide more convincing proof of Plato’s epistemological claims. Such a view casts the “teacher” in the same role as the projectionist at a movie theater. His role is one of explanation rather than explication, which is provided by the audience’s unaided reason.

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

Chapter 2: Lincoln’s Theology Goes to War

At first, Lincoln remained circumspect about God’s presence in the Civil War. He spoke diffidently about the impossibility of discerning God’s will in a conflict in which both sides claimed to act with divine sanction. Over the course of the conflict, however, he came to speak with greater theological certainty. Between his inauguration and his assassination, he became increasingly convinced that God had played a role in bringing about the war, and that God’s purpose in so doing was redemptive. Though Lincoln occasionally gave vent to regional vindictiveness in his private correspondence, he insisted that the suffering brought on by the war held meaning as an expurgation of sin. For him, this expurgation was both necessary and progressive. It would issue in a society that more accurately reflected the ideals espoused in the Declaration of Independence. In this sense, the dramatic role Lincoln crafted for himself as chief executive differed little from the dramatic role he crafted for himself immediately after his depressive episode of 1840-41. Through his own experiences, he came to believe that human suffering held meaning. Just as Lincoln felt obliged to convince Joshua Speed of this fact when the latter experienced reservations about his impending marriage, so he felt obliged to convince the nation that the dead of the Civil War had not died in vain.

Lincoln spoke of humility in a theological context in his August 12, 1861 “Proclamation of a National Fast Day.” In that edict, the president declared it “fit and becoming in all people” to “bow in humble submission to his chastisements; to confess and deplore their sins and transgressions in the full conviction that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; and to pray, with all fervency and contrition, for the pardon of their past offenses.” On the one hand, such a confession of sin was formulaic. The Episcopal Book of Common Prayer exhorts parishioners to “acknowledge and bewail their manifold sins and transgressions” every Sunday. Lincoln, whose marriage was officiated by an Episcopal priest and consummated by an Episcopal liturgy, may have had some knowledge of that text because of his in-laws’ affiliation with the Episcopal Church, his own relatively sparse church attendance as an adult notwithstanding.

However, Lincoln’s rhetorical contribution to the proclamation is distinguishable. Proverbs 1:7 asserts, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” Lincoln’s familiarity with the Authorized Version of the Bible, his penchant for peppering speeches with biblical allusions, and his emotional struggles in early adulthood would have made him receptive to biblical passages that establish a connection between humility and insight, one that he could use in his public addresses. Here at the outset of the Civil War we see Lincoln identifying humility and self-criticism as proper elements of wartime exegesis. “[I]t is peculiarly fit,” he says, “for us to recognize the hand of God in this terrible visitation, and in sorrowful remembrance of our own faults and crimes as a nation and as individuals, to humble ourselves before Him, and to pray for His mercy.” Lincoln’s wartime theology was from its inception introspective. His use of the first-person plural in the August 12 Proclamation is characteristic. The aim was to implicate as many Americans as possible in bringing on the war, thereby maximizing the practical benefits of national repentance and reconciliation. Privately, he would deviate little from this theological core. Publically, he would deviate from it not at all.

It is necessary to note that this theological magnanimity was to some extent motivated by political considerations. As Richard Carwardine has noted in his essay on “Lincoln’s Religion,” the president knew he needed to mobilize Christians around the Union war effort, and, subsequently, Reconstruction. In a letter to Winfield Scott dated September 30, 1861, Lincoln notes the “direct practical value to the nation” of the Sanitary Commission’s effort to provide blankets to beleaguered hospitals (Basler IV, p. 543). The Sanitary Commission, though primarily concerned with providing medical care to soldiers, enjoyed a close relationship with evangelical (predominantly Democratic) Protestantism in the North. If granting the Commission access to Union hospitals would not silence this demographic, it would at least do nothing to agitate it.

Northern Democrats were not the only group whose interests were reflected in Lincoln’s encouragement of religiously inspired philanthropy. In October of 1861 Reverend Marble N. Taylor was introduced to Lincoln by General John E. Wool. Taylor was reportedly “on an errand of charity and humanity” that was never precisely defined. However, Taylor and his partner Chaplain T.W. Conway were active in organizing North Carolina Unionists, eliciting the following expression of approval from their president: “I have no doubt that the gentlemen named within, are true and faithful; and that their mission of charity is most worthy, and praiseworthy.” As prominent Unionists from the upper South, Taylor and Conway could expect to meet with a sympathetic audience in the White House.

In addition to approving requests to provide chaplains for wounded regulars, Lincoln made a push to supply professional chaplains to hospitals that served volunteers. Writing to F.M. Magrath on October 30, 1861, Lincoln said, “I will recommend that Congress make compensation therefor at the same rate as Chaplains in the army are compensated” (Basler V, pp. 8-9). This proposal would make it into his annual address to Congress on December 3, 1861, in which the president said, “By mere omission, I presume, Congress has failed to provide chaplains for hospitals occupied by volunteers…These gentlemen, I understand, entered upon the duties designated, at the times respectively stated in the schedule, and have labored faithfully therein ever since. I therefore recommend that they be compensated at the same rate as chaplains in the army” (Basler V, p. 40). There is little doubt that Lincoln saw the auxiliary role Christian philanthropists had to play in the conflict. His support for that role was both rhetorical and substantive, as his form letter of support on behalf of the chaplains who had been appointed to volunteer hospitals demonstrates (Basler V, p. 53). When it came to hospital chaplains, Lincoln meant to act on his expressions of approval. Yet his motivations seem to have been overwhelmingly pragmatic.

