Abraham Lincoln and the Almost Chosen People
Gilder Lehrman Lecture, Cold War Studies Centre,
London School of Economics, 7 March 2006
© richard carwardine, March 2006
A short stroll from here, on a granite pedestal in Parliament Square, there stands a bronze statue of Abraham Lincoln. You may be aware that it is a copy of an original, the work of Augustus Saint Gaudens, located in Lincoln Park, Chicago. Depicting the sixteenth president in contemplative mode, it impressively lives up to its title of ‘Lincoln the Man’.
The replica, ‘a gift of the American people’, was unveiled in July 1920 under the auspices of the Anglo-American Society. Lord Bryce presided over a public meeting at Central Hall, Westminster, at which the American ambassador – the ex-Secretary of State, Elihu Root – made a speech of presentation. The Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, responded, accepting the statue on behalf of the British people. A procession of worthies then made its way to the Canning enclosure, on the west side of Parliament Square, where the Duke of Connaught, the president of the Anglo-American Society, unveiled the monument. The choir of Westminster Abbey sang the ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’; American Civil War veterans laid a wreath; and the proceedings concluded with the British national anthem.
This episode was just one manifestation, during the years of the Great War and its aftermath, of what George Bernard Shaw described as a ‘cult of Lincoln’ amongst the British, particularly amongst liberals. This was the period when a replica of George Barnard’s Cincinnati statue of a rugged, angular, rough-hewn Lincoln was placed in Manchester: known as the ‘stomach ache statue’, since Lincoln’s hands unintentionally suggest a man troubled with colic, it commemorates the president’s tribute to suffering Lancashire mill-operatives during the wartime cotton famine. A little later, David Lloyd George, by then an ex-prime minister, made a triumphal tour of North America. Feted as a wartime statesman of ‘almost superhuman’ character (as the New York Times put it), he spent what he called ‘a glorious day’ visiting the Kentucky birthplace of his life-long hero; a little later, like other European pilgrims, he journeyed to pay his respects at Lincoln’s tomb at Oak Ridge cemetery in Springfield.
Even before the Great War ended, the poet John Drinkwater had published a celebratory play, Abraham Lincoln, the first effective stage dramatization of Lincoln’s life. It opened in Birmingham in 1918 and, at Arnold Bennett’s instigation, transferred with ‘spectacular success’ to London, to the Lyric, Hammersmith. As a piece of history, the play is decidedly shaky. And much of the characterization is stereotypical (ludicrously so in the case of Frederick Douglass, the pre-eminent black abolitionist, who speaks in a form of pigeon English: ‘Mista Lincoln great friend of my people … My people much to learn. ... Ignorant, frightened, suspicious people. But born free bodies. Free. I born slave, Mista Lincoln. No man understand who not born slave.’). However, complete with a verse-speaking chorus, the play provided a stirring portrait of a president weighed down, but not defeated, by the pressures of war. Although the part of Lincoln himself was incongruously played by an actor with an Irish brogue, it was reported that ‘All Mayfair went to see it. Hammersmith became a nightly pilgrimage for the West End.’ The play ran for hundreds of performances, crossed the Atlantic, and was several times revived in London over the next decade.
Drinkwater’s inspiration was one of the earliest and most durable of all the scholarly lives of Abraham Lincoln, that by Godfrey Rathbone Benson, Lord Charnwood. In that study, published during the course of the Great War, in 1916, the Oxford-educated Charnwood brought a sympathetic eye to bear on Lincoln’s moral purpose, while avoiding the hagiography that had marked so many earlier biographies of the Great Emancipator. It remains a discerning study. Charnwood told his readers to seize on Lincoln as an example of what wise, determined and noble leadership might achieve. The author’s English bearings prompted the occasional local allusion: he cast the American state governors as ‘independent potentates acting usually in as much detachment from … [the nation’s President] as the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford … from the Board of Education’. But Charnwood’s essential vision was not provincial. It was panoramic, even universal: the Liberal peer attributed to Lincoln a main role in what he called the ‘wider cause of human good’. Here was a plain, coarse tongued master of political cunning whose honesty, intellectual rigour and moral determination fashioned ‘a statesman guided in shifting circumstances by great [democratic and emancipatory] principles’ – a leader driven by ‘a larger philosophy than that of simple abolitionism’: ‘His statesmanship stands out as a singular instance of what the Greeks were after when they dreamt of a “philosopher king.”’
