February 11, 2009
Tomorrow, February 12th, the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln will be celebrated. Lincoln is nearly everywhere understood to be the greatest man ever to have filled the office of President of the United States, and he served at the time of greatest upheaval to the society, during a war in which more Americans died than in most of our other wars put together. It is hard to overestimate the importance of the Civil War in shaping America’s political and social history, and it is hard to overestimate Lincoln’s own effect upon America’s self-understanding. We have few genuine icons in this land, although we have plenty of idols (and whole industries devoted to their production); Lincoln the martyr, the man who looks at us across time, not only from the $5 bill, but from countless pictures that people still put up on their walls, with the deep, melancholic, shrewd humanity of his face, is a real icon, a reminder of something we are always in danger of losing, a moral truth we seldom bring to realization.
When I was five years old, I was asked, in kindergarten, to draw a picture in honor of Lincoln’s Birthday. (Or perhaps what I was actually asked to draw was a picture for Valentine’s Day, but I threw in a portrait of Lincoln for good measure.) It turned out well; in fact, it was probably the first picture I had ever drawn that actually looked like the person it was supposed to represent.
In 2005, when I left my job in New Mexico and returned to New York/New Jersey, I made a point of stopping at Springfield, Illinois and visiting Lincoln’s grave. His body lies entombed under a white stone obelisk in a park at the north end of the town; the obelisk sits atop a large, colonnaded base of the same material, adorned with bronze statues representing scenes from the Civil War; visitors are allowed to enter, a few at a time, into that base to pay their respects to the late president. His tomb is of pink marble; on it, the words
On the wall behind, the words “NOW HE BELONGS TO THE AGES.” I was struck, when I went to pray there, by the complete absence of any Christian symbolism. Only civil and military flags and insignia. Of course, none of us have a great deal of choice in what people choose to put over us when we die. But I confess that the overall effect was a rather cold one. It felt like what was before me was the anti-Lincoln, the absence of the rational soul; as though the weight of madness and shallowness that had always surrounded him had finally engulfed him, taking physical, marble shape, and exulting in victory over his poor, lobotomized corpse.
I shuddered at that thought, and prayed for him and his family, that he would rest in peace.
Lincoln seems never to have been a member of any church, although occasionally, it seems, he did attend a Presbyterian church in Washington, D.C. He describes his own religious views in a bulletin addressed “To the Voters of the Seventh Congressional District” in 1846, in answer to a charge of irreligion laid against him by his opponent in the Congressional elections, Mr. Peter Cartwright (1):
July 31, 1846
A charge having got into circulation in some of the neighborhoods of this District, in substance that I am an open scoffer at Christianity, I have by the advice of some friends concluded to notice the subject in this form. 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. It is true that in early life I was inclined to believe in what I understand is called the “Doctrine of Necessity” — that is, that the human mind is impelled to action, or held in rest by some power, over which the mind itself has no control; and I have sometimes (with one, two or three, but never publicly) tried to maintain this opinion in argument. The habit of arguing thus however, I have, entirely left off for more than five years. And I add here, I have always understood this same opinion to be held by several of the Christian denominations. The foregoing, is the whole truth, briefly stated, in relation to myself, upon this subject.
I do not think I could myself, be brought to support a man for office, whom I knew to be an open enemy of, and scoffer at, religion. Leaving the higher matter of eternal consequences, between him and his Maker, I still do not think any man has the right thus to insult the feelings, and injure the morals, of the community in which he may live. If, then, I was guilty of such conduct, I should blame no man who should condemn me for it; but I do blame those, whoever they may be, who falsely put such a charge in circulation against me.A. Lincoln
That Lincoln was, in some very general sense of the word, a Christian, and that he considered himself to be so, seems hard to deny, although it also seems hard to deny that he had little in the way of dogmatic, theological convictions in the usual sense. From the evidence of the foregoing letter, it would seem as though Lincoln’s specifically religious belief, at various times in his life at least, consisted of a view of divine providence that came close to fatalism or Stoic necessitarianism. Perhaps a kind of Calvinism, stripped to its barest philosophical essentials. Certainly nothing sacramental, trinitarian, or incarnational per se. But a very strong notion of the goodness and justice of God, and the ethical responsibilities incumbent upon men.
From an Orthodox or Catholic point of view, Lincoln’s religion seems a kind of throwback to the patriarchs. His favorite term for God is “the Almighty.” He worships El Shaddai, the mysterious, inscrutable, terrifying, righteous God who judges among the nations and directs the ways of men.
