Abraham Lincoln & the Last Best Hope



Jean Bethke Elshtain



Copyright (c) 1999 First Things 97 (November 1999): 43-47.


The beginning of the ninth century of the millennium now almost past was promising enough. The Congress of Vienna in 1815 marked, at long last, the end of the Napoleonic wars and heralded a period of enduring peace-peace under the auspices of emperors and monarchs of dubious legitimacy and stability, to be sure, but peace nonetheless. The settlement was far from complete. The Balkans remained a tinderbox and, indeed, the entire Austro-Hungarian Empire seemed an improbable thing to hold together indefinitely, composed as it was of a tension-ridden mix of languages, peoples, religions, and ethnic allegiances. Yet the Hapsburg crown, although loosely fixed on typically ineffectual royal heads, appeared more or less secure. In Russia, the Romanov autocracy was holding its own, despite rumblings of discontent connected, not least of all, with the continuing system of serfdom. France was-after Revolution, Terror, and Napoleon-a volatile mix of the autocratic and republican, but posed no immediate threat to others. The German-speaking peoples were scattered among multiple principalities, and spilled over into Russia, Central Europe, and-a point of major contention for France-Alsace-Lorraine. Only England appeared to have put together a workable combination of monarchy and constitutionalism.


The calendar notwithstanding, the real nineteenth century began in 1815, and the story of that century has often been depicted as one of Europe’s outward expansion through territorial grabs ranging from Africa and Southeast Asia to the Indian subcontinent. Another story is that of “people’s nationalism” within Europe, which erupted in the “springtime of the peoples” in 1848. Patriots such as Giuseppe Mazzini in Italy erected people’s republics all over Europe, most of which were soon crushed by the old order. These reversals left in their aftermath nationalist frustrations that exploded sporadically-and most fatefully with the assassin’s bullets that struck down Archduke Francis Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, precipitating the end of the century that began in 1815, and with it the end of the promise that was Europe.


But of course there was another nineteenth century, and there, too, promise and tragedy contended. A still young American republic strained outward in what seemed a limitless possibility of expansion driven by almost every human passion imaginable-ambition, greed, patriotism, desperation, curiosity, and a simple desire to better one’s lot. Whatever the western pioneers were looking for, they usually found hard work and, for those with a little luck and the toughness to stick with it, a modest reward. It was a hard-scrabble frontier existence into which, on February 12, 1809, was born the figure who is at the center of the ninth reflection in this millennium series. So very much has been written about him, and I’m not sure that I, or anyone else for that matter, can say much that is new. But one need never apologize for thinking again about Abraham Lincoln.


Thomas Lincoln had managed to scrape together enough money to buy a small tract in Kentucky, and, as his son would later write, they moved when he was still a little boy to a larger tract “in the valley of Knob Creek, surrounded by high hills and deep gorges.” It was rocky, unfruitful soil where the furious washing of a “big rain in the hills” would sweep new planting “clear off the field.” The American frontier was called a new world, but it was a peasant subsistence very much like what had been known for centuries in the old. It seems that the mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, was able to read but could not write. Life was nonstop work from dawn to dusk, and “book learning” was held in slight regard.


Separating as best we can fact from legend, we know that the Lincolns set out for Indiana in 1816, crossing the Ohio River in search of better land titles and-at least according to recent biographer David Herbert Donald-in order to get away from slavery. Thomas Lincoln, who favored the Separate Baptist Church, apparently opposed slavery on both religious and economic grounds. Slave labor, he believed, was unfair competition to “free labor,” and that argument was carried forward by Abraham, who was a free labor advocate throughout his years as a Whig and, later, as a Republican. From his mother’s early death, it is said, began the spells of melancholia that would never leave him. In 1817 she succumbed to what was called “milk sickness,” and a year later was succeeded by a stepmother, Sarah, who trailed in her wake three children and elegant domestic furnishings, such as were previously unknown to the Lincoln household. Sarah’s liveliness did not end young Abraham’s descents into melancholy, but we are told that the ungainly youth became sprightlier. Although Sarah was illiterate, Lincoln was now introduced to schooling for the first time, which quickly sparked his famous passion for book learning.