In the post-war world of Versailles and national reconstruction, others seized on Charnwood’s Lincoln to fashion a figure of universal, and not local, relevance. Lincoln – the tragic, humble, Christ-like figure of history – had shown an exemplary devotion to democracy and freedom. ‘He hit us’, Arnold Bennett said, ‘in our historical Puritan’s wind. He seemed to incarnate our purpose, our usefulness, our sacrifice … This nobility – was it not ours? This man of government of the people by the people for the people – was this not the new order promised by our politicians, nay actually being made in Paris by the peoples’ representatives? And so Lincoln became the stuff our dreams are made of.’
Even the Times, which during Lincoln’s presidency had been scornful at best, now recanted: ‘We know now, as neither [his countrymen] nor we could then discern, that to him was given vision; and the measure of our present reverence is the measure of an earlier incomprehension. Here in England we … should find in him inspiration[,] … in the impartial and comprehensive quality of his mind, … in the deep sanity and distinction of his character.’ In the charity and ambition of Lincoln’s second inaugural address, a prospectus for post-Civil War reconstruction, lay a prescription for the regeneration of the western world in the aftermath of a war to make the world ‘safe for democracy’.
No one made more of Lincoln’s ‘universal significance in history’ than John Drinkwater, in a set of essays addressed to the English-speaking world, and which spelt out the underlying idealism of his play. Lincoln: The World Emancipator (not history but a romantic prospectus), presented Lincoln as a supreme exponent of ‘the great principle of individual liberty within national unity’; as the embodiment and inspiration of ‘a profound community of constitutional method and ideal’ now offered the chance to shape ‘the present affairs of the world’. Drinkwater articulated the shared self-understanding of Britons and Americans as joint defenders of progressive, democratic government. As Lloyd George put it: ‘[Lincoln] is one of those giant figures, of whom there are very few in history, who lose their nationality in death.’
Now there are indeed elements in Lincoln’s moral philosophy and political achievement whose broad, near-universal, relevance help explain the appetite with which those in other societies and later generations have seized on him as a model. Let me set out the key elements of that philosophy and achievement.
In essence, Lincoln’s social and moral project was to construct an enterprising, commercially prosperous nation in which, under the equal operation of republican laws, each and every citizen would enjoy the right to rise and get the education needed to seize the chances presented by a fluid and expanding society.
The logic of Lincoln's economic thought dictated a social and moral order at odds with southern slavery. 'I am naturally anti-slavery,' Lincoln later wrote. 'If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel.' His argument drew especially on the doctrines of natural rights and human equality set out in the nation’s founding texts. All men, black and white, should be free to enjoy the fruits of their own work. Free labour offered the prospect of 'improvement in condition' and kept the social order fluid. Lincoln had no fear of a permanent proletariat: he saw no insuperable barriers to the social progress of any free, enterprising and conscientious working man. Slavery, however, the enemy of this kind of economic meritocracy, stifled individual enterprise in both planters and slaves, and sustained a fundamental inequality: depriving human beings of the just rewards of their labour.
In 1854 Stephen Douglas's Kansas-Nebraska Act opened up the western territories to slavery’s expansion. From a position of historical defensiveness, the South’s peculiar institution now appeared likely to swamp the nation. The Act set Lincoln on a course that would culminate in his election to the presidency in 1860, as the candidate of a Republican party united on the principle of quarantining slavery.
The sharp clarity with which Lincoln identified the larger ethical issues at stake in the Nebraska Act thrilled his hearers, including radicals who had not previously considered him a kindred spirit. As well as engaging in a Union-threatening piece of political perfidy, Lincoln argued, Douglas had reversed the 'settled policy' of the republic at a stroke. Douglas's 'popular sovereignty', he insisted, assumed a moral neutrality towards slavery, leaving it to local communities to decide the issue for themselves – with reference only to their material self-interest. Douglas’s claim that the Nebraska Act had established 'the sacred right of self-government' ran aground on the rocks of African American manhood: ‘If the negro is a man, why then my ancient faith teaches me that "all men are created equal;" and that there can be no moral right in connection with one man's making a slave of another.'
The Declaration of Independence, in which he rooted his arguments, was for Lincoln a near-sanctified statement of universal principles, and one that squared with essential elements of his personal religious faith: belief in a God who had created all men equal and whose relations with mankind were based on the principles of justice.