Political considerations notwithstanding, Lincoln did believe the United States had a redemptive role to play in world history. Writing to the Salvadorian minister Lorenzo Montufar on April 24, 1862 Lincoln said of the Civil War, “On the result largely depends the progress, civilization, and happiness of mankind” (Basler V, p. 198). Responding to a petition presented to him by a delegation from the General Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, Lincoln said in May of the same year, “[the war] involves…in a large degree the civil and religious liberties of mankind in many countries and through many ages” (Basler V, p. 212). In a July 12, 1862 “Appeal to Border State Representatives to Favor Compensated Emancipation” he said, “Our common country is in great peril” (Basler V, p. 319). He continued, “Once relieved, it’s [sic] form of government is saved to the world.” Lincoln thought that the future of representative government was intimately connected to the success of the American experiment in democracy. Before he even had to grapple with the carnage of large-scale Civil War battles, then, he had turned his mind to the larger meaning of the conflict.

Indeed, a fixation of Lincoln’s from an early stage in his career was the practicality of republican government. In January of 1838, the future president spoke to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois on “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions.” Likely alluding to the murder of the abolitionist editor Elijah P. Lovejoy by a mob of proslavery partisans the previous year Lincoln said:

“…there is, even now, something of ill-omen amongst us. I mean the increasing disregard for law which pervades the country; the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions, in lieu of the sober judgment of Courts; and the worse than savage mobs, for the executive ministers of justice.”

Present in this excerpt is Lincoln’s affinity for law and order, a proclivity to which Allen C. Guelzo has attributed Lincoln’s affiliation with the Whigs over against the “passionate” Jacksonian Democrats. Later in the Springfield address he hoped that a “reverence for the laws” would “become the political religion of the nation” (Basler I, p. 112). As he would do a quarter century later at Gettysburg, he defined the American project as the “practical demonstration of a proposition…namely, the capability of a people to govern themselves” (Basler I, p. 113). He viewed the principle of secession as anarchical, and said so in his First Inaugural. For Lincoln, the Civil War was about America’s role as a beacon of self-government. He was in this sense a believer in America’s Manifest Destiny.

Having brought this outlook to Washington in 1861, Lincoln contributed to the tradition of American exceptionalism a tone of humility. As he saw it, humiliation and repentance were central to America’s redemptive role. In his response to the Evangelical Lutherans, Lincoln claimed that the American people would “make their prolonged national existence a source of new benefits to…all classes and conditions of mankind” by “humbly seeking the Divine guidance” (Basler V, p. 213). In June of 1862, about a month before Lincoln presented a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet, William Barnard, representing a delegation of Progressive Friends that had given a memorial to the president insisting that he free the slaves, expressed “an earnest desire that he might, under divine guidance, be led to free the slaves” (Basler V, p. 279). Lincoln’s reply, the theme of which he returned to in his “Meditation on the Divine Will,” was notable for its balance between providentialism and equivocation:

“The President responded very impressively, saying that he was deeply sensible of his need of Divine assistance. He had sometime [sic] thought that perhaps he might be an instrument in God’s hands of accomplishing a great work and he certainly was not unwilling to be. Perhaps, however, God’s way of accomplishing the end which the memorialists had in view may be different from theirs. It would be his earnest endeavor, with firm reliance upon the Divine arm, and seeking light from above, to do his duty in the place to which he had been called.”

Politics, temperament, and philosophy converged during Lincoln’s presidency to turn the chief executive’s mind toward God’s intervention in human affairs.

Another way in which Lincoln’s theological humility manifested itself from an early date was his criticism of millenarian speculation, which tended to favor the North at the expense of the South. Responding to yet another memorial on emancipation, this one from a group of Chicago emancipationists, Lincoln wrote, “I am approached with the most opposite opinions and advice, and that by religious men, who are equally certain that they represent the Divine will” (Basler V, pp. 419-20). “I am sure,” he concluded, “that either the one or the other class is mistaken in that belief, and perhaps in some respects both.” He noted, “the rebel soldiers are praying with a great deal more earnestness…than our own troops.” The tone of introspection and self-criticism present in his August 12 proclamation here becomes more biting. In his September, 1862 response to the Chicago Christians he said, “our country had been exceedingly guilty…both at the North and South; that our just punishment had come by a slaveholder’s rebellion” (Basler V, p. 422). This was the essential message of his Second Inaugural. North and South had condoned and even facilitated slavery. Lincoln’s commitment to this basic narrative, the “theological core” referred to above, is a hallmark of the consistency and coherence that his political opinions assumed.

In the “Meditation of the Divine Will,” a private memorandum published by Lincoln’s secretaries John Hay and John Nicolay following the assassination, the president reiterated his skepticism of those who claimed to discern God’s purposes in the contest. “In the present civil war,” he wrote, “it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purposes of either party” (Basler V, p. 404). When he did come to make a positive assertion, “that God wills this contest,” he couched it in hesitant language: “I am almost ready to say this is probably true.” Here we see the connection between Lincoln’s theological insight and his capacity for solitary, melancholic reflection. Composed around the time of the Second Battle of Bull Run, at which Union General John Pope was routed by Robert E. Lee, the “Meditation” came at a time when Attorney General Edward Bates thought Lincoln “seemed wrung by the bitterest anguish–said he felt almost ready to hang himself.” For Lincoln, emotional pain had become a source of rhetorical and religious strength. Whereas the militarism of many Northern Protestants only ossified as the war went on, Lincoln’s theological thought became more refined and coherent.