Lincoln’s education, which may strike us as haphazard, was largely a matter of being drilled in the basics of grammar, spelling, composition, and ciphering, as it was called. Donald notes that Lincoln’s contemporaries “attributed prodigies of reading to him, but books were scarce on the frontier and he had to read carefully rather than extensively. He memorized a great deal of what he read.” Today, of course, memorization is routinely dismissed as “rote learning,” and priority is given to “self-expression” in the service of “authenticity” and other presumed goods. Reflecting on the experience of Lincoln (and innumerable others subjected to “rote learning”) may lead one to suspect that there is much to be said for having one’s mind formed by the best that others have thought and said before giving it unbridled expression. All those hours spent reading by dim firelight the same book over and over (the way little children still like to be read to) were to contribute to Lincoln’s being the foremost master of prose among our Presidents. Indeed, he has few peers in our entire history.


For young Lincoln, as for so many others of the time, an inescapable book was John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress , first published in 1678. It is difficult for us today to appreciate the pervasive power and influence of Bunyan’s tale, told “in the similitude of a Dream.” In that sustained religious allegory of moral heroism and imagery both vivid and frightening, the reader lives through Christian’s travails and all-too-human backsliding, until finally tasting his victory as one’s own. Bunyan’s biting commentary on human folly, joined to an inspiring account of human possibility, must have played an important part in shaping Lincoln’s complexity of mind through a life of action and of reflection, often mordant reflection, on that action.


With the teenage years, Lincoln set out to escape the hard life he had known and became something of a drifter-trying on, as it were, different tasks, vocations, and identities. Settling in New Salem, Illinois, he took up the practice of law and began “politicking.” The Lincoln legend has this “fresh breeze from off the prairie” (as Jane Addams called him) going from splitting rails to the White House, but neglects the many years in between when he was refining his craft as a speaker, writer, and politician. Despite distractions, setbacks, and uncertainties, his course was steadily upward: the move to Springfield, marriage with Mary Todd, election to the state legislature. As a politician he was mainly preoccupied with routine questions of domestic improvements, currency, and contract law. He was, in short, the familiar Whig politician, although a Whig with a growing reputation for straightforwardness, rough-hewn honesty, mental agility (with a streak of ironic humor), and a capacity for getting things done.


On the great question, Lincoln had never been pro-slavery, but his early pronouncements addressed it almost entirely in terms of free labor. Importing slaves into the new territories, he contended, would create unfair competition for non-slave labor. Under the force of circumstances and his own reflection, however, his public statements slowly began to change. The great question heated up with the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which opened the western territories to slavery. The question was being recast in terms of a constitutional and moral crisis, with Northern calls for emancipation becoming ever more adamant. In response, Lincoln delivered a speech in Peoria, Illinois, on October 16, 1854 that may fairly be said to have put him on the course to his place in history.


He acknowledged the extraordinary difficulties in extirpating an established social institution, even when that institution is as pernicious as slavery. He allowed that his Southern contemporaries had not created the institution, and that “it is very difficult to get rid of it, in any satisfactory way.” His own preference was to “free all the slaves, and send them to Liberia,” but he knew the “sudden execution” of such a plan to be “impossible.” Even if it were possible to send all the slaves there, most of them would likely perish without a means of support. Also unacceptable, he said, is the alternative of freeing the slaves and then keeping them here as “underlings.” Because of a “universal feeling, whether well- or ill-founded” (a feeling that Lincoln confessed he shared), the option of making freed slaves “politically and socially our equals” was also excluded. His position was that slaves did have constitutional rights that must be respected, “not grudgingly, but fully and fairly.” This left him with the proposal that the best to be done at present was to prevent the extension of slavery and to look forward to the possibility of “gradual emancipation.” Even in the Peoria speech that gained him national attention, however, he left no doubt that his opposition to Kansas-Nebraska was based on the conviction that the “new free states are places for poor people to go to and better their condition.” He frankly admitted that his chief concern was the welfare of poor whites.


Readers today may think the speech tepid, even repugnantly cautious. This is no clarion call for abolition. It is a thoughtful reflection on the relationship between moral duty and political possibility in the recognition that the two are not always nicely matched. Yet in the same speech he declared that there is no “moral right in the enslaving of one man by another.” Slavery is a form of theft that violates the basic principle that none should live by the fruits of another’s forced labor. In a manner both earthy and clear, Lincoln preached a “labor theory of value” not entirely unlike the theory advanced with such obtuse complexity by Karl Marx. He draws on a naturalistic morality, not entirely unlike natural law, rather than invoking doctrines of revealed religion. Slavery, he believed, is a consequence of our most base natural drives and is incompatible with a “love of justice” that is also natural. First principles are involved, and those principles can be known through reason. In 1858 he wrote a three sentence summary of his thought “On Slavery and Democracy”: “As I would not be a slave , so I would not be a master . This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy.”


