Faith in the Union

Book cover
Lincoln's Greatest Speechby By Ronald C. White Jr.Simon and Schuster. 256p $23

Sadly, the question of how a president of the United States might lead effectively in wartime is again pertinent, in terms of both historiography and policy. Recently, the nation learned that Michael Beschloss’ transcription of Lyndon Johnson’s recorded conversations reveal that Johnson’s public and private convictions about American prospects in the Vietnam War were quite different from each other. Speculation began immediately as to whether George W. Bush’s private assessment of the war on terrorism is different from his public comments. The question therefore arises: what degree of consistency is required for successful leadership in wartime?

This query makes it exciting to learn of William E. Gienapp’s methodology concerning Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. Gienapp, a professor of history at Harvard University, has produced two complementary volumes, a short biography and an anthology of Lincoln’s speeches and correspondence. The goal is to search for any differences between the private and the public man.


Gienapp believes there was a differencethat Lincoln was a man of public competence and private awkwardness. He asserts that Lincoln’s private correspondence is not very revealing because Lincoln made himself so pre-eminently into a public, political person that he was hardly able to cultivate private relationships. Gienapp therefore ignores ways in which the private correspondence indeed illuminates the public man. The family letters do reveal a Lincoln who struggled with intimacy. He had a longstanding estrangement from his father and did not even visit Thomas Lincoln on his deathbed. His letters to his wife, Mary, were awkward and read as though written to a childperhaps a consequence of a husband’s knowledge of his wife’s psychological problems.

But the public man also had trouble with intimacy issues. Consider President Lincoln’s many personnel problems, especially in his relationships with generals and to his cabinet. Also, his overall political career was dominated by frustration until he won the presidencya fact that raises questions about his effectiveness at public relationships. Had he lived, his personal aloofness could have greatly affected Lincoln’s relationship with Congressional leaders during Reconstruction. Overall, Gienapp is too quick to conclude that there was no necessary connection between Lincoln’s private aloofness and public competence.

Gienapp succeeds, however, in showing that Lincoln’s true adroitness lay in his understanding of the tension between ideas and experience. He sought to modify ideas to reflect events. As a corporate attorney, he understood how the coming of the railroads should alter the interpretation of law. As president, he similarly concluded that the nation could be rebuilt only if the Declaration of Independence were elevated alongside the Constitution as a foundational document. Once he had articulated that connection in the Gettysburg Address of November 1863, Lincoln began the transformation of the Constitution from a protector of slavery to a guarantor of individual liberty for all.

Much of this development has been emphasized through earlier but lengthier scholarship, especially Garry Wills’s work on the Gettysburg Address. Gienapp has produced a welcome synthesis of these themes in a short, highly accessible life for the popular audience. The accompanying reader is calibrated to the text of the biography so that readers can trace for themselves Lincoln’s intellectual growth. Lincoln’s example shows that while some consistency is important for a politician, a capacity for prudent adaptation is indispensable.

Ultimately, however, political innovations were not enough for Lincoln. In the 17 months of life remaining to him after Gettysburg, he proceeded in a sharply theological direction, as Gienapp goes on to note. The exploration of Lincoln’s theological odyssey deserves a book in its own right, which Ronald C. White has provided. Just as Wills sought the intellectual pedigree of the Gettysburg Address, White traces the spiritual lineage of the Second Inaugural Address of March 1865.

Lincoln struggled for much of his life with a sense of fatalism, and may even have flirted with the doctrine of necessity. A recent major biographer, David Herbert Donald, cites this inclination in claiming that Lincoln was an essentially passive, reactive president. White, a professor of American religious history at San Francisco Theological Seminary, offers a welcome corrective to that overdrawn portrait. In fact, the central spiritual drama of Lincoln’s life was his transition from fatalism to a faith based on action.

Three intellectual traditionsLutheran, Reformed and Anglicandominated Protestant thought from the time of the Reformation. White believes that all three influenced the Inaugural.

Lincoln’s familiarity with the Lutheran emphasis on faith and personal engagement with Scripture is easily discernible in the speech. The president noted the reliance of both sides on the Bible to support its cause. But when Lincoln pondered the intransigence of both sides, he lost Luther’s optimism that the Bible could be comprehended with ease.