Lincoln remained agnostic about God’s purposes throughout the first half of the war. His personal correspondence during that period harkened back to the “Meditation.” On October 26, 1862 Eliza P. Gurley, the widow of English Quaker Joseph J. Gurney, visited the president. She is reported to have “uttered a short but most beautiful, eloquent, and comprehensive prayer that light and wisdom might be shed down from on high, to guide our President” (Basler V, 478). Lincoln’s reply was measured. “[I]f after endeavoring to do my best in the light which he [sic] affords me,” he said, “I find my efforts fail, I must believe that for some purpose unknown to me, He wills it otherwise.” He speculated that God permitted the continuance of the war “for some purpose of his own, mysterious and unknown to us.”
This thought may have consoled Lincoln by placing the course of events beyond his control. In his biography of George Washington, Ron Chernow attributes a similar motive to the future president’s declaration after his appointment as commanding officer of the Continental Army that he did not “think himself equal to the command he was honored with.” Both men anticipated the difficulties inherent in their posts, and that, justly or unjustly, history would hold them accountable for the success or failure of their cause. Lincoln tried to convince himself and others “that he who made the world still governs it.” In the months after the Union defeats of First and Second Bull Run and the failure of George McClellan’s Peninsula campaign, this belief allowed him to set aside the question of victory or defeat and focus on his duties.

It is important not to take the “Meditation” and Lincoln’s reply to Gurney as flashes of insight. Both documents should be read as markers of Lincoln’s theological development during the war. This development was continuous, not epiphanic. The reply to Gurney was not the only occasion on which Lincoln used phrases or ideas that would become associated with his more famous works. In his analysis of Lincoln’s statement in the Second Inaugural that “the war came” Ronald C. White says, “human agency alone did not decide the outcome or even the character of the war. As Lincoln looked back from the perspective of four long years, he saw that all along the war had a life of its own.” In a letter dated November 10, 1862 in which the president argued politics with General Carl Schurz Lincoln used the precise wording that eventually made its way into the Second Inaugural: “Notwithstanding this, it [i.e. the Republican Party] distributed to it’s [sic] party friends as nearly all the civil patronage as any administration ever did. The war came.” Lincoln’s ideas about the meaning of the war and how to express that meaning were well developed by the time of he came to take the oath of office a second time. Lincoln was “looking back” as he came to deliver his Second Inaugural, but the retrospection was more for the American people. He had already done it for himself. We have seen that Lincoln began his presidency by assuming a characteristic tone of theological modesty and skepticism. It now remains for us to describe how that view altered over the course of the conflict.

As it became clear that the war was to be a bloody and costly affair, Lincoln came to rely more on the omniscience of God and his presence in the conflict as a psychological anchor. Though Lincoln never explicitly broached the prospect of Union failure in his Annual Message to Congress on December 1, 1862, he did strike the same tone of uncertainty that he had maintained in his reply to Gurney. “[W]e can but press on,” said Lincoln, “guided by the best light He gives us, trusting that in His own good time, and wise way, all will yet be well” (Basler V, p. 518). Unsurprisingly, Lincoln tailored his religious statements to the audience he was addressing. Whereas he mentioned defeat as a legitimate possibility when speaking to Gurney, he never explicitly told Congress what he meant by the phrase, “all will yet be well.” He allowed members to assume that Union victory was a part of God’s plan. Yet by stating that the result, whatever it might be, was part of God’s plan and defining that plan as benevolent, Lincoln relieved some of the burden created by the knowledge that his actions influenced—and occasionally ended—the lives of millions of Americans.

Most noticeably, Lincoln deviated from his reluctance to speak on God’s behalf as the war continued. He linked the Union cause with God’s will in a letter to Caleb Russell and Sallie A. Fenton, representatives of the Society of Friends from Iowa who had formally expressed their approval of the Emancipation Proclamation. Writing on January 5, 1863, four days after the proclamation had gone into effect in the Union-occupied South, Lincoln wrote, “I am conscious of no desire for my country’s welfare, that is not in consonance with His will, and of no plan upon which we may not ask His blessing” (Basler VI, pp. 39-40). He even conjoined the “birthright of civil and religious liberty,” arguing that it was that liberty “upon which all good men may unitedly agree…imploring the gracious favor of the God of Nations.” This excerpt signifies a change in tone for Lincoln, one that seems to have become more theologically assertive after he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Gideon Welles, Lincoln’s naval secretary, quoted him as saying that he had “made a promise to God” that he would issue the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation if McClellan defeated Lee at Antietam, a victory that ended the Virginian’s first invasion of Union territory. In the wake of the Union victory, Welles’ diary has Lincoln declaring, “God had decided this issue in favor of the slaves.” Says Guelzo of this moment, “[h]ere was the moral of the summer of 1862 for Abraham Lincoln: human events do not run on like machines, but by providential intervention; just so, the war would not run to a conclusion, nor the Union be saved, unless Lincoln himself took note of Providence’s whisperings” (Guelzo, pp. 336-337). Guelzo notes that this was the first time Lincoln “ever prefixed any name for god with the possessive my, as though some unprecedented personal reciprocity had been established” (Guelzo, p. 342).