To the extent that it countenanced the institution of slavery, it would seem to follow, his country was not a democracy. Lincoln did not reach that conclusion lightly, such was his piety toward the American Founders. But he came to the view that their preeminent task had been to forge the federal union. They had no choice but to leave the slavery question to a future generation-to his generation. In this way of thinking, the Framers had not resolved but had only postponed the question of slavery, and Lincoln’s sense that the time had come to move, however cautiously, toward a resolution had about it a force of obligation that he did not hesitate to call sacred.


In his 1858 debates with Stephen Douglas, the argument is extended: Slavery is not only wrong, it also “threatens the Union.” While Lincoln continued to play to the race fears that were part of the free labor platform, he was also clear on what should have to give when popular sovereignty clashes with moral right. His devotion to democracy did not include the idolatrous doctrine that the voice of the people is the voice of God. What is true for the voice of the people applied also to the voice of courts. By ruling that slaves had no rights that white men were required to respect, the infamous Dred Scott decision of 1857, said Lincoln, was responsible for “blowing out the moral lights.” The “real issue in this controversy,” he contended against Douglas, is slavery and whether it should be treated as a “moral, social, and political wrong” or whether it should be made “perpetual and national.”


While Lincoln lost the senatorial election of 1858, his campaign laid the foundation for his nomination and election as President in 1860. It was now clear to him that his task was the “repurifying” of the republic, to cleanse it “in the spirit, if not the blood, of the Revolution.” “Let us,” he declared, “re-adopt the Declaration of Independence, and with it, the practices and policy which harmonize with it.” He had accused Douglas of distorting the views of the Founders; there is not, he insisted, a shred of evidence that “the Negro was not included in the Declaration of Independence.” That being said, the new President was not at all clear about what was to be done-meaning what was to be done without spilling rivers of blood and abandoning the American experiment in self-government.


The debate over the Civil War and Lincoln’s part in precipitating, pursuing, and concluding it will continue as long as the American republic. That conflict is our defining tragedy. Yet Lincoln’s words and conduct as war leader and definer of the conflict runs against the usual definition of the American character. He never minimized the costs or exaggerated what the war would achieve; his language was at once prophetic and tragic. If the defining American myth is that of Progress, the belief that each new time will be an improvement over what went before, Lincoln did not subscribe to it. He resisted also the temptation to depict opponents as wholly evil while casting oneself and one’s allies as the “children of light.” Much of American politics has been in the mode of moral crusade. Earlier in this century we fought a war to end all wars and make the world safe for democracy. The prohibition of liquor promised a nation restored to righteousness. Women’s suffrage was not a matter of simple justice but what Elizabeth Cady Stanton called a “new evangel of womanhood.” Examples of the crusading credo in action can readily be multiplied.


In the great conflict of American history, Lincoln seems almost un-American in his refusal to embrace that credo. A terrible duty had to be done and a terrible price had to be paid, and, in doing that duty and paying that price, good and evil were to be found on both sides of the conflict. In his resistance to the pattern of American “triumphalism,” it is not too much to say that Lincoln reflected an Augustinian perspective on the ambiguities of history. Politics is a severely limited instrument, and the task of bringing about a social order approximately more just is always an unfinished task. All this is evident, above all, in Lincoln’s own words-words that American school children, at least outside the deep South, were once required to memorize. Lincoln’s words bear the weight of his awareness that he was, in ways not of his own desire or design, authoring and thereby authorizing the future of a republic “purified” by the blood of both North and South. Purified of the great wrong of slavery but not yet, perhaps not ever, pure.


The sense of dedication to an unfinished task comes through most powerfully in the Gettysburg Address. As all know, the featured speaker of the day was Edward Everett, the most famous orator of the time, a spellbinder who took two hours to say the many things appropriate to say upon the dedication of a military cemetery. Not until many years later did the public pay much attention to the few words of the President that followed. “Four score and seven years ago,” and then it was “shall not perish from the earth,” and the President had sat down before many in the crowd realized he was speaking. Those few words, barely mentioned at the time in the inside pages of the newspapers, have likely occasioned more reflection than any other text among people who would understand the genius of the American experiment. He spoke of consecration and hallowing, of a new birth of freedom and of a nation under God, but all without explicit reference to Divine agency or scriptural text. There is no doubt about the piety, but it is not piety on parade.


