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Thomas R. MurphyAugust 03, 2009

In this bicentennial year of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, a spate of recently published books has added to his reputation as one of the most written about figures in American history. In considering some of these books, a new approach emerges—the possibility of developing a Roman Catholic perspective on Lincoln’s politics. It is also intriguing to ask whether Lincoln the man can reveal anything about spiritual discernment to anyone interested in how human beings come to experience God and act morally.

Lincoln figured in American Catholic history in at least three instances. The first was a famous pre-presidential letter he wrote to his friend Joshua Speed in 1855 condemning the Know-Nothing Party’s anti-Catholicism as a hypocritical contradiction of American ideals. This letter is reproduced in The Portable Abraham Lincoln(Penguin Classics), Andrew Delbanco’s splendid anthology of Lincoln’s public and private writings.

The second was the Lincoln administration’s interaction during the Civil War with New York’s archbishop John Hughes, in which the president sought Catholic opinion on the preservation of the Union and the emancipation of slaves. Hughes advised the secretary of war that Catholics would fight only for the Union, but he also undertook an informal diplomatic mission to Paris and Rome to explain Lincoln’s policies to the French and the Vatican. Hughes also helped Lincoln by working to quell the draft riots of 1863 in New York City. Later, Lincoln would lobby the Vatican to appoint as Hughes’s successor John McCloskey, who was elevated to the rank of cardinal 10 years after the president’s death.

Faith Struggles, Social Choices

These relatively few contacts should not obscure the fact that Catholic thought can shed light on Lincoln’s own thinking, and that Lincoln’s example can inspire fresh Catholic thought. As Thomas Keneally demonstrates in Abraham Lincoln: A Life (Penguin), Lincoln’s faith struggles were rooted in grave doubt about the Calvinistic teaching of predestination. Lincoln spent much time wrestling with this “doctrine of necessity,” moving from a firm belief in it during his youth to a modified version of it during the Civil War. The Second Inaugural Address, in 1865, was the last expression of his religious thinking. Allen C. Guelzo, the author of Abraham Lincoln as a Man of Ideas (Southern Ilinois Univ. Press), believes that by then Lincoln’s fatalism had taken a more optimistic tone, assuming that necessity would compel North and South to work for reconciliation “with malice toward none and charity for all” whether they wished to or not.

As Guelzo also notes, however, there are theories that Calvinism was not the only force that motivated Lincoln and other 19th-century Americans. The historian Thomas Haskell argued in the 1980s that the rise of market capitalism created a sense of human empowerment that became a direct cause of the abolitionist movement. There was a renewed emphasis on the human choice to shape social life and do good. In Keneally’s book, we are told that a key incident in Lincoln’s young life was the first time he was paid with cash rather than a commodity. This, Keneally says, made Lincoln realize that he could choose a lifestyle other than the manual, physical labor of the cashless frontier and pursue his dream of making a living with his mind. When we compare the perspectives of Guelzo and Keneally, we may affirm that Lincoln could have been torn between a sense of fatalism and a yearning for freedom. Did this make him quintessentially American? While there is no evidence that Lincoln himself was actually influenced by the Catholic teaching that faith and freely chosen good works are both critical parts of the moral person, such a perspective can form a useful comparison against which to measure Lincoln’s complex efforts to distinguish between what was fated and what was ours to decide.

Some commentators have criticized Catholic social teaching for not addressing adequately the possible role of wealth creation in establishing a just social order. This is another reason that Guelzo’s reference to a possible connection between the market economy and abolitionism can provoke helpful reflection among Catholics who study Lincoln. Keneally believes that Lincoln’s embrace of the Whig platform on American internal improvements—canals, bridges, highways—sprang from a desire to help poor Americans create wealth.


Lincoln was that most challenging of subjects for spiritual direction—the soul focused on ambiguity. Ronald C. White Jr., the author of A. Lincoln: A Life (Random House), understands this characteristic, illustrating it with a quotation: “I am almost ready to say this is probably true.” He reconstructs a means by which to trace the growth of Lincoln’s mind. Lincoln did not keep a formal diary, but preserved hundreds of fragmentary notes to himself over the years. An immense advantage of the Delbanco anthology is that it reproduces many of these musings—one example is a “Meditation on the Divine Will” from early September 1862, which foreshadows the Second Inaugural Address’s theme of the Almighty directing the Civil War according to his own purposes. And White’s biography, by tracing Lincoln’s life through his written words, both public and private, reveals a soul formed by many things—e.g., the soil, Scripture, Shakespeare, the law and humor.

Lincoln may not have had a spiritual director in our modern understanding of that term, but he did have a spiritual mentor of sorts during his presidency in the person of Eliza Gurney, a Quaker activist whom he met in the fall of 1862. She came to his office to encourage him and to pray with him for divine guidance, and they subsequently corresponded. White emphasizes that while Lincoln met with a great many religious leaders during the Civil War, Gurney was the one to whom he opened himself. Unfortunately, not all their letters have survived, but what we do have indicates that Lincoln developed his theology about God’s greater purpose in directing the war partially through exchanging opinions with Gurney. Lincoln’s sense of ambiguity may have been fostered by pondering the distance between the Quaker tradition of pacifism and his own desire to find a moral justification for the war against the seceded states.