Lincoln eventually had to moderate this assertiveness, coming as it did at a moment when the tide of war was beginning to turn. Such rhetoric would not do as he turned his mind to Reconstruction. However, there was a moment in early 1863 at which Lincoln may have succumbed, in his own way, to northern millennialism. Writing to “the Workingmen of Manchester, England” on January 19, 1863 Lincoln said, “I cannot but regard your decisive utterance upon the question [of emancipation] as an instance of sublime Christian heroism which has not been surpassed in any age or in any country” (Basler VI, p. 64). Four months earlier, as he composed his “Mediation,” it would have been difficult to envision Lincoln praising a Christian for decisiveness.

Whether or not this newfound decisiveness was more political or theological, Lincoln had checked it by the time he came to deliver his Second Inaugural. Indeed, he had checked it well before then. Writing to Alexander Reed, General Superintendent of the U.S. Christian Commission, on February 22, 1863 Lincoln said, “whatever shall tend to turn our thoughts from the unreasoning, and uncharitable passions, prejudices, and jealousies incident to a great national trouble…can not [sic] but be well for us all” (Basler VI, p. 114). Here we see a return to Lincoln’s distrust of “passion,” present in the 1838 Lyceum speech. When we take his statements of January, 1863 into account, his observation about the “unreasoning, and uncharitable passions” assumes a somewhat self-admonitory tone, a return to theological modesty.

At the same time, Lincoln’s letter to Reed discloses a new development in Lincoln’s theology: sympathetic allusions to the existence of an afterlife. This mechanism, like his deferral to God’s omnipotence, may have been a way for Lincoln to cope with the tremendous pressures of his station. Noting that the Sunday on which he was writing coincided with Washington’s birthday Lincoln said that “the highest interests of this life, and the life to come” made the date “most propitious” for a meeting of the Christian Commission (Basler VI, p. 115). In a response to a serenade three days after the Union victory at Gettysburg, Lincoln referred to the deaths of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, all of which had occurred on July 4. Lincoln remarked that all had been “called from this stage of existence on the same day and month of the year,” which coincided with Lee’s retreat from Pennsylvania (Basler VI, p. 320). Prior to the war, Lincoln had resorted, when pressed, to anodyne declarations of sympathy for basic Christian doctrines. An 1846 handbill refuting charges of infidelity lodged by the Democratic preacher Peter Cartwright, in which Lincoln tepidly said that he “had never spoken with intentional disrespect of religion in general, or of any denomination of Christians in particular,” comes to mind (Basler I, p. 382). In New Salem and Springfield, he had been reluctant to make positive assertions about his belief in life after death. Indeed, some of his associates report that Lincoln composed a brief tract arguing against organized Christianity, a document so incendiary that his friends threw it in a furnace. Whether or not this account is technically accurate, it does speak to the tone with which Lincoln approached questions of life after death as a younger man. His willingness to entertain the notion of an afterlife is a defining feature of his intellectual growth as president.

Lincoln’s Proclamation Appointing a National Fast Day of May 30, 1863 also signaled a return to modesty in the months after his Emancipation Proclamation and Lee’s consequent retreat from Maryland bolstered his willingness to speak in definite terms about what outcome God favored. In addition to a “dependence upon the overruling power of God” the president declared it the “duty of nations as well as of men” “to confess their sins and transgressions, in humble sorrow” (Basler VI, p. 155). “Yet,” he continued, the nation would engage in such introspection “with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon.” This is roughly the argument Lincoln would make to the country in his Second Inaugural: God brought the war upon the North and South as punishment for the “national sin” of slavery and so that a purified nation might rise. Lincoln’s providentialism was always progressive. It viewed punishment for past wrongs within the context of a future goal. The public persona that Lincoln created for himself derived its meaning from the providential outcome his actions secured.

Yet Lincoln never fully expurgated his hatred of secession. Addressing wounded soldiers, some of whom had lost legs, in May of 1863, the president said, “that when we could present that famous adversary [viz., the Devil] at the White House on his stumps, and therefore somewhat incapable of further rebellion against constituted and divine authority, that we would let him know” (Basler VI, pp. 226-227). His first inaugural address was a rigidly legalistic argument against the doctrine of secession. Here, as in the letter to Russell and Fenton, he combined divine and human law to make secession an offense against God. This was not a national offense, but one for which a cabal of southern slaveholders bore responsibility. This utterance, coming at roughly the same time as his May 30 proclamation of a national fast day, hints at a divergence between Lincoln’s personal feelings and the redemptive narrative that Lincoln had established for the country. As we will see, it was such feelings of animosity in which many Northern Protestants indulged, and which jeopardized the role that Lincoln wanted to play within that narrative.

The Union victory at Gettysburg, like the Emancipation Proclamation, presented an opportunity for Lincoln to imply that God was moving closer to the North as the fighting went on. In a telegram sent as a press release from the War Department Lincoln wrote of General George Meade’s victory on the morning of July 4, “he [i.e. the president] especially desires that on this day, He whose will, not ours, should ever be done, be everywhere remembered and reverenced with profoundest gratitude” (Basler VI, p. 314). God’s will was a source of consolation when the Union was losing. It became a source or assurance as Lee dragged his defeated army back to northern Virginia.