Lincoln was clear enough where the Bible’s principles led: '"Give to him that is needy" is the Christian rule of charity; but "Take from him that is needy is the rule of slavery.' He was scornful of southern divines like the Presbyterian Frederick A. Ross, who had constructed a proslavery theology that concluded, as Lincoln put it, that 'it is better for some people to be slaves; and, in such cases, it is the Will of God that they be such.' But how was God's will to be established? Suppose Ross had a slave named Sambo. To the question 'Is it the Will of God that Sambo shall remain a slave, or be set free?' God 'gives no audible answer' and the Bible, his revelation, 'gives none, or, at most, none but such as admits of a squabble, as to its meaning.' But the fact that the question was to be resolved by Dr Ross, who 'sits in the shade, with gloves on his hands, and subsists on the bread that Sambo is earning in the burning sun', gave little confidence that he would 'be actuated by that perfect impartiality, which has ever been considered most favorable to correct decisions.'
Lincoln’s election to the presidency in 1860 did nothing to alter his hostility to slavery but – by provoking the secession of seven states of the deep South – did everything to change his political priorities. He had expected his chief presidential task to be to stand firm on the quarantining of slavery. In practice events had determined that his challenge would be the enforced reunion of a fractured nation. Yet Lincoln’s underlying vision did not change.
There are a number of strands in the rope which bound Lincoln resolutely to the Union. There was his profound faith in the nation’s material potential. Far more often, however, Lincoln celebrated the political purpose of the Union and the moral magnificence of the nation’s free institutions. The United States enjoyed a unique and unprecedented liberty. 'Most governments have been based, practically, on the denial of equal rights of men...; ours began, by affirming those rights. They said, some men are too ignorant, and vicious, to share in government. Possibly so, said we; and, by your system, you would always keep them ignorant, and vicious. We proposed to give all a chance; and we expected the weak to grow stronger, the ignorant, wiser; and all better, and happier together.' Lincoln, then, gave the American Union a special role in history. As a beacon of liberty to all, it was 'the world's best hope'.
Thus, when the South Carolinians turned their guns on Fort Sumter in April 1861 they raised an issue which embraced, in Lincoln's words, 'more than the fate of these United States. It presents to the whole family of man, the question, whether a constitutional republic, or a democracy - a government of the people, by the same people - can, or cannot, maintain its territorial integrity, against its own domestic foes. For Lincoln the rebellion had to be put down to prove to the world that popular government could be maintained against internal attempts at overthrow, ‘that those who can fairly carry an election, can also suppress a rebellion’.
Here is the key to the vision that sustained Lincoln throughout his presidency. The Union vessel was important only for the cargo it carried: liberty, equality, and a meritocratic society. During the war, Lincoln came to see that, in order to preserve that cargo, he had to embrace the emancipation of the slaves. Many, then and since, judge this and his other acts relating to slavery to have been sluggish, grudging and partial. The case runs as follows:
Lincoln made no mention of slavery when he defined the Administration’s purpose early in the conflict. During the first year of the war he overturned military proclamations that freed the slaves of rebel masters; he sacked his Secretary of War for publicly proposing the arming of black soldiers; and he continued to cherish schemes of compensated emancipation and the colonizing of free blacks overseas. When Horace Greeley published his 'Prayer of Twenty Million', calling on the President to grasp the nettle of emancipation, Lincoln's reply seemed only to confirm his cautious pragmatism: 'My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery.' The Emancipation Proclamation, when finally issued, on New Year's Day, 1863 applied only to those areas still in rebel hands: it freed only those slaves over whom it could have no immediate influence. It accepted the arming of black Americans not out of principle but only because the Union army desperately needed men.
The problem with this assessment is that it neglects the political constraints on Lincoln’s freedom of action. His priority in the early stages of the war was to prevent the remaining tier of slave states in the upper South from leaving the Union: their loss would have sealed the fate of the Union, given their rich resources. Had Lincoln declared the removal of slavery a war aim, Missouri, Maryland and (most seriously) Kentucky, would have been lost. His dalliance with compensated emancipation and colonization has to be seen in this context, and against a background of deep-rooted northern racism. That the Emancipation Proclamation did not apply to slave-holding areas under Union control was a mark not of Lincoln’s cynicism but of his understanding of the constitutional basis of the Proclamation – namely, as a measure of military policy which he was free to take as commander-in-chief: by definition it should not apply to those areas no longer in revolt. Lincoln’s stance over the two years after he had issued the Proclamation is significant for his determination to follow through its logic: in the arming of black troops, in the invocation of ‘a new birth of freedom’ in the majesty of the Gettysburg Address, and in energetic efforts to secure a constitutional amendment to end slavery. On the eve of his death, Lincoln was proposing that certain categories of freedmen be given the vote.
