Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

An editor at Viking Press once told me that there are two ways to sell books: Put on the cover either a swastika or Lincoln’s face. I wasn’t sure about the Nazis, but he’s surely right about Honest Abe. I’ve watched ordinary people climb the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, pull out their phones, face the Mall, and shoot a selfie, laughing and pointing. Then they turn, go inside, and grow quiet, approaching the sculpture with eyes raised. Now pensive and solemn, they read the lines on the north and south walls. There is no more sacred spot in the nation, I would say, no image more hallowed than the colossal figure in his chair. Lincoln’s transcendent significance was underlined as he sat in a consecrating silence while the most renowned speech of modern times was delivered just below.

It can be a curse, however, for public life to be overshadowed by a demigod. Lincoln stands so supremely above the events and details of American history, his vision of the Union so hallowed and pure, that the ordinary workings and inevitable failings of government and society appear as culpable shortcomings. His civil religion—one historian terms him the “Theologian of American Anguish”—raises the stakes immeasurably, and we’ve been living with it since April 14, 1865. He consecrated America with ­glorious words right out of the ­Bible, and we can never reach his divine ­ideals, though we are ever told to try. Perhaps he could; he belongs to the ages—we don’t. Lincoln pacing the corridors at midnight, aging twenty years from inauguration to assassination, the agony of the people written in the wrinkles around his eyes, the words “Preserve the Union” ever running through his head . . . The legacy is mystic, poetic, commanding—and impossible.

It started in the darkest days of the nation, when every month brought thousands dead, at Shiloh, Antietam, Fredericksburg: Americans killing Americans, a slaughter that went on and on and shocked foreign observers, so bloody that only an exceptional vision—no, a supernatural one—could justify the magnitude of the sacrifice. War, especially a civil war waged in earnest, makes metaphysical demands upon a people. But the demands end when peace arrives. Yet after our Civil War ended and the commander in chief lay dead with an assassin’s bullet in his head, there was no going back. We couldn’t set aside the American Idea he raised to prominence. He was gone, martyred; the vision had to endure. We had to uphold it, and it levied a moral duty that no other nation on earth has ever assumed.

The violence was extreme. ­Ambrose Bierce, who lived through four years of conflict and nearly died at Kennesaw Mountain, recalls stepping into a ravine where part of an Illinois regiment had been trapped and gunned down after refusing to surrender. The many wounded were taken soon after by a fire rushing through the shrubbery.

Along a line . . . lay the bodies, half-buried in ashes; some in the unlovely looseness of attitude denoting sudden death by the bullet, but by far the greater number in postures of agony that told of the tormenting flame. Their clothing was half burnt away—their hair and beard entirely; the rain had come too late to save their nails. Some were swollen to double girth; others shriveled to manikins.

The armies often did not have time to collect and identify the dead. When I lived in Stone Mountain in 1990, each day I passed a weedy plot with a dozen white stone markers, unevenly lined, some tipping over. They bore no names or dates, only “C.S.A.” stamped in black. Many who survived the war came home disfigured. Outside the field hospitals after a battle, mounds of limbs would grow several feet high, the bones cut cleanly by skilled surgeons who could saw through a shin in seconds.

What earthly goals could vindicate such carnage? The river of blood demanded more than politics. Mark Twain laughed at Southern chivalry and honor, but those loyalties kept the soldiers going long after it was clear that the Yankees had more men, more guns and ammunition, more food and horses. Robert E. Lee manifested those virtues in his person. So did Stonewall Jackson in his biblical way. What he managed to do at Chancellorsville, and what happened to him hours later, perfected the ideal of Southern valor, as did the man who briefly took over Jackson’s command. J. E. B. Stuart’s hundred-mile ride around the whole of McClellan’s army in June 1862 convinced the Rebs how superior they were in the arts of war. (Bierce readily allowed that the average Confederate soldier outfought the Union man every time.)

These Southern generals became idols after the War, and rightly so. Even the déclassé leader Nathan ­Bedford Forrest (an original Klansman and one of the great field commanders in U.S. history) was honored by the defeated South. By contrast, Southern politicians fell out of favor. Nobody remembers the name of Vice President ­Alexander Stephens, whose 1868 history A Constitutional View of the Late War Between the States sits on my shelf. For every one statue of Jefferson Davis, there are dozens of Lee and his fellow warriors. Lee in his immaculate uniform with his head erect allowed Southerners to accept the mass death and dismemberment on their side as something more than vain and futile. The South took consolation in the noble resignation that resonates in Jackson’s last words, “Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees.” To mock or despise that Lost Cause ­mythology, as Twain did back then and woke academics do today, denigrates the experience of a devastated populace searching for ways to ennoble their devastation, to gild their defeat without denying its ­reality.