Lincoln’s Proclamation of Thanksgiving on July 15, however, played the same role as his Proclamation Appointing a National Fast Day in May. In the July proclamation, Lincoln said that the nation had “been brought to suffer in mind, body or estate, and finally to lead the whole nation through the paths of repentance and submission to the Divine Will, back to the perfect enjoyment of Union and fraternal peace” (Basler VI, p. 332). By this time we can see a cycle developing, in which Lincoln released some of the anguish that had built up over the first two years of his presidency in private remarks or those delivered immediately after Union victories, only to return to his redemptive narrative when given time to reflect.

Lincoln further articulated his belief that God had a special purpose in mind for the United States in a Proclamation of Thanksgiving dated October 3, 1863, three months after the Union victory at Gettysburg. After lauding the social and economic resilience of the Union Lincoln wrote, “No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things” (Basler VI, p. 496). On September 4, 1864 Lincoln wrote again to Eliza P. Gurney, insisting that “[t]he purposes of the Almighty are perfect, and must prevail, though we erring mortals may fail to accurately perceive them in advance” (Basler VII, p. 535). “Erring mortals” notwithstanding, he continued, “[s]urely He intends some great good to follow this mighty convulsion, which no mortal could make, and no mortal could stay.” This belief that God had brought on and then directed the Civil War for a specific purpose appears (almost verbatim) more than once in Lincoln’s correspondence and state papers. As it became increasingly apparent that the Union had the upper hand, Lincoln began to speak more assertively about what God’s purposes were for the United States after the war. In his October 3 Proclamation Lincoln continued, “the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy” (Basler VI, pp. 496-497). It is important to remember that Lincoln saw both components of this process—God’s anger and His mercy—as defining characteristics of his presidency and his role in American history. These two characteristics were mutually reinforcing, and Lincoln’s stature would be diminished if he failed to see to it that one followed the other.

For Lincoln repentance was a major feature—the major feature—of Christianity, one that had value for the Union as it moved toward Reconstruction. Repentance and its orthodox concomitant, mercy, pertained to future rather than past behavior, and therefore offered a basis for constructive action. In a letter to War Secretary Edwin M. Stanton dated February 5, 1864 Lincoln wrote, “[o]n principle I dislike an oath which requires a man to swear he has not done wrong. It rejects the Christian principle of forgiveness on terms of repentance. I think it is enough if the man does no wrong hereafter” (Basler VII, p. 169). Lincoln felt that suffering had to have meaning. He was not interested in theological explanations for the Civil War that provided no basis for moving forward after its conclusion. Lincoln said as much in a letter to Stanton regarding the release of repentant Confederate prisoners of war. Referring to the government he wrote, “[i]t can properly have no motive of revenge, no purpose to punish merely for punishment’s sake” (Basler VII, p. 255). Lincoln’s primary concern in regards to Reconstruction was to “avoid planting and cultivating too many thorns in the bosom of society.” His theological instincts supported this goal.

Lincoln returned to the theme of his own powerlessness in remarks to the Baltimore Presbyterian Synod on October 24. According to the National Republican, after being presented to the delegates by Reverend Phineas Gurley (whose New York Avenue Presbyterian Church the Lincolns frequented during the war and who delivered the eulogy at Willie Lincoln’s funeral), Lincoln said, “I was early brought to a living reflection that nothing in my power whatever…would succeed without the direct assistance of the Almighty, but all must fail” (Basler VI, p. 535). This claim was not necessarily a humble one. As previously stated, it absolved Lincoln of blame for early Union defeats. Now, with the tide turning in the North’s favor after Lee’s expulsion from Pennsylvania, it vindicated the controversial decisions that Lincoln had taken. It gave him moral authority, of which privilege he might avail himself in magnanimously offering remission of sins to the conquered South. “I have often wished that I was a more devout man than I am,” he said. “Nevertheless,” he continued, “amid the great difficulties of my Administration, when I could not see any other resort, I would place my whole reliance in God, knowing all would go well, and that He would decide for the right” (Basler VI, pp. 535-536). By declaring that battlefield successes proved that God favored the Union cause, Lincoln implied that God also favored his administration.

An April 4, 1864 letter to Albert G. Hodges, editor of the Frankfurt Commonwealth, also suggests that a yearning for vindication as well as magnanimity informed Lincoln’s search for theological meaning during the Civil War. In language more or less identical to the Second Inaugural Lincoln declared:

I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me. Now, at the end of three years struggle the nation’s condition is not what either party, or any man devised, or expected. God alone can claim it. Whither it is tending seems plain. If God now wills the removal of a great wrong, and wills also that we of the North as well as you of the South, shall pay fairly for our complicity in that wrong, impartial history will find therein new cause to attest and revere the justice and goodness of God (Basler VII, p. 282).

The differences between this passage and the Second Inaugural are mostly stylistic. By March of 1865 Lincoln would reformat the last sentence into biblical language borrowed from Psalm 19 (“The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether”). The message, however, is identical: God ordained both the course and the result of the Civil War. That Lincoln was to some extent responsible for the result entailed that God could “claim” him as an instrument of His will.

Indeed, responding to a “Petition of the Children of the United States” on April 5, 1864, Lincoln wrote to Mrs. Horace Mann, “Please tell these little people I am very glad their young hearts are so full of just and generous sympathy, and that, while I have not the power to grant all they ask [viz. the emancipation and arming of all slaves, not just those slaves of rebellious states who had been theoretically freed by the Emancipation Proclamation], I trust they will remember that God has” (Basler VII, p. 287). Significantly, however, he added, “as it seems, He wills to do it.” Again echoing themes and cadences he would use in the Second Inaugural, Lincoln said to the Sanitary Fair at Baltimore on April 18:
When the war began, three years ago, neither party, nor any man, expected it would last till now. Each looked for the end, in some way, long ere to-day. Neither did any anticipate that domestic slavery would be much affected by the war. But here we are; the war has not ended, and slavery has been much affected-how much needs not now to be recounted (Basler VII, 301).