The emancipator, the moral exemplar, the democrat, the exponent of the principles encoded in the Declaration of Independence: these were the models which prompted international appreciation of Lincoln and elicited tributes to his breadth of vision and understanding.
There is, however, another aspect to Lincoln, one with a much more potent domestic than international appeal. The reality is that Lincoln’s presidential achievement was also constructed upon his harnessing of a potent American nationalism, a willingness to tap into the deep well-springs of a specifically American patriotism. Let me illustrate this with a snapshot.
On the morning of 21 February 1861 Abraham Lincoln stood to address the New Jersey Senate in the state house at Trenton. By now the president-elect was entering the eleventh day of an exhausting and roundabout journey that had brought him by rail from his Springfield home by way of civic and legislative gatherings in sundry towns and cities across Indiana, Ohio and New York. He would, the next day, on the anniversary of George Washington’s birth, travel on to Philadelphia and Harrisburg, and indeed would notoriously complete his journey to the nation’s capital by night-time stealth, to avoid what the Pinkerton detective agents deemed a real risk of assassination.
Lincoln made this journey east conscious that he would take office in what had become, since his election three months earlier, a deeply fractured Union. The Republicans’ victory in that presidential contest had prompted the separationist gallop of the lower South, whose seven states had passed ordinances of secession by 1 February. Indeed, just a week before Lincoln had made his farewell to friends and neighbours in Springfield, representatives of six of those states met at Montgomery, Alabama, to lay the basis of the southern Confederacy.
By the time Lincoln reached the New Jersey state capital he had already spoken dozens of times, on some occasions with a prepared speech, more often with just a few inconsequential remarks made from the platform of his railroad car. Borne from the Trenton depot by open carriage, and accompanied by mounted marshals, through muddied streets lined with the cheering crowds, Lincoln arrived at a senate chamber which, according to his secretary John Hay, was ‘already thronged’. Yet, ‘by some system of compression imperfectly known to me, room was made for the half hundred or more that the special train had brought’, and the chamber resounded to cries of ‘Down in front’ and ‘Hats off’. Lincoln’s eventual appearance prompted a tumult of applause, ‘lasting several minutes’. As the gathering settled into silence, Lincoln turned to his carefully prepared text.
‘I cannot but remember the place that New-Jersey holds in our early history’, he began. ‘[A]way back in my childhood … I got hold of a small book, … “Weem's Life of Washington.”' I remember all the accounts there given of the battle fields and struggles for the liberties of the country, and none fixed themselves upon my imagination so deeply as the struggle here at Trenton …. The crossing of the river; the contest with the Hessians; the great hardships endured at that time … I recollect thinking then, boy even though I was, that there must have been something more than common that those men struggled for. I am exceedingly anxious that that thing which they struggled for; that something even more than National Independence; …this Union, the Constitution, and the liberties of the people shall be perpetuated in accordance with the original idea for which that struggle was made, and I shall be most happy indeed if I shall be an humble instrument in the hands of the Almighty, and of this, his almost chosen people, for perpetuating the object of that great struggle.’
This resort to a form of sacred language had not been Lincoln’s conventional or natural mode of address in his pre-presidential speeches. The allusion to Americans as a ‘chosen people’, albeit with some qualification and hesitancy, was not one that came easily to Lincoln’s lips. But it was of a piece with the themes and tone of his speeches as he travelled east. In his first remarks of substance, at Lafayette, Indiana, he reflected: 'While some of us may differ in political opinion', the common bonds of 'christianity, civilization and patriotism' ensured that 'we are all united in one feeling for the Union.' Thereafter he continued to harness the common religious sensibilities of his audience by pointedly stressing his dependence on (sequentially) 'Divine Providence', 'God', 'the Providence of God', 'that God who has never forsaken this people', 'the Divine Power, without whose aid we can do nothing', 'that Supreme Being who has never forsaken this favored land', 'the Maker of the Universe', 'the Almighty', and 'Almighty God'. And these themes (in language that played on the ‘sacred sources of national identity’) converged with particular clarity in his address to the New Jersey Senate.
They would shortly find expression in the new president’s inaugural address, through which Lincoln appealed for patience to allow for the workings of 'intelligence, patriotism, Christianity, and a firm reliance on Him, who has never yet forsaken this favored land', and drew to a close by affirming the nation's bonds of affection: 'The mystic chords of memory, stre[t]ching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.'
