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Richard Carwardine

Lincoln and Providence

The bicentenary of Abraham Lincoln's birth approaches at a time of a remarkable renaissance in Lincoln scholarship. Biographies, specialist monographs, reprinted memoirs, and scholarly editions of the reminiscences of Lincoln's family, friends, and acquaintances have streamed from the press over the last few years. Efforts to reconstruct Lincoln's legal career are reaching their climax. Electronic versions of his collected works and private papers are well under way. What explains this hum of activity?

Interest in the Civil War goes in cycles, of course. A decade ago Ken Burns's television series helped reawaken public fascination in a subject neglected since the 1960s. Lincoln now commands attention as a model of political seriousness, in shining contrast to the sound-bite vacuity of contemporary public life. But disillusionment with political leadership can cut both ways. In the 1970s, when Watergate poisoned the appetite for political history and tainted the notion of political heroism, volumes of Lincolniana cluttered second-hand bookstores.

The rediscovery of Lincoln probably has less to do with current political attitudes than with deeper intellectual currents in the academy, not least a sense that the dominant social history of the last three decades has its limits as well as its rewards. Important as they may be, structures, cultures, non-contingent forces, and the disempowered are not the whole story. Some see in the study of political leadership an antidote to the centrifugal fashions of recent American historical writing. The return to Lincoln becomes all the more rewarding thanks to our deeper understanding of the world in which he moved. Ironically, this has been the achievement of social and cultural historians disenchanted by the narrowness of political history, traditionally understood.

What guarantees the enduring attraction of Lincoln studies is, naturally enough, the magnitude of the issues with which he grappled: the meaning of equality in a racially hierarchical and economically expanding society; the defense of freedom in a slave-based republic; and the moral justification for a war of internecine savagery. But, teasingly, there is also the near impossibility of pinning down the "real" or inner man. As with Shakespeare, whose undying fascination relates not just to the glory of his writings but also to his personal obscurity, so Lincoln's magnetism has something to do with the enigma of the private man. In the words of his law partner and biographer, William Henry Herndon, Lincoln "only revealed his soul to but few beings—if any, and then he kept a corner of that soul from his bosom friends." Lincoln's fellow itinerant on the Eighth Judicial Circuit, David Davis, considered him "the most reticent, secretive man I ever saw or expect to see." After his death the world was not short of people—former friends, colleagues and acquaintances—who professed to have discerned the true Lincoln behind his mask of discretion. But their confused and contradictory voices leave us wrestling with a clutch of questions that are unlikely ever to be definitively answered (not least, because Lincoln kept no private journal or diary).

Of these questions, it is Lincoln's faith that has done most to baffle. When his first biographer, Josiah Holland, poured him into the mould of a Christian president, a disbelieving William Herndon found the outcome unrecognizable. He set about interviewing those who might be in a position to know, and in a series of lectures denied there were any Christological elements in Lincoln's spiritual thought. Thus began the battle for Lincoln's soul. Few religious traditions have subsequently failed to embrace him. Friends have pointed to his Virginia Quaker forebears, Baptists to his parents' faith, Methodists to a supposed conversion at a camp-meeting, Catholics to a surreptitious joining of their Church, and Presbyterians to a public attendance at theirs. Masons, Unitarians, and Universalists have each clasped him to their bosoms. Following the visits of two or three mediums to the wartime White House, the Spiritualists claimed him as one of theirs, though Lincoln himself was facetiously dismissive, remarking that the contradictory voices of the spirits at these seances reminded him of his Cabinet meetings.

Naturally, such chauvinism cuts little ice with modern historians. Mostly, though, their treatments of Lincoln's religion have offered little more than a plausible sketching of the phases of his evolving faith: the Baptist milieu of his upbringing, his dalliance with deistic freethinkers as a young man in New Salem, his more conventional churchgoing as a married man in Springfield, and his maturing theological thoughtfulness as he confronted the grisly realities of war. His biographers have largely failed to fathom his religious thought or to integrate the reflective Lincoln with Lincoln the politician and president. Rather, the dominant themes have been those of Lincoln's pragmatic shrewdness and crisis management.