Here it is possible that the Wisdom tradition, especially the Book of Job, attracted Lincoln. There is a thread of God’s incomprehensibility in the Inaugural, especially at the lines The Almighty has his own purposes, and in the call to proceed with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right. The combination of deep yearning to know the will of God and the conviction that that will is mysterious permeates the speech. This is reminiscent of God’s answer to Job, in which he declares that trust is more important than knowledge of God. Lincoln realized that while a deep assent to God’s will was essential for the healing of the nation, any victor who claimed to understand God fully would be unlikely to attract the defeated. White would do well to look into the possible influence of Job, especially since the questing Lincoln personally seems much like that skeptical yet believing biblical character.

The Calvinist element is the speech’s most disconcerting feature. Neither North nor South was free of blame for the sin of slavery. Lincoln’s jeremiad raised the horrific prospect that the war might be an expression of divine punishment for this sin. Lincoln thereby produced probably the most fear-inspiring prose any president of the United States has ever utteredthe notion that the war might not end until every sin of slaveholding had been paid for. This idea of war as divine vengeance has filtered permanently into American thought, however, and is just as horrific to contemplate now as then. In order to grasp both its power and its controversial character, one need only contemplate how unpleasant it is to entertain the thought that the war on terrorism might have roots in American injustices in international affairs.

White largely neglects the Anglican tradition, which produced the King James translation of the Bible that Lincoln internalized so deeply. The Anglican heritage was the least fatalistic of the three Protestant traditions. The Articles of Religion established by the Protestant Episcopal Church in 1801 declared that good works performed in faith were pleasing to God. The final paragraph of the Inaugural calls on the nation to strive on to finish the work we are in. When Episcopal thought is combined with Lincoln’s known devotion to Shakespearewho pondered that the fault lies not in our stars, but in ourselvesthere is a clue to Lincoln’s roots in a more Catholic view of reality. He was not prepared to wait for national reconciliation to come by grace. Both North and South were to strive for it.

White demonstrates that this Catholic connection did not go entirely unnoticed at the time. At least one press critic of the theological theme of the Second Inaugural linked Lincoln to Pope Pius IX. The New York World charged that both leaders were medievalists who wanted to subordinate the secular to the spiritual. The writer did not provide much papal context for this comparison, but the article referred to Pius’s Syllabus of Errors, whose rejection of the separation of church and state appeared just three months before the Inaugural. The editorialist overdrew the comparison but was essentially correct to think that both pope and president saw God as somehow central in human affairs.

This thread between Lincoln and the Catholic tradition raises the issue of Lincoln’s relationship with Catholic voters. His openness to Catholic participation in the life of the nation is clear from his letter to Joshua Speed in 1855, which condemned the hypocrisy of the nativist Know-Nothing Party. How Lincoln’s hospitality survived the strains of the Civil War has been overlooked by Gienapp and other biographers. It is illuminating, for example, to consider that Archbishop John Hughes of New York warned Secretary of War Simon Cameron in October 1861 that Catholics desired the preservation of the Union but not the abolition of slavery. Yet somehow, Catholics rallied to the support of the war.

Lincoln’s appeal to Catholics was also threatened by the Union’s draft policy, which discriminated against the white working class by allowing the wealthy to buy substitutes. But there has not been enough study of Lincoln’s interaction with Catholics to allow the drawing of firm conclusions. Was Lincoln’s call for the care of veterans, widows and orphans in the peroration of the Inaugural received as including Catholics? The same spring that saw his address also saw the Massachusetts General Court grant the College of the Holy Cross its own charter. Was this intended as a tribute to the Catholic contribution to Union victory, and possibly as an answer to Lincoln’s call for healing? By touching upon Lincoln’s affinity with Catholicism, White has stimulated thought about the possible discoveries of future research.

Lincoln foresaw a huge task in the last weeks of his life, both authors emphasize. To accomplish his emerging dream of national reconciliation, he would have had to find a way not only to unite white and black, but also several classes of white folk with one another as well. White at least makes clear that Lincoln would have attempted to do so prayerfully.

Gienapp and White together show a president who wanted to win the Civil War but who wanted to do so for a right intention. Lincoln’s motivation for fighting clearly broadened as the conflict proceeded. While his constant desire was to preserve the Unionthe motivation for which he is explicitly praised at the Lincoln Memorialhis sense of how to do that changed. Eventually he concluded that the goal could not be met unless slavery itself was abolished. In other words, the Union first had to conform itself to the divine plan. Contrary to those who feel this was a pragmatic decision, he did it through an active discernment of God’s will and made his private conclusions fully consistent with his public task. The question of what makes an effective war leader cannot be answered without resort to a president’s spiritual side.

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