Lincoln’s rhetoric was in part a measure of his need to appeal above and beyond party, and to find a language in which to do so (‘You give me this reception,’ he said, ‘as I understand, without distinction of party. I learn that this body is composed of a majority of gentlemen who, in the exercise of their best judgment in the choice of a Chief Magistrate, did not think I was the man. I understand, nevertheless, that they came forward here …as citizens of the United States, to meet the man who, for the time being, is the representative man of the nation, united by a purpose to perpetuate the Union and liberties of the people’). Lincoln’s resort to religious language was surely also a reflection of human pressure that he felt as he left his home of twenty-five years to face the Union’s most serious crisis.
It is not my purpose here to explore the evidence relating to Lincoln’s faith, or his lack of it, in his early and middle years. Given his taciturnity and the absence of any private journal, there is far too much room for unedifying speculation. My judgment is that the young Lincoln, while no atheist, was influenced by the works of Tom Paine and other deists; but that as a husband, father and established lawyer during the 1840s and 1850s he drew closer to the orbit of conventional Protestant Christianity, evincing a faith which owed something to Universalism and Unitarianism, but which did not shake off the Calvinistic fatalism under whose influence he had been raised as a boy. Whatever Lincoln’s religious views on the eve of his presidency, his wartime experience encouraged an increasing profundity of faith. Not only did he feel a sense of personal responsibility for a war of unimagined savagery, but the conflict brought him trials closer to home: the death of friends and close colleagues, and above all the loss through typhoid of his son, Willie, in February 1862. He attended public worship more habitually than ever before. He found in his darkest nights increasing solace in the scriptures; on one occasion Elizabeth Keckley, Mary Lincoln’s seamstress, curious to see what particular Bible passages he was reading, crept behind him and found him deep in the book of Job. Before the war, Lincoln regarded superintending providence as a remote and mechanistic power, but under the pressure of events he exchanged that providence for an active and more personal God, an intrusively judgmental figure, one more mysterious and less predictable than the ruling force it superseded.
Lincoln made several public theological forays during his presidency. Between the summer of 1861 and the autumn of 1864, he issued nine separate proclamations appointing days of national fasting, humiliation and prayer, and of thanksgiving, many of them prompted by moments of despair or elation occasioned by battlefield events. In addition, several of his public letters and responses to visiting clergy, provided the public with a strong sense of the president’s understanding of the workings of the Almighty. Most notable of all, Lincoln’s inquiry in his second inaugural address into the meaning of the war gave the speech the character of a sermon. Collectively these writings present three major lines of thought: every nation was a moral being with duties; God’s purposes were wise and mysterious; and the American Union, under God, promised to be an agent of moral and political transfiguration.
Lincoln’s Calvinistic frame of thought prompted him to conceive of the Almighty as the ruler of nations as well as of men; to identify nations as moral entities equally as capable of transgressions against the divine law as the individuals who composed them. Thus, he explained, ‘nations like individuals are subjected to punishments and chastisements in this world.’ Lincoln made clear his conviction that the nation’s continuing trials related specifically to its perpetuating the wrong of slavery. God’s punishment of the nation for slavery, Lincoln frequently reflected, was part of the Almighty’s purposes, which were, he declared, ‘mysterious and unknown to us’. He offered no clearer and more memorable statement of his views than in two remarkable letters to Eliza P. Gurney, of the Society of Friends. ‘If I had had my way,’ he said, eighteen months into a conflict to which he could see no imminent conclusion, ‘this war would have been ended before this, but we find it still continues; and we must believe that [God] permits it for some wise purpose of his own’. Two years later, shortly after William Tecumseh Sherman had transformed the Union’s military prospects by taking Atlanta, Lincoln told her: ‘The purposes of the Almighty are perfect, and must prevail, though we erring mortals may fail accurately to perceive them in advance. We hoped for a happy termination of this terrible war long before this; but God knows best, and has ruled otherwise. … Surely He intends some great good to follow this mighty convulsion, which no mortal could make, and no mortal could stay.’
However mysterious God’s purposes, then, and however disobedient the nation, there was reason to believe that a purified Union would emerge from the fiery trial of war. Lincoln’s thanksgiving proclamations marvelled at the ‘the gracious gifts of the Most High God’ who had delivered ‘fruitful fields’, productive industry, an increasing population, and reasons ‘to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.’ At the dedication of the Gettysburg cemetery, he memorably reformulated this idea in a non-scriptural rhetoric of salvation and renewal: for loyal Unionists the great task was to ‘resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.’