“So true it is,” he continued, “that man proposes, and God disposes.” It is possible that such subtleties were meant to draw the president’s audience to the fact that he had played a role in “disposing” of the South’s peculiar institution. In the same address he said, “Upon a clear conviction of duty I resolved to turn that element of strength [viz. freed slaves] to account; and I am responsible for it to the American people, to the christian world, to history, and on my final account to God” (Basler VII, p. 302). If Union arms had fared less well, this statement may have been considered a modest avowal of responsibility. In retrospect and in context, though, it reads as a bold claim. The nation had proposed and Lincoln had disposed.

Lincoln reached his most theologically assertive point in a letter to a delegation of Baptists from Springfield, Massachusetts on May 30, 1864. Writing to George B. Ide, James R. Doolittle, and “A. Hubbell,” the president reiterated an argument grounded in biblical language that he used during the Douglas debates of 1858. Now, however, he was more explicit about whom he was attacking: “those professedly holy men of the South” (Basler VII, p. 368). Lincoln wrote:

Indeed it is difficult to conceive how it could be otherwise with any one professing christianity [sic], or even having ordinary perceptions of right and wrong. To read in the Bible, as the word of God himself, that “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread,” and to preach therefrom that, “In the sweat of other mans [sic] faces shalt thou eat bread,” to my mind can scarcely be reconciled with honest sincerity…When, a year or two ago, those professedly holy men of the South, met in the semblance of prayer and devotion, and, in the name of Him who said “As ye would all men should do unto you, do ye even so unto them” appealed to the christian world to aid them in doing to a whole race of men, as they would have no man do unto themselves, to my thinking, they contemned and insulted God and His church, far more than did Satan when he tempted the Saviour with the Kingdoms of the earth. The devils [sic] attempt was no more false, and far less hypocritical. But let me forbear, remembering it is also written “Judge not, lest ye be judged.”

The biblical quotation that rounds out the last line (Matt. 7:1) is the only similarity between this passage and the Second Inaugural. It is the only aspect of the passage that does not stand in diametric opposition to the tone of reconciliation that Lincoln struck in the later speech. It identifies Southern theologians as partly responsible for bringing on the Civil War.

Lincoln shifted this responsibility farther away from radical Protestants of the Northern stripe when he declared in a speech at the Great Central Sanitary Fair in Philadelphia on June 16, 1864, “We accepted this war; we did not begin it” (Basler VII, p. 395). Furthermore, the letter to the Springfield Baptists continues to associate the Southern cause with Satan. Indeed, Satan was “no more false, and far less hypocritical” than his Southern cohort. This is not a Lincoln bound by the political necessities of Reconstruction. It must have been a cathartic exercise for him. Reading again the president’s last letter to Gurney with a critical eye, it seems these theologians may have been the “mortals” who “made” the rebellion. Looking over the statements quoted above, particularly those from the Baltimore Sanitary Fair, we can say that there were breaches in Lincoln’s public narrative of national redemption and reconciliation. They occurred less frequently and less emphatically than they did in his personal correspondence.

Lincoln combined his civil and religious duties in a letter to James S. Wadsworth tentatively dated January, 1864. Asked by the general if a policy of universal amnesty to former Confederates would entail universal suffrage for freed blacks the president responded that he could see no other option, “regarding it as a religious duty, as the nation’s guardian of these people” (Basler VII, p. 101). If he meant to place some of the burdens of his office onto God’s shoulders during the beginning of his presidency, this quote and Welles’s account of his decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation in September of 1862 indicate that Lincoln held himself as well as the national cause accountable to God. It is therefore premature to take Lincoln’s varying tone of agnosticism and assertiveness regarding God’s purposes as evidence of insincerity.

Indeed, by any objective account Lincoln had every right to share responsibility for Union casualties. He did everything in his power to spare enlisted soldiers who had been condemned to execution for negligence or desertion. The vast majority of his correspondence with Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt consisted of commutations. In an “Endorsement Concerning Henry Andrews” Lincoln wrote that he “had ordered his punishment commuted to imprisonment for during the war at hard labor…not on any merit in the case, but because I am trying to evade the butchering business lately” (Basler VII, p. 111). This passage does betray what may have been a sense of guilt on Lincoln’s part. At the same time, it suggests that more soldiers may have died had military justice been rigidly enforced in lieu of Lincoln’s magnanimity. If Lincoln felt any remorse, he at least put it to good use.

However, the rift between Lincoln’s public narrative of the war’s significance and his more prosaic private interpretations persisted. On October 20, 1864 the Reverend William Nast, editor of the Cincinnati organ of the Central German Methodist Conference, wrote to Lincoln after the conclusion of the Conference’s meeting, which occurred between August 24 and 30. Though Nast’s original letter is not included in the Lincoln Papers, the president’s response of October 31 is notable for the tone in which it condemns Southern slaveholders. Read alongside the Second Inaugural, it highlights the difference between Lincoln’s public and private religious personae during the second half of the Civil War.