Northern generals don’t have the same mythical stature. Grant’s and Sherman’s reputations are of a different kind. Then and now, it was up to the president to give noble meaning to the horrors of war. Lincoln did so with a transcendent vision of unity. In his rhetoric, the Union is a holy creation, never far from the will of God (although he was a good enough theologian to avoid confusing the two: “The Almighty has His own purposes,” Lincoln warned in the Second Inaugural). The opening of the Gettysburg Address is explicit. Our nation did not begin with the Constitutional convention and subsequent ratification by the individual states. That long process was too messy and political to serve Lincoln’s mythic aims, too much a matter of compromise and competing interests. He hearkened back to the Declaration of Independence and its five honorable words: “All men are created equal.” The cemetery in Pennsylvania, its ranks of dead soldiers, and the cause they died for require far more than historical facts—the cause needed ­ideals. America had to be mythologized. Ours was a miraculous birth; we are a nation “conceived in Liberty” and not won by conquest, inspired not by money or land but by a “­proposition.”

Eighty years after the colonists declared their independence, ­Lincoln announced that a “new birth of freedom” was under way. It renews a timeless reality. “The Union of these States is perpetual,” he declared in the First Inaugural, “the Union will endure forever.” Our roots run to the deepest ­sources of things. “Mystic chords of memory” bind Americans to one another. A heavenly “chorus of the Union” summons “the better angels of our nature.” To secede is to desecrate a sacrament. In his 1862 State of the Union Address, Lincoln envisioned the land itself as “the home of one national family,” a “­national homestead” that “demands union and abhors separation.” The fate of the world hangs in the balance: The Union is “the last best hope of earth.”

Lincoln is our most lyrical president, and we’re stuck with his high vision. We’re obliged to maintain his theological conceptions of ourselves as an almost chosen people. You hear the dismay this soaring rhetoric engenders in laments over polarization and divisiveness, and in the peevish complaint of President Obama, “That’s not who we are.” We can never be metaphysically united and ­spiritually clean. No modern nation can. Yet the transcendence Lincoln insisted upon was at the time compelling because the conditions in which it unfolded were so dreadful. The horror that demanded divine consolation was underscored by ­Lincoln’s assassination, his ­Christ-like death on behalf of the Union. To let go of his vision seems like a surrender.

But his standards are impossible, calling us as he does to a condition not too far below the kingdom of heaven. To shirk our assigned mission appears a betrayal, even as it condemns to disappointment future generations, who will face the ordinary trials of civic life, not the existential threat of Lee driving into Pennsylvania. Lincoln’s poiesis is our onus, for we can never fulfill it. The inevitable shortfalls that mar the life of our nation look like grave failures, bitter reminders of how far we have fallen, and of how far we still have to go.

Notions of a transcendent America tempt us to distort the past. I have heard people speak of American slavery as if it were a unique phenomenon. When I tell them that the Arab and South American trades dwarfed that of the ships that landed on American shores, it doesn’t alter their recriminations one bit. The logic is simple. Unlike Arab principalities or South American nations, America is a divine creation. We must clear a higher bar, much higher.

And so we live under clouds of self-condemnation. Isolated racial incidents in faraway towns prompt indictments of the entire country, its past and present. Lincoln’s celestial Union authorizes these scorching accusations, for his yardstick can only make the inevitably ­imperfect present look very bad. His legacy will not allow prudent compromises or sensible accommodations of human failings. We cannot frame the internment of Japanese-­Americans in World War II as a chauvinistic overreaction that nonetheless played a minor role in U.S. policy and need not preoccupy present-day Americans. We must call the victims to mind and embrace the shame. ­Only sackcloth and ashes can ­palliate our grievous failures to live up to ­Lincoln’s mythology of America.

America as a sacred unity, America as a nation of better angels, America where any lapse in the aspiration must draw acute contrition, where the sins of the fathers must be confessed by the sons—it’s overdone, a ridiculous expression of collective vanity. Lincoln’s loftiness was exactly right for a nation at war with itself, a war of unprecedented destruction. But we live in the early twenty-first century, not the middle of the nineteenth. Seven score and eighteen years later, Lincoln’s divinization of our country has led to an overly sacralized politics.

Lincoln knew that God oversees the affairs of men, whose conflicts and loyalties play a mysterious role in the divine plan. But we are no longer a Christian nation, and today’s moralistic Americans lack ­Lincoln’s sense of transcendence. They imagine a society of total equality and equally distributed happiness, and they condemn America for being less than perfect. It is a vision encouraged by ­Lincoln’s myth-­making, but without the supervision of the Lord. It is not leading to domestic tranquility. Resentment and cynicism reign, the sour recognition of the gap between actual and ideal.

Let us honor Lincoln. He was a great president. But put aside his lofty notions. We need, instead, a political imagination firmly grounded in ­reality: The poor will always be with us, all men are not equal, there is no perfect union. Our duty is to make things a little better, if we can, not to assume the mantle of secular prophets and rage against the limitations of our fallen humanity.

Mark Bauerlein is a contributing editor at First Things.

Image by Brett Weinstein via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

This is the first of your three free articles for the month.
Read without Limits.
Stacked Mgazines