Lincoln’s theology – with its strain of humility and remarkable lack of self-righteousness – stands in some contrast to that of the mainstream Union pulpits, mostly confident that God was on their side. Yet Lincoln and the loyal northern Protestant clergy largely spoke in a common theological language, and this would be a matter of considerable political, not just theological, significance.
Lincoln's call in April 1861 to put down the rebellion generally drew northern Protestants onto a common platform. Pre-war conservative conciliators and radical higher-law evangelicals now united in 'a great people's war for Christian democracy'. This was a unity qualified by a few principled pacifists – Quakers and Mennonites – and by guarded dissenters, but the vast majority of northern Protestant clergy trumpeted their support for a war to prevent national annihilation. One editor doubted if in the history of the world so many pulpits had thundered against rebellion as on the last Sunday of the first month of the war.
Those pulpits then, and during the rest of the conflict, helped crystallize ideas about the nature and meaning of the American nation. Protestant leaders strove to make sense of unfolding events. Nations, they knew, had a primary and essential place in God’s moral economy. He worked through them to achieve his purposes. He was the supreme arbiter of their affairs. Every nation’s days were numbered, but no nation would die until its purposes were achieved.
Few, though, conceded that the American Union faced imminent destruction; indeed, none doubted that God had chosen the nation for special favour and a particular role. In ‘the finest territory on the face of the globe’, America had reached ‘a state of advanced civilization’, separated from ‘the discordant … elements of the old world’. Americans enjoyed 'the richest inheritance of civil and religious freedom ever bequeathed to any nation in ancient or modern times'. They were guided by ‘the best government that was ever constituted since the world began’. America had a mission that would see her ‘conquer the world’. This was no conventional lust for conquest. As a latter-day Israel, America’s role was to serve, by example, the welfare of the whole human race. This made the rebellion of the South not only political treason against the secular nation, but profanity, or treason against God. .
Protestants used the Pauline doctrine of obedience to civil rulers – ‘Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers’ – to show that there could, ordinarily, ‘be no such thing as a Christian rebel’. Secondly, they celebrated the ‘the grand providential purposes’ for which God had raised up their Christian republic. They were fighting, one said, ‘for free government … in all lands for all ages to come. Ancient republics stand on the page of history as discouraging failures… and the modern republics … in the old world, have gone down in blood. Our government was organized …with the conservative element of Christian faith to give stability to [the] work. If [it] … is cast down …, when may mankind be expected to repeat the experiment?'
If the Confederacy represented 'the vilest treason ever known since the great secession from heaven' – despatching Jefferson Davis to the same quarters as Lucifer – then the question arose: why was God putting the whole nation through this time of trial? For many the war was part of a testing process of discipline characteristic of America’s history. As Israel had been chastised, to purge corruption, so the rigours of the early colonial settlements and the Revolution itself had helped ‘purify’ the American nation. And what above all explained the nation’s paroxysm was its complicity in the peculiar institution. As a visiting group of Chicago clergy told Lincoln in September 1862, the Almighty had ‘bared his arm in behalf of the American slave’ and now commanded the nation’s rulers as He once had ordered Pharaoh: ‘Let my people go!’
Yet, whatever punishment God might mete out, there were no grounds for despair. Out of the severity of war would come a transfigured nation. Homer Dunning fused Christ and the Union: ‘I rejoice to be with the nation, when … on its Calvary it is crucified by its own children. … Our children and children’s children will speak of 1861, as we speak of 1776 … And when the nation shall have … covered the continent; when it shall have overmastered the monster of slavery, and … when it shall stand up … transfigured with Divine beauty for the doing of God’s will, men will give thanks to God for this great and sore trial.’
Dunning’s words remind us that many antislavery Protestants who would not have considered themselves abolitionists before the war soon saw that the logic of events would turn the conflict into an assault on slavery. By the summer of 1864 even Old School Presbyterians had come to the view that for the preservation of ‘our national life ... slavery should be at once and for ever abolished’.
