When Abraham Lincoln entered a nearly empty Richmond, Virginia, on April 4, 1865, black dock workers crowded around him, hailing him as a messiah. Shocked, Lincoln said, “Don’t kneel to me. That is not right. You must kneel to God only, and thank Him.”
Despite Lincoln’s injunction, generations of Americans have come close to treating him as a messiah—perhaps understandably, in a country where Christian themes have been so resonant. Here was a man who liberated people from bondage, a humble man who nevertheless implied that he was an agent of Providence, a man who carried the nation through an apocalyptic crisis and was murdered on Good Friday. His death, a Baptist minister in Connecticut declared, was “the aftertype of the tragedy which was accomplished on the first Good Friday, more than eighteen centuries ago.” Lincoln became Walt Whitman’s Redeemer President, a epithet not seriously challenged, at least in the North, until recent times.
Modern historians and biographers have indeed challenged it, some of them almost with a vengeance. Richard Hofstadter declared Lincoln to be “thoroughly and completely the politician” and quoted the observation of William H. Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner in Illinois, that “his ambition was a little engine that knew no rest.” In the hands of Hofstadter and others, the Redeemer President had become a shrewd opportunist (albeit, Hofstadter conceded, a “responsible” opportunist), his eye constantly on the main chance.
One of the chief merits of historian Allen C. Guelzo’s new biography is that it leaves room for both reverent and irreverent views of Lincoln. This is a full–scale intellectual biography, one that follows the course of Lincoln’s political career but also takes him seriously as a thinker. It is written with clarity and economy, probing the roots of his political and religious thought without becoming tedious.
The subtitle, “Redeemer President,” is a bit ironic if we take “Redeemer” in the New Testament sense. Lincoln seems not to have believed in Christ or—at least until his final years—in any personal God. Guelzo quotes one of Lincoln’s former companions as saying that in his early years Lincoln was “enthusiastic in his infidelity,” and even wrote a tract debunking orthodox Christianity (which his friends, fearing its impact on his career, persuaded him to destroy). He was, it appears, something of a Deist. But his Deism was different from that of Jefferson and other Enlightenment figures, because it was entangled in the remnants of his boyhood Calvinism. Lincoln, who was almost entirely self–taught, aspired to be a rationalist and a humanist, but he could never shake off his upbringing as a “hardshell” predestinarian Baptist. Guelzo thinks that heritage laid the foundations for his melancholy “fatalism,” his sense that history was moved by an inexorable force that used human self–interest to accomplish ends beyond human understanding or control. Lincoln’s God was not a redeemer but an inscrutable judge.
Guelzo leaves open the possibility that in the crucible of war Lincoln’s skepticism softened, permitting him to develop a more personal relationship with God. After the battle of Antietam, Lincoln startled his cabinet with the announcement that he would issue an Emancipation Proclamation because he had made a promise to himself “and to my Maker” that he would do so if the Union forces prevailed. Still, as Guelzo makes clear, the timing of the Proclamation was also politically convenient, since now it could not be seen as an act of desperation.
Indeed, throughout the book Guelzo often notes that Lincoln’s apparently sincere religious convictions also seemed to fit his political agenda. He claims, for example, that the Second Inaugural’s invocation of a God whose purposes sometimes confound human understanding was also a rebuke to Radical Republicans and others “so full of themselves as to think both the questions and answers obvious.” Lincoln used religion against his political adversaries “with the consummate skill of a theologian.”
Guelzo never reaches a final conclusion about whether the mature Lincoln ever became a believing Christian. His best guess is that he wanted very much to become one. After noting Lincoln’s plan to visit the Holy Land after leaving office, Guelzo adds that such visits had become “a small industry” not only for believers “but also for doubters tortured by their doubts and hoping that the reality of the holy places might somehow become an anchor by which they could arrest their drift from faith.” Needless to say, he thinks Lincoln belonged in the latter group.
If Lincoln’s thoughts on religion never reached closure, his political commitments were firm and full–hearted. For most of his adult life he was a devoted Whig. Though the Whig Party was scorned for decades after its demise as an organization without principle (a charge first made by former “conscience Whigs” disgusted with its compromises over slavery), its principles were actually well defined. It was the party of “internal improvements,” a term with a double meaning: the Whigs championed economic improvements (roads, tunnels, canals, rail lines, manufacturing enterprises), but also causes such as temperance, public education, prison reform, and rehabilitating the poor that related to the “internal” regions of the soul.