Allen Guelzo's marvelous new biography of Lincoln, winner of this year's Abraham Lincoln prize, breaks free from these constraints. Guelzo demands that we view Lincoln as a man of ideas operating in a society that took ideas seriously. He identifies two powerful currents in Lincoln's thought, each of which marked a sharp break with the Jeffersonian world in- to which Lincoln was born. One of these was Lincoln's enthusiasm for the fluid, market-oriented society into which he moved when he left his father's home to seek his fortune. Contemptuous of the world of Jeffersonian aristocrats who clung to slavery as the means of maintaining a stable landed order, Lincoln prized social mobility and "the right to rise."

Guelzo's most valuable contribution, however, lies in his exploration of a second current in Lincoln's thought: his evolving faith and especially its significance for his formulation of policy as president. From Herndon's informants we know how strong was the pull of religious skepticism on Lincoln the young adult. During the 1830s, in both New Salem and Springfield, Lincoln contested the authority of Scripture and acquired a reputation as an "infidel." He warmed to the critique of Christianity and the search for a rational theology in Tom Paine's Age of Reason and Constantin Volney's Ruins. Equally, he relished the caustic, witty poetry of the skeptic, Robert Burns. Several witnesses testify to his having written and then burnt an essay questioning the divinity of the Bible. His political admirers worried about his taint of unbelief, fearing the alienation of orthodox churchgoers. In 1846 that was precisely the advantage that the Methodist stalwart, Peter Cartwright, aimed to secure as he fought Lincoln for a congressional seat.

In his appetite for Enlightenment rationalism and his coolness towards the revitalised evangelicalism of the early Republic, Lincoln appears firmly Jeffersonian. But, unlike Jefferson, Lincoln never erased from his thinking the stamp of the stern Calvinism of his up bringing. His parents were "hard-shell" predestinarian Baptists and bequeathed him a legacy which he never entirely shed, however much he reacted against the sectarian rigidities and exclusiveness of that milieu. Guelzo sees this as the chief source of Lincoln's well-documented fatalism. Even Herndon acknowledged that Lincoln, though lacking faith in a personal God, saw the iron hand of providence at work in the world. All events had a cause.

This residual Calvinism also shaped his response to ecclesiastical invitations in Springfield. He never went so far as to follow Mary Todd into membership at the First Presbyterian church, but he thought well enough of its pastor, James Smith, to rent a family pew there. Smith probably claimed too much for Lincoln's piety, but it does not stretch the imagination to believe that Lincoln found much to chew over in the Scotsman's use of rational argument, and of historical and natural sciences. Old School Presbyterianism offered Lincoln a halfway house between the fiery revivalism and urgent moralism of the New Schoolers on one side, and Enlightenment rationalism on the other. It may be, as some judged, that political calculation explains his being less dismissive towards Christianity in the 1850s than he had been earlier. But, equally, Lincoln could never entirely dismiss the demands of providence for conversion. He quite possibly "tried hard to be a believer," as Joshua Speed remarked, even if his "reason could not grasp and solve the great problem of redemption." Lincoln was by no means the only Victorian unbeliever afflicted by a sense of spiritual unworthiness, and like so many from pious families he retained a strong sense of moral duty and of the demands of Christian ethics.

Certainly, something has to ac count for the altered tone and substance of Lincoln's speeches following his return to full political engagement after 1854. Low political opportunism provides only the shallowest of explanations. For the first time he devoted whole addresses to the question of slavery and to exposing the moral gulf that he insisted divided Republicans from their opponents. In turns of phrase that owed much to Scripture, Lincoln resorted to natural law and the secular theology of Jefferson's Declaration to counter the Douglas Democrats' claim that the only morality that counted was the aggregation of individual desires through the operations of "popular sovereignty." By the time he was implicitly to stake a claim to the Republican presidential nomination in his stunning Cooper Union speech early in 1860, Lincoln had repeatedly demonstrated the moral evil of slavery, as a barrier to economic mobility and progress, for the black slave as well as for the free white.