The logic of evangelicals’ understanding of events culminated in the certainty that, as one Episcopalian simply put it, ‘God is with us; … the Lord of Hosts is on our side.’ Without question, God was against the rebels: how could He possibly ‘smile upon rebellion, treason, and a nationality with slavery as its corner-stone’, a Methodist editor asked. A few preachers warned against hubris and self-righteousness. As Charles Fowler put it, ‘The only way to get God on our side is to get on his side.’ But usually this appetite for self-criticism co-existed with a belief in the North’s moral superiority. A myriad northern pulpits deemed the Union to be engaged in a ‘sacred cause … hallowed with … [the] blood’ of its ‘best and noblest sons’. The North’s sins were stains that could be washed away, but the Confederacy’s were systemic evils removable only by destroying the body itself. ‘It is not merely war between sections, between North and South, between Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis’, explained one Methodist minister. ‘It is war between God on one side, a gigantic wrong on the other.’
If Unionist Protestants were commonly more confident than Lincoln that God was on their side, in other respects, as this summary suggests, the themes of the President’s public theology harmonised well with their own. Both he and they knew that nations had a place in the Almighty’s moral economy; both conceived of an interventionist God; both understood the Union, under divine providence, to amount to more than a glorious experiment in liberty and republicanism; both understood slavery to compromise that design.
This broad congruence between Lincoln’s public theology and that of religious loyalists had rich meaning for the wartime politics of the Union. Mainstream Protestants embraced Lincoln as one of them; Lincoln worked energetically to mobilise the churches behind the war effort. Amongst the complex of ingredients that made for the Union’s eventual victory, none was more important than its capacity to sustain popular patriotism, despite the enormous cost in human suffering. Without a regenerating patriotism during this protracted trial the Lincoln administration would have foundered on the rocks of war weariness, as both Confederates and northern peace Democrats confidently but mistakenly predicted. The White House understood the importance of harnessing a range of voluntary organisations to this end: these included the political parties and the Federal army, but none was more potent as a moral influence than the nation’s churches. Of these, none could match the power of evangelical Protestantism – the millions of Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists and others, who made up the country’s most formidable religious grouping.
Lincoln thus strove to maintain good relations with church leaders. He met a full gamut of religious visitors who came to lecture him, offer opinions, seek appointments, or pay their respects. They included nationally-renowned preachers, well-placed editors of mass-circulation papers, and distinguished abolitionists. There were representatives of the agencies devoted to the well-being of soldiers. Lincoln held meetings with Sabbatarians, Temperance men, and Covenanters seeking a Christian amendment to the federal constitution. Some critics missed the political value of these meetings. 'I wish that [General] Halleck would put a Guard on the White House to keep out the Committees of preachers [and] Grannies … that absorb Lincoln's time and thought', grumbled General Sherman. But Lincoln himself recognized that these meetings served a larger political purpose.
For their part, thousands of Union clergy saw in Lincoln a president who warranted respect, even admiration, not simply ex officio but because they found in him qualities to be extolled. There was no personal cult of Lincoln. Yet popular perceptions of Lincoln mattered in sustaining the Union administration as a whole. And those perceptions were shaped to an extent by preachers who used their position to review the president’s qualities, and to place him within the divine economy. Scrutinizing Lincoln’s character and demeanour, loyal clergy mostly provided a counter-weight to popular impatience over the Union’s snail-like progress on the battlefield and over what was deemed the paralysis of the administration itself. In sermons, tracts and newspapers Protestant ministers told of the president’s admirable honesty, determination, integrity, and unflinching patriotism.
In a quintessential example of loyal preaching, the Methodist George Peck delivered a two-hour sermon on a text from the book of Nehemiah, in which he ingeniously turned Nehemiah into ‘the president of the country’ beset by secessionist rebels who sought to prevent its rebuilding. Peck transparently wants his audience to view Lincoln in the precise terms in which he describes ‘President Nehemiah’: ‘a man of great executive ability’; of ‘great courage, great prudence, and a profound knowledge of human nature’; ‘a man of much prayer, and great faith in God’, whose ‘puritan rule’ elicited the contempt of ‘secessionists’ who ‘don’t pray much’, but ‘curse and swear and never work’; ‘a most obstinate man’ in the face of political mischief; ‘a man of a thousand’ who ‘could not violate his conscience’ and whom ‘[n]either force nor fraud, threats nor flattery, could jostle … a hair’s breadth’.
This approving association of Lincoln with what his critics disparaged as ‘puritanism’ – that is, the conscience-driven evangelicalism of New England and its diaspora – derived in part from the president’s setting aside more days for national religious observance, including the first ever national thanksgiving, than any of his predecessors, many of whom had jibbed at a practice which seemed to trespass on the separation of church and state.
