The Second Inaugural had many antecedents. Investigating those antecedents provides a more nuanced understanding of Lincoln’s theological development during the Civil War than if the Second Inaugural were read on its own.
Lincoln 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, 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, 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, 496-497).
Lincoln’s “Meditation,” composed after the Confederate victory at Second Bull Run in December of 1862, was more agnostic. Then Lincoln had written, “In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party.” By late 1863 he became less reluctant to speak on God’s behalf. “[W]ith humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience,” he wrote in his Proclamation, Union supporters “fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purpose to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.” The implication was that God intended the suffering of the Civil War to lead to a peaceful, harmonious, and tranquil Union, which was impossible as long as slavery set the North and the South against each other. According to this narrative, the Civil War was a redemptive event for the United States, oriented towards future greatness as well as the past wrongs. A “Proclamation of a Day of Prayer” issued June 7, 1864 demanded that Union supporters forego “obstinate adhesion to our own counsels, which may be in conflict with His eternal purposes” while also “humbly believing that it is in accordance with His will that our place should be maintained as a united people among the family of nations” (Basler VII, 431). Unlike the “Meditation,” the first clause, in its context, rings hollow.
For Lincoln, however, repentance was a major feature of Christianity, one that had value for the Union as it moved toward Reconstruction, for it pertained to future rather than past behavior. 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, 169, emphasis in the original). 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, 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.
On October 22 of 1863 the Washington National Republican provided an account of an interview between Lincoln and a delegation from the New School Presbyterian Synod. The president reportedly considered it a “heavy responsibility” that “liberty and religion…be maintained” (Basler VI, 531). Addressing wounded soldiers in May of 1863, Lincoln had compared secession to Satan’s disobedience of God, thereby making the Southern cause a threat against religious as well as civic harmony (Basler VI, 226-227). The dissonance between these statements and the Lincoln of the “Meditation” may be partly attributable to the audience for whom they were intended. The first two were meant for northern Protestants and Union veterans, respectively, whereas the third was kept in Lincoln’s desk until his personal secretaries John Hay and John Nicolay published it after the assassination. Nevertheless, it is clear that Lincoln grew more theologically confident as the war progressed. He was, at the very least, capable of speaking with two different theological voices.
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, 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. “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, 535-536). According to Gideon Welles’s diary, Lincoln insisted that McClellan’s victory at Antietam signified to the president that “God had decided this issue [emancipation] in favor of the slaves.” 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. 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, 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 slaves], I trust they will remember that God has” (Basler VII, 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 roll 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, 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, 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, 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.
As interesting as Lincoln’s theological assertiveness is his uncharacteristic allusions to the afterlife. Alongside his letter to Alexander Reed and his response to serenaders after the Battle of Gettysburg can be placed the Cincinnati Gazette’s account of his “Reply to John Conness upon Presentation of a Cane.” The senator from California called upon the president in order to pass along a gift he had received from his deceased predecessor David Colbert Broderick. On this occasion Lincoln reportedly said, “Whether remaining in this world or looking down upon earth from the spirit land, to be remembered by such a man as David C. Broderick was a fact he would remember through all the years of his life” (Basler VII, 13). As phrased, it is ambiguous whether Lincoln meant to refer to himself or Broderick in the first clause. Regardless, Lincoln began to give indications during the second half of his presidency that he was at least willing to entertain the idea of an afterlife. His “Order for Observance of Mourning for Caleb B. Smith,” for instance, noted that the “late Secretary of the Interior…has departed this life” (Basler VII, 118).
Further evidence for Lincoln’s evolving opinions about life after death and his understanding of the theological duties of his office comes from an interview he held with Alexander W. Randall and Joseph T. Mills on August 19, 1864. Writing in his diary, Mills quoted the president as saying, “There have been men who proposed to me to return to slavery the black warriors of Port Hudson & Olustee to their masters to conciliate the South. I should be damned in time & in eternity for so doing” (Basler VII, 507). Here again we see Lincoln’s affinity for broaching the prospect of eternal damnation should he waver on the issue of emancipation. Even more evident is the success with which Lincoln conveyed his understanding of the war’s religious significance and of his role within it. Mills wrote: The President appeared to be not the pleasant joker I had expected to see, but a man of deep convictions & an unutterable yearning for the success of the Union cause…As I heard a vindication of his policy from his own lips, I could not but feel that his mind grew in stature like his body, & that I stood in the presence of the great guiding intellect of the age, & that those huge Atlantian shoulders were fit to bear the weight of mightiest monarchies. His transparent honesty, his republican simplicity, his gushing sympathy for those who offered their lives for their country, his utter forgetfulness of self in his concern for his country, could not but inspire me with confidence, that he was Heavens [sic] instrument to conduct his people thro [sic] this red sea of blood to a Canaan of peace & freedom (Basler VII, 507). After the assassination Lincoln was cast as a Christ-like figure whose death redeemed the nation’s sins. Here we see that the convention of viewing Lincoln in a biblical role predated his death, and was to a large extent facilitated by the president himself.
Lincoln continued to combine 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, 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, 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.