On the one hand, the Second Inaugural did imply that the South was responsible for the outbreak of war. When he entered office, said Lincoln, “[b]oth parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish.” Furthermore, “[a]ll knew that this interest [viz., slavery] was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war.” On the other hand, Lincoln acknowledged Northern complicity in the underlying cause of the war, slavery, and insisted that the resulting carnage be understood as God’s punishment of the whole nation:

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?

The use of “American” rather than “Southern” in describing slavery is significant. For the public Lincoln, slavery was a national rather than a regional sin, calling for national suffering and repentance.

In his private correspondence, however, Lincoln was more explicit about the degree to which he held the South responsible for the war’s consequences. In his letter to Nast of October 31the president wrote, “I trust it is not too early for us to rejoice together over the promise of the speedy removal of that blot upon our civilization, always heretofore a standing menace to our peace and liberties, whose destruction, so long desired by all friends of impartial freedom, has at last been rendered possible by the crimes of its own reckless friends.” No effort is here made to nationalize slavery. “The crimes” and “that blot upon our civilization” are, like the “colored slaves” mentioned in the Second Inaugural, “not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it.”

As we have seen, this tone of self-vindication recurred again and again during the last two years of the war after remaining dormant until the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation. After his reelection in early November of 1864, Lincoln addressed a crowd of serenaders who had gathered outside the Executive Mansion. At the conclusion of his brief address the president said, “[i]t is no pleasure of mine to triumph over any one; but I give thanks to the Almighty for this evidence of the people’s resolution to stand by free government and the rights of humanity” (Basler VIII, p. 96). The first clause would have been more credible had it been inserted in the Second Inaugural. The second clause is more consistent with Lincoln’s implicit association during the second half of the Civil War of Northern successes with God’s plan for the United States. The tone of theological uncertainty that had sustained Lincoln during the first two years of his administration became muted as Union advantages on the battlefield became more pronounced.

In a less impromptu address two days later, Lincoln moderated his tone. In his “Response to a Serenade” on November 10 the president said, “In any future great national trial, compared with the men of this, we shall have as weak, and as strong; as silly and as wise; as bad and good. Let us, therefore, study the incidents of this, as philosophy to learn wisdom from, and none of them as wrongs to be revenged” (Basler VIII, p. 101). It can hardly be surprising that the animosities growing out of the war did not subside as quickly as Lincoln anticipated in this speech. He seems not entirely to have overcome them himself. Placing this address alongside the more ad hoc production of November 8, we see that Lincoln’s theological magnanimity seems to have grown in direct proportion to the amount of time he was given to consider whom he was speaking to.

An exception to this rule is Lincoln’s “Annual Address to Congress” of December 6, 1864. Therein Lincoln compared secession to satanic disobedience, an analogy he had made several times before. Said the president, “The genius of rebellion will no more claim Maryland. Like another foul spirit, being driven out, it may seek to tear her, but it will woo her no more” (Basler VIII, pp. 148-149). Significantly, Lincoln’s autographed copy of the address substituted “unclean” for “foul,” a poetic change more reminiscent of the English of the Authorized Version from which Lincoln was wont to quote.

The president was never reluctant to pillory Southern theology when it affected political behavior. On April 11, 1865 Godfrey Weitzel, the Union general in charge of the conquered Confederate capital of Richmond received a telegram from his colleague James A. Hardie. Weitzel had granted Richmond Episcopalians the right to continue to pray for Jefferson Davis in lieu of Abraham Lincoln, regarding which order Hardie cabled:

The Secretary of War directs me to say that your explanation…is not satisfactory…The Secretary also directs me to instruct you that officers commanding in Richmond are expected to require from all religious denominations in that city, in regard to their rituals and prayers, no less respect for the President…than they practiced toward the rebel chief…before he was driven from the capital (Basler VIII, 406).

Interestingly, in his Annual Message Lincoln also engaged in what may have been a defense of the tremendous loss of life that took place during his tenure. He said, “[w]hile it is melancholy to reflect that the war has filled so many graves, and carried mourning to so many hearts, it is some relief to know that, compared with the surviving, the fallen have been so few. While corps, and divisions, and brigades, and regiments have formed, and fought, and dwindled, and gone out of existence, a great majority of the men who composed them are still living” (Basler VIII, p. 150). By 1864 Lincoln seems not to have expurgated the sense of guilt that Professor George Forgie once speculated may have driven him to discern God’s controlling hand, rather than his own, as the source of conflict.

By early December of 1864 Lincoln had returned to anathematizing Southern theology in his private correspondence. In a “Story Written for Noah Brooks,” Lincoln recounted his conversation (whether real or apocryphal) with a Tennessee woman who had petitioned to have her husband released from the Union prison at Johnson’s Island. Lincoln reportedly said:

You say your husband is a religious man; tell him when you meet him, that I say I am not much of a judge of religion, but that, in my opinion, the religion that sets men to rebel and fight against their government, because, as they think, that government does not sufficiently help some men to eat their bread on the sweat of other men’s faces, is not the sort of religion upon which people get to heaven (Basler VIII, p. 155).

The language of this passage puts an unorthodox gloss on a particular part of the Second Inaugural, one that cannot be fully understood without some knowledge of the development of Lincoln’s rhetoric. He had used the language of “wringing sweat out of other men’s faces” during the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates. Likewise in the Second Inaugural he said, “[i]t 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.” This statement, coming after Lincoln’s observation that both North and South “read the same Bible and pray to the same God,” can be taken as a criticism of those Northern theologians who conformed to the vindictive tone of Julia Ward Howe’s Battle Hymn of the Republic. However, placed alongside Lincoln’s other references to sweat being wrung from faces, it reads as a more assertive statement regarding the hypocrisy of Southern theology. Read closely and within the context of his Collected Works, the Second Inaugural contains several passages that present a Lincoln whose bitterness towards the South was more pronounced than has been traditionally thought.