Not that this made Lincoln a radical in the eyes of his party. Abolitionists' initial apprehensions at his nomination turned to harsh wartime criticism as they saw the new president slap down the emancipation edicts of Generals Fremont and Hunter. Still, by July 1862 Lincoln had embarked on the intellectual odyssey that would redefine the purposes of the war and the Union for which it was being fought. The precise steps on that route remain shrouded from view, but Guelzo makes a plausible case that in the summer months of 1862 the president significantly modified his understanding of the workings of providence. There is no evidence that he became a Christian. But the pressures of war, Guelzo argues, did press on Lincoln "the possibility of a providence which was more than a general cosmic purpose."

As early as the summer of 1861 Lincoln pondered on the possibility that "God is against us in our view on the subject of slavery." The failure of the historically necessary Union victory to materialize in the face of the setbacks of the spring and summer of 1862 suggested to Lincoln the intervention of an intelligent divinity, interrupting the continuities of history. At the historic special cabinet meeting following the battle of Antietam, Lincoln announced the time had come to issue an emancipation proclamation. It was, he said hesitantly, the promise he had made to "myself and to my Maker" in return for Lee's being driven out of Maryland.

The president's surrender to an omnipotent and interventionist providence is for Guelzo the defining episode of Lincoln's war. In Lincoln's peculiar personal configuring of evangelicalism, deism, and providentialism, and in his fusing of the thought streams of the optimistic liberal Enlightenment and melancholic Calvinism, Guelzo discovers the recipe for the president's tenacious defense of the Union in defiance of the human cost. Celebrated as the redeemer of his nation, Lincoln in his martyr's death was given the Christian baptism he had never earned in life. Even so, his desire to believe seems to have grown during the war, and his invocation of the language and ideas of Whig evangelicalism should not be seen as mere political manipulation. Unlike Jefferson, he readily warmed to the use of religion in the public arena. Days of fasting and thanksgiving punctuated the war years. If there was no overt Christian theology in Lincoln's Gettysburg address, it was still redolent with the concept of Christian rebirth. And the Second Inaugural remains unique amongst presidential addresses in its undisguised religious speculation and its stated intent to yield to a sovereign providence, an inscrutable God, in the formulation of a policy of humbly binding up the nation's wounds.

Intellectual studies of political figures have a tendency to neglect the messy realities of their subjects' daily lives, overstating the explanatory power of tidy thought and blind to the public imperatives to, or constraints on, ac tion. By contrast, Guelzo is impressively alert to the immediate political context, as well as the broader framework, within which Lincoln operated, in both Illinois and Washington. His biography holds its own amongst the best of the lives of Lincoln, not least for the vigor and color of its writing, and exceeds all of them in the way that it manages to relate the private to the public man. (David Donald's properly acclaimed Lincoln, for instance, is at its least persuasive when addressing his subject's "passivity.")

In striving for effect, it seems to me that Guelzo is sometimes tempted in to overstating his case. Significant as Lincoln's providential encounter of 1862 may have been, it stretches a point to attribute the lost political opportunities of the whole Reconstruction era to the dead president's understanding of God, charity, and malice. It seems equally perverse to magnify the political significance of Lincoln's religion by downgrading the public influence of mainstream evangelicals. To maintain that preachers and evangelical organizations "made little large-scale impact on the war" flies in the face of the evidence of the Sanitary and Christian Commissions, of the ideological and political role of the pulpit, and of the churches' mobilization of Union opinion—indeed, it hardly squares with Guelzo's own discussion of the Union's readiness to co-opt religion in its cause. Still, these are minor blemishes on a superb piece of scholarship and writing. Published late in 1999, Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President, provided the twentieth century with the last word on the sixteenth president. There could be no better starting point for Lincoln scholarship in the twenty-first.

Richard Carwardine is Professor of History and Dean of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Sheffield, England.

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