Setting aside the much discussed question of Lincoln’s religion, there can be no doubt about his deep immersion in the cadences and parables of the Bible. His impatience with those who presumed to know the purposes of God has frequently been remarked. The proper human stance before the ways of the Lord, he believed, is that of deep humility. Thus he writes to Albert G. Hodges on April 4, 1864, a year before his own death, “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me.” American political historian John Diggins says that Lincoln helped heal the “Machiavellian wound” that resulted from the separation of politics and morality. Lincoln, he believes, renewed the theory of statecraft by insisting that “ultimate moral questions did not admit of relativistic interpretations,” while knowing at the same time that the attempt to right moral wrongs may have tragic consequences and almost certainly will not achieve unqualified success.


But again, our best course is to attend to the words of Lincoln. Recall the Second Inaugural Address of March 4, 1865, little more than a month before his death. There are two paragraphs on the war and the imperative to save the Union, moving directly in the next paragraph, the heart of the speech, to slavery. One side, he observes, wanted to strengthen and perpetuate the institution, the other to restrict its enlargement. (And, although he does not say so, many on the Northern side were determined to abolish it.) In any event, nobody expected a war of such magnitude and duration. Each hoped for an “easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding.” Then come the extraordinary words that better educated Americans know almost by heart:


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 offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh!” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses 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 offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?

The form changes now to that of supplication:


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 up by the bondsman’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.”

Of course, Southerners would for generations deride these words as an indulgence in unctious self-righteousness, and it is obvious that Lincoln was not “above” the conflict he is discussing. The description of the conflict is not, as it is said today, nonpartisan. His duty, reluctantly accepted, had been to be a partisan and a leader of partisans, but the import of the address is that now that time is past. More remarkable in the words of a victorious party is the refusal to recruit God as a partisan. The war and its outcome do not vindicate a grand narrative of historical inevitability but bring all parties under Divine judgment. We are united as a bleeding and wounded people, and it is on the basis of that experience, not on victory parades and rallies, that a nation is to be renewed. With Augustine, Lincoln recognized the lust to dominate that is so inextricably entangled with yearnings for peace and justice. No one walks away even from a justifiable war morally unscathed.


Lincoln offers words that are, at the same time, benediction, his own epitaph, and a continuing inspiration to a more worthy politics.


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.

The reference to other nations is by no means incidental to Lincoln’s understanding of what was at stake in America’s conflict. In history’s ongoing struggle between despotism and self-government, he was prepared to believe that America was earth’s “last best hope”-not as the world’s economic colossus or imperial hegemon but as an exemplar of what politics, with all its limitations, can accomplish.


A poem to which Lincoln often returned was “Oh, Why Should the Spirit of Mortal Be Proud?” written by one William Knox. Forget that it is not great poetry, indeed that it descends to doggerel. It says something important about the man who thought it wise.


Oh, why should the spirit of mortal be proud?

Like a swift fleeting meteor, a fast-flying cloud,

A flash of the lightning, a break of the wave,

Man passeth from life to his rest in the grave . . . .

The hand of the king that the sceptre hath borne;

The brow of the priest that the mitre hath worn;

The eye of the sage and the heart of the brave,

Are hidden and lost in the depth of the grave . . . .

The saint who enjoyed the communion of heaven,

The sinner who dared to remain unforgiven,

The wise and the foolish, the guilty and just,

Have quietly mingled their bones in the dust . . . .

‘Tis the wink of an eye, ‘tis the draught of a breath,

From the blossom of health to the paleness of death,

From the gilded saloon to the bier and the shroud-

Oh, why should the spirit of mortal be proud?

Perhaps it is too obvious to observe that, in an era of sound bites, poll-driven politicians, plausible deniability, single-interest PACs, and media spinmeisters, Lincoln seems to exist in a different moral and political universe. And it is both true and a very good thing that other Presidents did not have such momentous events by which they were controlled and made candidates for comparable greatness. That being said, however, Lincoln is by no means irrelevant. He was in most respects a politician like other politicians. He knew all about interests and power, was a master of clever ripostes, well-placed barbs, and the tricks of outwitting opponents. In short, he played the game and played it very well.


The difference is that he never forgot that politics is one way in which very imperfect human beings can enact projects based on moral reasoning; that politics is a theater of both comedy and tragedy, relentless in the teaching of humility. It is cause for both amazement and gratitude that, in a century when the promise of Europe migrated to a New World which, or so we are told, offers the prospect of the nearest thing there has ever been to a universal history of freedom and justice, Abraham Lincoln was President of these United States of America. More than a hundred years later, there is no point in hoping for another Abraham Lincoln. But one may hope that we have not entirely forgotten the possibilities of political and moral leadership that he exemplified.



Jean Bethke Elshtain is the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago, and the author, most recently, of Real Politics: At the Center of Everyday Life (Johns Hopkins University Press).