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The Struggle for Lincoln's Soul Part 1

Lincoln in American Memory

By Merrill D. Peterson

Oxford University Press

482 pp.; $30

The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln

By Michael Burlingame

University of Illinois Press

380 pp.; $29.95

The Presidency of Abraham Lincoln

By Philip Shaw Paludan

University Press of Kansas

384 pp.; $29.95

Lincoln has been portrayed both as a devout Christian and as a discreet infidel. The truth is more complicated than these alternatives allow.

What was Abraham Lincoln's religion? What was the connection between Lincoln's private life, including his religion, and his influence on American history? Why should such historical questions matter?

These are straightforward queries, but pursuing them leads immediately into dense thickets. They are thickets growing from the intense concern that has been lavished upon the details of Abraham Lincoln's life. The 130 years since the assassination of the sixteenth president of the United States have witnessed prodigious quantities of publication-much, much more in Lincoln's case, for example, than for George Washington or Thomas Jefferson, the two early presidents with whom Lincoln is most often compared. For nearly a century after his death, the business of recording reminiscences from those who knew Lincoln personally-or who knew those who knew him, and so on to the fifth and sixth degrees-roared along with tremendous energy. Almost as soon as the work of recovering personal reminiscences began, however, so also did the laborious trouble of sorting the reliable witnesses from the unreliable. Now even those who knew those who knew Lincoln are almost all gone. But battles over Lincoln still rage, and almost as acrimoniously as when eyewitnesses were alive.

Substantial industries have grown from the veneration of Lincoln. (In the deep South, a contrasting industry-feeding off hatred of Lincoln as a coarse, despotic, and godless conspirator against liberty, community, and true republicanism-flourished with considerable vigor into the 1930s and is not quite dead today.) In 1950, at least 500 persons were making their living from studying Lincoln, collecting Lincolniana, publishing Lincoln books, and tending Lincoln shrines. That number has grown severalfold in the years since. The Association of Lincoln Presenters (tall, angular, bearded impersonators who try to speak with Lincoln's high, nasal tones) numbers more than one hundred certified members. Serious Lincoln exhibits, libraries, or collections flourish today in, among other places, Springfield and Chicago, Illinois; Fort Wayne, Indiana; Hodgenville, Kentucky; Providence, Rhode Island; Redlands, California; Washington, D.C.; and, of course, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Throughout the twentieth century, world leaders (and millions of ordinary tourists from home and abroad) have pilgrimaged to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington (dedicated on Memorial Day, 1922). Many have also made the trek to Springfield and the nearby reconstruction of New Salem village, which thrives today as it never did when Lincoln lived there from 1831 to 1837.

Lincoln's name has been exploited in a stunning variety of ways-the car, a highway, Lincoln Logs, the names of many towns and counties, countless banks and insurance companies (working connotations of "Honest Abe" for all they are worth), as well as the penny, the five-dollar bill, and Presidents' Day. In 1989, New York's Gov. Mario Cuomo assembled a 400-page primer on democracy drawn from Lincoln's writings and speeches. It was published simultaneously in Poland and the United States; both editions achieved instant success.

This ocean of interest in Lincoln is by itself the best evidence for how deeply his life touches on captivating themes of America's history. But it also creates a situation where one must wonder if anything new can still be said about the martyred president. Yet precisely because there are both vast quantities of sources and a welter of legends, informative, fresh books do, in fact, continue to appear.

Merrill Peterson, a biographer of Jefferson and emeritus professor at the University of Virginia, offers in Lincoln in American Memory a fascinating overview of how Lincoln came to be such a compelling cultural icon. Peterson's book is the source for much of the information provided above. It puts industriously wide-ranging research to good use in explaining American (and international) fascination with the sixteenth president. Peterson's conclusion, resting on 50 densely packed pages of notes, is that America's enduring preoccupation with Lincoln depends upon a powerful combination of factors: his rise from obscure poverty to national greatness; the paradoxes of a character, marked by melancholy and humor, that Carl Sandburg once called "hard as a rock and soft as drifting fog"; the widespread belief that Lincoln embodied the finest aspects of the democratic ideal; and, finally, the fact that Lincoln's greatness lay, in Peterson's words, "at the very core of that huge ganglion of American history, the Civil War."

Besides its many other virtues, Lincoln in American Memory also provides an excellent summary of the battle for Lincoln's soul between pious biographers who claim him as a dedicated fellow Christian and naysaying unbelievers who protest that he was one of them.