Although Lincoln continued to disappoint those hoping he would confess Christ as his personal Saviour, many observers perceived in Lincoln a capacity for reverence and 'deep religious feeling'. Jonathan Turner remarked that both president and people 'seem … to imagine that he is a sort of half way clergyman'. Many saw him as an instrument of the divine will, operating under Providence to become, after George Washington, 'the second saviour of our country.' As freedom became a reality, African Americans regarded the president-emancipator as an Old Testament prophet, a Joshua fighting the battle of freedom. Most vividly of all, a Chicago Methodist believed he had located 'the true theory & solution of this "terrible war"' in the remark of one of the city's lawyers: 'You may depend upon it, the Lord runs Lincoln.'
Together, Lincoln’s cultivation of loyalist religious constituencies and their reciprocal confidence in him, contributed signally to the larger mobilisation of nationalist sentiment. There was much more to religious Unionists’ activity than an exposition within consecrated space of a Christian case for patriotism. Cadres of Protestants acted as ideological shock troops well beyond their conventional domain, recruiting volunteer soldiers for the Union and Christ, energising the aid societies that served the Union’s fighting men, ministering as field chaplains to inspire the troops with the nation’s millennial purposes, and participating as organisers in the home-front politics of national defence. Union evangelicals engaged in urgent drum-beating on behalf of the Lincoln administration. With remarkable consistency, Protestant spokesmen lined up to defend the administration’s conscription measures, its tolerance of arbitrary arrests, and its strong-arm action against draft resisters and dissenters.
There were, of course, anti-administration clergy and lay sympathisers who remained a self-conscious minority within mainstream northern Protestantism. But the reality was that most of the North’s politically active Protestants were either deeply committed to Lincoln’s administration or, as radical critics, had nowhere else, electorally speaking, to go. The 1864 campaign witnessed the most complete fusing of religious crusade and political mobilisation in America's electoral experience. Ministers engaged in a fervent round of ward meetings, election speeches, sermons, addresses to troops and editorialising. Religious tract society agents distributed campaign literature. Churches became Union-Republican clubs. The president’s re-election was due in large part to the extraordinary mobilisation of support by those who saw themselves as agents of God and of Lincoln: the leaders of the Protestant churches.
Amongst the thousands of correspondents who sought to sustain Lincoln during the civil war was one Ephraim Shaler, a crippled veteran of the war of 1812. ‘Dont for Gods sake give or yield one inch, or parley a moment with the Rebels Traitors and Murderers, til they lay down the weapons of rebelion and sue for peace,’ he urged the president during the first month of the war. ‘Every Traitor … should be Hung, in accordance with the laws of God and man. … If I had a foot big enough with body & strength in proportion, [I] would kick the whole State … of S. Carolina into the gulf of Mexico. Have no fears of the final result -- the multitudes of loyal Americans will sustain you and God will overthrow all your enemies. God Speed the right.’
Two and a half years later, the trials of war had shaken none of Shaler’s confidence: ‘Mr. President; you need have no fears in regard to the termination of this unholy war. … God is a prayer hearing God, and He will most assuredly hear and answer the ten-thousand prayers offered up morning and evening by’ – and here Shaler made no concession to doubt – ‘by His own chosen People through the length & breadth of our land … that He would go forth with our armies, and give them victory in every future conflict, til the Rebels lay down their arms & return to their allegiance. … All the blood and suffering in this cruel war rests upon their guilty souls;
if they have any souls May God of His Infinite Mercy keep and protect you from all harm, guide you safely through the Storm, and soon give you and the whole Nation to see His Mighty Power in giving Peace to our beloved Country’.
It was men like Shaler whose single-minded determination provided the bedrock of Unionism. It was their nationalism on which Lincoln would rely politically, and which he encouraged by his allusions to the Union’s special role in providential dispensation, as the last best hope of the world, as 'hope to the world for all future time', and as ‘something that held out a great promise to all the people of the world to all time to come’.
Yet we have to return to the Lincoln who could speak more cautiously of ‘the almost chosen people’, of a nation which should be wary of self-righteousness and remain alert to its moral failings. He expressed this idea no more powerfully than in his second inaugural address, from which I have refrained from quoting so far. It is there that the ‘almost’ of the ‘almost chosen’ is most directly confronted: ‘“Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!” If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, ... 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 offence 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 may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, … so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.”’ It was, and is, this Lincoln – St Gaudens’ ‘Lincoln the Man’ – who has exerted such a hold on political and public imagination well beyond the limits of the United States, above all for his depth of moral understanding, a profundity both uncommon in political leaders and timeless in its relevance.