In some respects Whigs were like modern–day liberals, except that their emphasis was not on “compassion” but on self–discipline and self–control. The purpose of public schooling, said Whig educator Horace Mann, was not just to impart knowledge or skills but to teach children to control their “appetites and passions.” Even the Whigs’ failure to take sides on the slavery question was an expression of the Whig principle of national unity. Envisaging America not as a compact of states but as an organic union of people, a cultural unity, the Whigs were horrified by the sectional split over slavery, and tried by every means to bridge it. In the end, of course, they failed, but their quasi–religious devotion to the Union became a staple of Lincoln’s rhetoric.
Lincoln was such a zealous Whig that in 1840 the Democrats called him the Whigs’ “travelling missionary.” Not until 1856, when the party was already falling apart, did he leave it for the new Republican Party, and even then his political principles scarcely changed. Guelzo notes that Lincoln’s aversion to slavery, which long predated his first public pronouncements against it, expressed both his “cultural Whiggism and his Whiggish economics.” Lincoln observed that slavery tempted people to vice and indolence (contrary to the Whig culture of self–control) and fostered pride in the ownership of slaves, thus “swallowing up,” as Lincoln put it, “every other mercenary passion.” Good mercenary passion was the passion for self–improvement. What slavery did to its immediate victims was less relevant than what it did to the aspirations and mobility of whites. (Indeed, Guelzo notes that in his early career Lincoln applied the term “slave” to Northern subsistence farmers, such as his step–brother, who inherited the miserable Lincoln farm.) Only in the 1850s, when Lincoln began to see blacks as people “with the same Whiggish aspirations” as his own, was he able to find common cause with them. It was not compassion for black “victims,” but Lincoln’s perception of what used to be called the “manhood” of blacks, that finally won for him the praise of Frederick Douglass as “emphatically the black man’s President.”
Lincoln’s Whig philosophy sat comfortably with his rather fuzzy religious beliefs. Whigs never sharply distinguished between public and private enterprises. Whatever enterprise contributed to their goals of economic modernization and moral elevation could be a candidate for government sponsorship; that included religion, which they considered as a vital support for public morality. The Whig Party, which has been called “the ghost of Puritanism,” was home to fervent Protestant evangelicals, but even secular Whigs encouraged the public expression of religion. That was Lincoln’s view, which he repeatedly demonstrated by a variety of measures, from expanding chaplaincy services to reviving the Puritan practice of designating special days for “public humiliation, prayer, and thanksgiving.” It is to Lincoln that we owe our modern–day Thanksgiving, and the fact that it is celebrated by Americans of every religion and no religion also bears traces of Lincoln’s attitude. Owing, perhaps, to his own theological skepticism, he steered clear of sectarian squabbles, refused to countenance nativist anti–Catholicism, and changed “Christian” to “religious” in the chaplaincy program to accommodate Jewish chaplains.
In Lincoln’s mind, public religion and nationalism were bound up together. From his “Young Man’s Lyceum Address” in 1838 (to which Guelzo gives surprisingly short shrift) to his presidential speeches, Lincoln made clear that he wanted national unity “under God” and reverence for law as “the political religion of the nation.” Whatever else this mix of sanctity and politics produced, for generations after his death it had the effect of uniting a diverse people in the belief that they were all, somehow, participating in a great eschatological drama.
The drama may have run its course. Today there are people, both religious and secular, who conclude that the Lincolnian marriage of religion and politics has not been good for either partner. But what would happen to a country like ours if they were divorced, if American nationalism were emptied of all religious content? We don’t know, and Guelzo does not hazard any guesses, though he does leave the impression that Lincoln himself would have been uncomfortable playing the role of Redeemer President. “Don’t kneel to me,” Lincoln said. There is no kneeling in this book, but it does increase our respect for a President whose public invocations of a God he barely knew helped Americans find meaning in a hideous fratricidal war.
George McKenna is Professor of Political Science at City College of New York and author of The Drama of Democracy.