Indeed, quite in contrast to his reliance upon Psalm 19 in the Second Inaugural, Lincoln used a biblical allusion in a letter to William T. Sherman after the latter’s capture of Savannah in late December of 1864 to make a stark division between North and South. Said Lincoln, “it [viz., Sherman’s “March to the Sea” from Atlanta to Savannah] brings those who sat in darkness, to see a great light” (Basler VIII, p. 183). The reference is to Matthew 4:16: “The people which sat in darkness saw great light; and to them which sat in the region and shadow of death light is sprung up.” Here we have the image of a crusading Union army that brought Christianity and freedom in its wake, an image that emerged in the Battle Hymn. Lincoln was reacting against this millennialism in his “Meditation.” By early 1865, he was prepared to make his own contribution to its propagation.

Ultimately, however, the narrative of national redemption that Lincoln had forged in his public speeches prevailed. Henry Ward Beecher’s letter to Lincoln of February 4, 1865 articulated the widespread conviction amongst Northern theologians that the Union was favored by God, a conviction that was only strengthened after emancipation became an irrevocable Union war aim. Beecher insisted, “[s]o that the inside of the hand is solid bone, I am willing to have the outside flesh soft as velvet” (Basler VIII, p. 318). He continued, “The north is renovated. Heresy is purged out. Treason is wounded to the death. Our Constitution has felt the hand of God laid upon it, as He said, ‘Be thou clean’ & the leprosy [sic] is departed.” By the time he came to deliver his Second Inaugural, Lincoln seems to have felt the same way, with some modifications to Beecher’s tone. His genius was to emphasize his own conviction that the Union’s suffering was regenerative rather than gratuitous, and to do so in moving prose. Though he eventually came to the belief that God favored the Union, or at least Union war aims, over the Confederacy, Lincoln also modified how that belief was articulated.

Indeed, Writing to New York political broker Thurlow Weed two weeks after the Second Inaugural was delivered he said, “I believe it is not immediately popular. Men are not flattered by being shown there has been a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them. To deny it, however, in this case, is to deny that there is a God governing the world” (Basler VIII, p. 356). Northern theologians could not be trusted to see that his reference to the hypocrisy of petitioning a “just God” for the destruction of an enemy was oriented toward the South. His speech, as Lincoln surely knew, was notable for its lack of Northern triumphalism. In this sense, the Second Inaugural was Lincoln’s attempt to moderate his conclusion that the North was theologically right and the South was theologically wrong. The next chapter will make clear the danger that Northern millennialism posed to this attempt, and with it Lincoln’s redemptive role in American history.

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

Introduction

“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.

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.

Lincoln, Luther, and The Crisis of Identity

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” (Erikson, pp. 17-18). This observation, borrowed from the discipline of psychoanalysis, has tremendous implications for American history. “Planful work” enabled Lincoln to overcome the most grueling trial his chronic depression posed. For Lincoln, the work to which he devoted himself became inseparable from his identity and his existence.

Lincoln 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. This change, together with the temporary eclipse of Lincoln’s political fortunes and the dissolution of his engagement to Mary Todd, drove him into a depressive crisis 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 Lincoln’s pathological need for an emotional coping mechanism. 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.” This thesis is an attempt to describe how Lincoln turned his patienthood, his “passion for expressing and describing suffering,” into a politial asset, and how Northern triumphalism threatened Lincoln’s psychological recovery.

After recovering, 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, 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.” 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” (Speed’s “nervous temperament” being the “general cause” to which Lincoln referred above).

These passages demonstrate that, in addition to feeling an unusual amount of solicitude for his close friends, Lincoln also had an uncanny 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. Furthermore, 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.” Writing in December of 1862 to young Fanny McCullough, who was in mourning for her father (a close friend of Lincoln’s from his days as clerk of the McClean Country Court House in Bloomington who had been killed outside Coffeeville, Mississippi) the president said, “You can not [sic] now realize that you will ever feel better. Is not this so? And yet it is a mistake. You are sure to be happy again. To know this, which is certainly true, will make you some less miserable now. I have had experience enough to know what I say.” I think 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.

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; 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. 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. 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, 8). In this sense the emergence of slavery expansion 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. As Shenk has noted, this cause was 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 of 1857 met Lincoln’s psychological, as well as his political, needs.

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. This plunged him in to the second of his two major depressive episodes. Erikson detects in the stories of Luther’s first Mass as an Augustinian novitiate a similar identity crisis. At one point during the service Luther is reported to have fallen to his knees, screaming “Ich bin’s nit!” (“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 men faced moments at which their lives seemed utterly deprived of meaning. Historical forces beyond their control (in Luther’s case, disillusionment with the Catholic Church) 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? 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. Erikson writes that such 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 in 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 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, 339). There is a characteristically Lincolnian sense of irony to this statement (recall that the Gettysburg Address claimed, “the world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here”). 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 the historical stature to which he would ascend over the course of the next seven years. He 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, 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, 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, 346). The work to which Lincoln devoted himself had overwhelmed his identity crisis.