Another ambiguity that Lincoln sought to clarify was the tension between the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Many of his contemporaries believed that there could be no true reconciliation between the ordered liberty protected for some in the Constitution and the equality for all celebrated by the declaration. Guelzo demonstrates, however, that by adapting a phrase from the Book of Proverbs, Lincoln presented the Constitution anew to the nation as a picture of silver, designed to preserve, frame and exhibit the Declaration, an apple of gold. He had no desire to discard the Constitution because it allowed slavery. Instead, he sought to make the nation’s plan of government more reflective of the Declaration. This reasoning explains why he began the Gettysburg Address by grounding the nation in the proposition that all men were created equal. It also pointed the way to the three great Reconstruction Amendments to the Constitution, which abolished slavery, inspired the civil rights movement that would revive in the mid-20th century, and granted African-Americans the right to vote.

In one chapter, Guelzo praises Lincoln’s prudence and recommends it to today’s Americans. Lincoln was able to avoid hasty decisions because he realized that while we must accept the will of God, it is often difficult to figure out. He sought to balance the integrity of means and ends, accepted a need to work through imperfections rather than rush to absolute resolutions and was willing to wait for providence to reveal its hand. Those who are puzzled by Lincoln’s progression from personally abhorring slavery to demanding actively its abolition will find this chapter illuminating. It is also a chapter that may foster thought about whether Americans of any political persuasion are inclined to make decisions too hastily and too absolutely in our own day.

A Lasting Legacy

Since Lincoln was himself such a discerning person, it is appropriate that the nation has devoted so much time since his death to reflecting on his legacy to the United States. This search for a legacy is detailed in Looking for Lincoln: The Making of an American Icon (Knopf), a collection of photographs and other mementos from the first six decades following Lincoln’s presidency. Unlike the other books I have cited, this one begins on the day of Lincoln’s death. The three editors are all members of the Kunhardt family (Philip III, Peter and Peter Jr.), a clan that has been collecting Lincoln memorabilia for five generations. The material presented here extends to the death of Lincoln’s last remaining son, Robert, in 1926. It also includes a useful scholarly appendix on every Lincoln photograph known to exist. It is a sequel to their Lincoln, a pictorial biography published in 1992.

Those who want to read reflections on Lincoln’s life from beyond the circle of his acquaintances should still turn to Merrill Peterson’s Lincoln in American Memory (1994), which traces interpretations of Lincoln into the late 20th century. Among its other advantages, Peterson’s book tells how the civil rights movement of the 1960s altered the way Lincoln is remembered.

The Kunhardt book stresses two important points. The first is that the African-American community kept the memory of Lincoln alive at a time when white Americans preferred to remember him only as savior of the Union. The second is that Robert Lincoln, who could be both ambivalent and negative about his father’s legacy, nonetheless did the nation a service by preserving the Lincoln papers in the Library of Congress. He did so despite the tragic aftereffects that the Lincoln presidency had on the family, including the death of Lincoln’s youngest son, Tad, and the madness of his widow, Mary.

Taken together, these books challenge the tendency to view Lincoln’s work as complete at the time of his death. Like Franklin D. Roosevelt, who also died at a moment of victory in war, Lincoln is celebrated as a figure of accomplishment. If these books do nothing else, however, they reveal that the inquisitive-minded Lincoln constantly re-examined policy. We simply cannot know how such a mind would have responded to the day-to-day events of the Reconstruction period. It is ironic that a mind as active and keen as Lincoln’s should have been stilled by an assassin’s bullet to the head, leaving him brain-dead for hours before his death.

Lincoln has become a symbol of global freedom, the Kunhardts note in the preface to their book. It is unfortunate, then, that these books do not do more to situate him in the international context of his era. Keneally, for example, is Australian, and it would have been interesting had he said more about how Lincoln appears in the context of the Australian struggle to overcome their colonial penal system. Transportation of convicts to Australia was abolished just three years after Lincoln pushed the Thirteenth Amendment through Congress, and the city council of Sydney sent condolences to Mrs. Lincoln after the assassination. Keneally does not bring up these associations, but there is an echo of his Australian perspective on economy in his account of the incident when Lincoln’s discovery of cash first offered him a way out of the prison of the frontier barter economy.

Our nation’s 16th president emerges from these books as a soul who sought God, wanted to help his neighbors and found a way to do so through politics. That he did so thoughtfully and wisely was his great triumph and the reason why the books reviewed here are all worth examining. Despite his melancholy and his personal tragedy, Abraham Lincoln is a hopeful symbol for the United States. He demonstrates that it is possible for idealism to exist and for the will of God to be fulfilled through human action.

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