Michael Burlingame, who teaches at Connecticut College, has made use of even more industrious research to create the most convincing portrait of Lincoln's personality to date. The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln is a controversial book. Not all readers will be able to accept Burlingame's Jungianism, even though Burlingame uses psychology with greater nuance than has characterized Lincoln's earlier psychobiographers. Neither will all experts conclude that Burlingame has interpreted his incredibly diverse range of sources entirely as they deserve.

But the book is still a triumph. Through exhaustive sifting of the secure public record, as well as discriminating use of private reminiscences, Burlingame provides thought-provoking (if not always completely convincing) answers for many of the problems that have bedeviled Lincoln's biographers. Why did Lincoln hate slavery so passionately? (Because as a youth his father callously appropriated the fruits of his own toil.) Why was Lincoln always so uneasy around women? (Because of the traumatic death of his mother when he was nine years old.) Why could he come to function as a father figure for the nation? (Because he was the archetype of Jung's "Old Man," who joined traits of the Wise Elder and the Great Father.) How was Lincoln able to transform himself from a party hack in the 1830s to a savvy statesman in the 1850s and 1860s? (Because of growth to inner psychological maturity abetted by severe domestic strain.) Why was he so often melancholy? (Because of repeated tragic experiences, including the death of his mother and of his first true love, Ann Rutledge. On this last matter, Burlingame does a great deal to restore at least the outlines of the Ann Rutledge romance that a previous generation of historians had tried to demythologize.) What Burlingame offers especially for the question of Lincoln's religion is a close-up view of the inner fabric of a life that was stretched by early family trauma, later domestic turmoil, and steady personal ambition.

Philip Shaw Paludan's The Presidency of Abraham Lincoln backs up the focus. Paludan, a professor of history at the University of Kansas who has written several other highly regarded studies on the Civil War era, is concerned with the public politics of Lincoln's presidential years. But because of the breadth of his research, his careful responses to earlier interpretations of the Lincoln administration, and the delicately balanced character of his own arguments, Paludan makes a major contribution. On one level, the book is superb as a record of what President Lincoln actually did. On a deeper level, it is also a primer on how observers from later eras may better understand the meaning of historical events for subjects whose habits of mind were different from our own. Of these three books, Paludan's deals least directly with religion, though there are still numerous points where glimpses of Lincoln's private spiritual concerns peek forth. Yet by what it accomplishes in clarifying Lincoln's politics, Paludan's book also offers vitally important clues for coming to grips with Lincoln's religion.

Each of these books should be read attentively for its main thesis-Peterson on how an American icon emerged, Burlingame for how psychological insight may illuminate wide-ranging research, Paludan for his treatment of Lincoln's presidential successes and failures. But while they do not concentrate on Lincoln's religion, all of the books-because they are researched with breadth and because research findings are deployed with careful discrimination-are also useful for those trying to untangle the vexing knot of Lincoln's faith, and to note the bearing of that faith on broader concerns.

Lincoln's religion has been a source of incessant debate almost from the moment of the assassination itself. One of the first biographies rushed into print came from the pen of Josiah Holland, editor of a Republican newspaper in Springfield, Massachusetts, whose memorial address the month of Lincoln's assassination (April 1865) encouraged a Boston publisher to commission a full life. Holland traveled to Illinois in May of that same year and spoke to some who knew Lincoln. The biography was out the next year and almost immediately sold 80,000 copies. Holland, a pious person himself, acknowledged that Lincoln had never joined a church. He nonetheless portrayed Lincoln as a serious Christian, who had been reared in the faith by an "angel mother," and who had testified persuasively in both Illinois and Washington to faith in Christ.

Holland stressed particularly that Lincoln's religion had been deepened by a reliance on God called forth by the terrible crises of his presidency. He also suggested that the shock of death-at home of two young sons, and then of tens of thousands in the war-had driven Lincoln to deeper dependence on God. A year after Holland's biography appeared came the first of many books repeating his picture of a pious president-Z. A. Mudge's The Forest Boy, from the American Sunday School Union. Although it went so far as to criticize Lincoln for never making a public profession of his belief, this book, like so many to follow, likewise portrayed him as an individual with deep, orthodox faith.