Perhaps what is most characteristic of Lincoln, as a thinker, is a combination of logic and piety, a piety of a very specific kind. The first thing that strikes one when one reads him is his clarity of thought. As, in Euclid’s Geometry, there is a clarity of reasoning, made possible by the clear enunciation of definitions, postulates, and common notions, so, in Lincoln’s Politics, there is a clarity which, analogously, rests upon explicit, postulated grounds. The postulates of Lincoln’s political thinking, the rational foundations of his political creed, were stated in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Lincoln saw the institution of slavery in the United States as an internal contradiction, a denial of the principle of universal human dignity upon which the moral truth of the American political experiment lay. He understood that that contradiction had a natural tendency to resolve itself, and that, if resolved in the wrong way, it would destroy political liberty in this country. In arguing for this, he quotes Jesus (Matthew 12:25), who provides him with a political common notion:
“A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.
I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided.
It will become all one thing, or all the other.
Either the opponents of slavery, will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new — North as well as South.From: Speech Accepting the Republican Senatorial Nomination, June 16, 1858
Since he saw with such clarity that the situation of the country — half slave, half free — was unstable and untenable in the long run, and he was convinced that slavery was opposed to the original moral vision of the founders of the republic, he spent most of his political career seeking to prevent the extension of slavery to new territories, in the hope that, in this way, the institution would wither away gradually and die a peaceful, natural death. He was in no sense a radical abolitionist. Probably the man he chiefly looked up to, as a model for political action, was Henry Clay, “the Great Compromiser.” Lincoln was the last man in the world to wish to ignite a civil war, and he made that clear in his First Inaugural Address.
The piety of Lincoln is, in the first place, a political piety. The “fathers” are, for him, the Founding Fathers of the American Republic. As to the Fathers of the Church, he knows little about them. (He probably did not know that some early Church Fathers, like Gregory of Nyssa, agreed with him as to the fundamental evil of slavery.) But his attitude towards the former, the political fathers, is very much like what an Orthodox Christian might feel towards the latter. He sees these founding fathers as setting the ancient landmarks for political reasoning; he sees it as impiety to move them. He also, it must be said, is very skillful in investing his political convictions with the imagery and language of biblical faith. There was nothing false or contrived about this: Lincoln clearly did not think about these things in two separate boxes. He thought the moral truth of biblical faith had a living embodiment in the American political experiment, and he thought that the duty to protect that experiment was sacred.
Of course, the leaders of the South also read the Declaration of Independence, and they laid particular stress upon the following clause: “That, when any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation upon such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” The view of the ruling classes of the South was that “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” were closely bound up, for them, with the chief economic support to their traditional way of life. Slaves were property (Jefferson’s phrase, “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” is a clear echo of John Locke’s “Life, Liberty, and Property”), and those who threatened the institution of slave-holding threatened their property, their way of life, and their economic freedom. In the early decades of the nineteenth century, as slavery as an institution again became economically profitable and the question about extending slavery to newly-opened territories provoked repeated political crises, the chief political voice of the South was the senator from South Carolina, John Calhoun, who presented a constitutional theory of radical state-sovereignty. The constitution, in his view, sets up a confederation of sovereign states, which implicitly retain the right to withdraw from the union if their interests so dictate. The issue of the extension of slavery to the territories was seen as vital to the South’s interests, and increasingly the claim was made that it was an issue over which southern States had a legitimate right to secede. And, just as Lincoln habitually expressed his political convictions in biblical terms, so too the leaders of the South made a religious case in defense of the righteousness of their way of life. Is not slavery found in the Bible, both in the Old and the New Testaments? Doesn’t St. Paul tell servants to obey their masters?
Lincoln was fully aware of the competing religious arguments, and he saw this as one of the most tragic aspects of the war, the fact that both sides sought a divine justification.
Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of 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, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the 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, till 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 by the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.”
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan — to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.From: Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865 (2)
A lot has happened in America in the 144 years since Lincoln’s death. One might in some ways wonder if we are still the same people and the same country. I hesitate to think what sort of man Lincoln might have become if, instead of being raised on a log cabin in Kentucky, he had been brought into this world in one of our suburban homes, and had his mind dulled early on by exposure to television and the rest of our aggressively crass culture. But it does seem to me that the civil war, like most wars, never really ended; it metamorphosed, and took various new, ideological forms. Could it be that the grandfather of radical economic libertarianism, the doctrine that government, in itself, is the problem, and that the solution to all our social ills is to get the federal government off the taxpayers’ backs, is John Calhoun? I confess that I sometimes see a certain spiritual affinity between John Calhoun and Photius of Constantinople. Perhaps the recent profusion of Orthodox monasteries in Texas, Arizona, and such places is not coincidental. A deeply-rooted sense that Union is a bad thing.
Let me close this very sketchy post with a line from Lincoln’s speech at the Cooper Union, February 27, 1860, words which deserve to be remembered, and which state, as good as any credo, what Lincoln’s faith was:
“Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.”
(1) Text of this letter in Richard N. Current, ed., The Political Thought of Abraham Lincoln (Indianapolis 1967), pp. 40 f.
(2) Op. cit., pp. 315 f.