To William Herndon, Lincoln's law partner in Springfield for 21 years, these portraits were a very bad joke. Spurred into action especially by what he considered Holland's effete, eastern whitewash, Herndon ransacked his own memory and began to interview others who had known Lincoln as a boy in Indiana, a young man in New Salem, or a respected lawyer in Springfield. Through many ups and downs in his own later life, Herndon pursued reminiscences of Lincoln almost until his own death in 1891. By December 1866, however, Herndon had secured enough material to begin a series of lectures in Springfield. One of his central purposes was to set straight the record on Lincoln's religion. Herndon's challenge to Holland and his pious imitators was electrifying. Far from being a man of heartfelt Christian piety, Herndon maintained, Lincoln was at best a deist who, though perhaps believing in some kind of general god, had no time for the conventional beliefs or practices of the faith.

Herndon was convinced that close-up observations validated his conclusions beyond the shadow of a doubt. Had he not spent many Sunday mornings in his office with Lincoln (and often Lincoln's boys) while Mary Lincoln went by herself to the local Presbyterian church? Had not these mornings been devoted entirely to nonreligious matters-talking law, swapping tales, and doing as much damage control as possible as the Lincoln boys (never reproved by their father) wreaked havoc upon the books, papers, and furnishings of their office? Moreover, had not Herndon himself seen-and had confirmed by the testimony of judges, lawyers, clerks, and clients-how Lincoln lived on Illinois' Eighth Judicial Circuit? On the circuit, Lincoln had all the time in the world for telling stories (not all of them repeatable in mixed company), studying the law or Euclid, arranging and arguing cases. But he had never (or all but never) talked about or visibly practiced the Christian faith.

Many of Lincoln's Illinois colleagues shared Herndon's opinions. One of them, Ward Hill Lamon, wrote a biography that made full use of Herndon's collections. Lamon maintained that the secret of Lincoln's melancholy lay precisely in the absence of faith: "The fatal misfortune of his life," wrote Lamon, "was the influence of New Salem . . . which enlisted him on the side of unbelief."

The battle was on. It has raged fiercely for more than a century. Even today, preachers in sermons near February 12, or personalities on Christian radio bemoaning the fall of the United States from earlier days of Christian conviction, retell the stories illustrating Lincoln's deep piety. Although their number is not as great, populist naysayers who know their Herndon sometimes fire back. Both groups seem to feel that, if only Lincoln could be enlisted on their side-whether of evangelical faith or naturalistic rationalism-it would amount to a great victory in today's culture wars.

Behind the scenes of battle, however, a calmer mood prevails. For nearly 70 years, a process of critical evidentiary scrutiny has been at work. At least since the early twentieth century and the labors of avid Lincoln collector William Barton, professional scholars and amateur historians have carried out a noble series of careful inquiries in the effort to differentiate myth from history. Beginning with Barton's The Soul of Abraham Lincoln (1920) through the work of Benjamin Thomas, William Wolf, David Hein, Allen Guelzo, and other careful scholars, a much more solidly grounded picture of Lincoln's faith has emerged. Such is the complexity of Lincoln's own life, however, that the further rigorous historical inquiry is carried, the more difficult the question becomes.

In the first instance, rock-solid documentary evidence, or well-validated eye-witness accounts, have verified the following facts, at least as far as historical facts can be verified:

- Lincoln was exposed to Calvinistic Baptist preaching as a child and to a clamor of competing Protestant preachers during his years at New Salem. In a strange way, he seems to have both absorbed and been repelled by these early influences.

- In New Salem, Lincoln expressed views that differed from Christian orthodoxy-perhaps a thorough skepticism or maybe only the hypothesis of universal salvation.

- In 1846, Lincoln wrote about his faith directly for the only time in his life when supporters of his opponent in a race for Congress, the Methodist circuit rider Peter Cartwright, accused him of infidelity. The handbill that Lincoln produced in response, which was not rediscovered until the 1940s, contained these carefully chosen, noncommittal words: "That I am not a member of any Christian Church, is true; but I have never denied the truth of the Scriptures; and I have never spoken with intentional disrespect of religion in general, or of any denomination of Christians in particular."

- Lincoln knew, read, and quoted the Bible. With Stephen Douglas in the great debates in 1858, during cabinet meetings, and in many private conversations, Lincoln cited Bible phrases to make political or moral points. In his speeches, he also occasionally quoted the Scriptures. Sometimes this quoting was only to find a striking metaphor, as in the House Divided speech of 1858. Sometimes the quotations were integral to the very substance of what he wanted to say, as in the incomparable words of his Second Inaugural Address: "Yet, if God wills that [slavery] 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, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said 'the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether' [Ps. 19:9]." On September 7, 1864, Lincoln told a group of African Americans who had presented him with a copy of the Bible: "All the good the Saviour gave to the world was communicated through this book. But for it we could not know right from wrong."

- Lincoln valued prayer. On more than one occasion he told the story of the Quaker women who were discussing the outcome of the war. "I think," said the first, "Jefferson Davis will succeed." The second asked, "Why does thee think so?" The reply came, "Because Jefferson is a praying man." "And so is Abraham a praying man," was the immediate rejoinder. "Yes," said the first, "but the Lord will think Abraham is joking." The joke was poignant, because it reflected a truth. Many instances are recorded in diaries and letters written before Lincoln's death where the president either allowed White House visitors to pray with him or actually solicited their prayers. There are also several accounts, though less securely based and usually written down after 1865, that record Lincoln himself praying.

- After the deaths of his sons (Eddie, nearly age four, in 1850; Willie, age eleven, in 1862), Lincoln was comforted by two thoroughly conservative Presbyterian ministers. Both James Smith in Springfield and Phineas D. Gurley in Washington (neither of whom was given to overstatement about Lincoln's piety) testified that, after these traumatic experiences, they witnessed a deepening of Lincoln's faith.

- In Washington, especially after the death of Willie, Lincoln regularly attended Gurley's New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. Sometimes he even came to the midweek prayer service (though, when he did go, he remained in a side room out of view of the congregation).

- At the same time, Lincoln did not practice what in the twentieth century might be called a "Christian lifestyle." Philip Schaff, the Swiss-born historian who lived his adult life in the United States, lectured to European audiences in 1865 on the meaning of the Civil War. He said that when Lincoln was assassinated on Good Friday at Ford's Theater, European pietists were aghast that he was not observing the Holy Festival (which, in their experience, only infidels neglected), while American evangelicals were aghast that he was in a theater (which, in their experience, was associated with licentiousness, secularism, and prostitution).

These matters are about as factual as any such matters are ever likely to be. On the other side are stories that, to the extent it is ever possible to judge the historicity of a purported event, are bogus.

- Ann Rutledge did not lend Lincoln her mother's Bible, nor did he circle verses from the Song of Solomon in it referring to the fairness of "my love." (The story, published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1928, came from a medium who was supposedly in communication with both Lincoln and Ann Rutledge.)

- Lincoln almost certainly was not converted in a Methodist camp meeting in 1839, as was first claimed publicly by the organizer of the meeting, the Reverend James F. Jacquess, in 1897.

- From the other side of the theological spectrum, Lincoln almost certainly did not write to a certain Judge J. A. Wakefield during his White House years to affirm, "My earlier views of the unsoundness of the Christian scheme of salvation and the human origin of the scriptures, have become clearer and stronger with advancing years and I see no reason for thinking I shall ever change them." This "document" was first produced in 1924 by Joseph Lewis at the annual banquet of New York's Freethinkers Society. The judgment of Merrill Peterson is authoritative: "If Lincoln ever wrote such a letter, it has not been produced, nor is J. A. Wakefield known to Lincoln's Collected Works."

- In 1883, a dedicated collector of Lincolniana, Osborn H. Oldroyd, published a book of reminiscences that included an oft-quoted testimony to Lincoln's personal faith. Oldroyd wrote that he had taken the words from a newspaper, which in turn extracted them from a letter Lincoln wrote to an old friend in Illinois sometime in 1864 or early 1865. The quotation ran, "When I left Springfield I asked the people to pray for me. I was not a Christian. When I buried my son, the severest trial of my life, I was not a Christian. But when I went to Gettysburg and saw the graves of thousands of our soldiers, I then and there consecrated myself to Christ. Yes, I do love Jesus." No corroborative evidence has ever been found to legitimate this letter. William Barton, who himself believed that Lincoln had a substantially orthodox faith, provided a judgment in 1920 that serious Lincoln students have accepted ever since. Barton wrote that he had seen variations on this story, although usually not as elaborate, in newspapers from mid-1865, but none of them included a specific citation. His own judgment was severe: "Mr Oldroyd has endeavored to learn for me in what paper he found it and on whose authority it rests, but without result. He does not remember where he found it. It is inherently improbable, and rests on no adequate testimony. It ought to be wholly disregarded."

(continued in Part 2)


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