When it comes to beliefs about Abraham Lincoln’s religion, there are no agnostics. Scholars and laypersons alike conclude one way or another on his Christianity. The best scholarship interprets Lincoln’s religious rhetoric neither as mere political savvy nor as evangelical fervor but as a sincere expression of a practical Christianity of sorts–certainly not doctrinaire, orthodox, or conventional for his day. These works include William E. Barton’s classic, The Soul of Lincoln (1920); Richard N. Current, The Lincoln Nobody Knows (1958); William J. Wolf, The Religion of Abraham Lincoln (1963); Mark A. Noll, One Nation under God? Christian Faith and Political Action in America (1988); and Richard V. Pierard and Robert D. Linder, Civil Religion and the Presidency (1988). But where can one find a credible account of the connection between Lincoln’s faith and his politics?
Allen C. Guelzo, dean of the Templeton Honors College and Grace F. Kea Professor of American History at Eastern College in Pennsylvania, answers this and other important questions in Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President. A Jonathan Edwards scholar and “late-comer” to Lincoln and Civil War studies, Guelzo lost no time in producing several monographs and books, including The Crisis of the American Republic: A History of the Civil War and Reconstruction Era (1995) and an edition of Holland’s Life of Abraham Lincoln (1998). The good news is that Redeemer President deserves its share of the Lincoln Prize awarded earlier this year (along with John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger, co-authors of Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation) for recovering the literary, political, religious, philosophical, and economic ethos of antebellum America that formed the crucible of Lincoln’s political thought.
It must be noted that to unfold Lincoln’s mind, Guelzo the historian emphasizes America’s intellectual hothouse to the detriment of exploring Lincoln’s speeches and writings. Nevertheless, in its judicious use of “reminiscence material”; its robust presentation of Lincoln’s law practice, religious development, and Whig politics; and its insightful commentary on the evolution of Lincoln biographies (in the bibliographical notes), Redeemer President gets my vote for runner-up as the best biography of Lincoln to date.
The Crucible of a Mind
Despite the book’s subtitle, borrowed from an 1856 editorial by Walt Whitman, Guelzo’s Lincoln is not an orthodox Christian but, rather, a Victorian doubter along the lines of Herman Melville (a sketch artist for Harpers Weekly during the Civil War) and Emily Dickinson–unsettled by their professed lack of faith rather than triumphantly liberated as today’s postmodern mindset would have it. More specifically, where Lincoln’s heart was stamped by his father’s “hard-shell” predestinarian Calvinism, his mind found guidance in the rationalistic Enlightenment.
The book’s premise is that “liberal political economics” is the key interpretive lens through which to view Lincoln’s public life. In a trenchant epilogue, however, Guelzo argues that Lincoln “did concede that religion might be an important factor in providing the self-restraint and moral discipline needed to keep liberal societies from disintegrating into mere hedonism.” In keeping with his economic focus, Guelzo views Lincoln’s understanding of human equality as primarily economic rather than political or moral: The opportunity provided by a cash-based economy reigns as the operative principle behind Lincoln’s commitment to the Declaration of Independence. It is no wonder Guelzo dedicated this biography to Jack Kemp.
Guelzo argues that Lincoln’s explication of self-government as a natural, moral right came to light only in response to the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, which threatened to open federal territories to slavery in contravention of the 1820 Missouri Compromise. For Guelzo, this serves as a milestone in Lincoln’s political maturation. As a youth in Indiana, Lincoln shared his father’s Jacksonian politics, but he soon outgrew it after moving to the frontier town of New Salem, Illinois, in 1831. There he joined the Whig Party in its commitment not only to “internal improvements” (road, canal, railroad, and bridge building) but also to a federal bank to regulate the national currency, and tariffs to fund the national government and to protect domestic industry.
Lincoln would remain an “old-line Whig” until the mid-1850s, when slavery agitation exploded the party. He then followed a Whig remnant that joined anti-Nebraska “free-soilers” to form the fusionist Republican Party. The Illinois presidential delegation nominated Lincoln for the Republican vice-presidency in 1856, which he lost in an informal ballot to another former Whig (William Dayton of New Jersey), but he became the party’s standard-bearer following his magisterial 1858 debates with United States Senator Stephen A. Douglas, which culminated in his 1860 election as the nation’s first Republican president.
Guelzo parlays “reminiscence material”–testimonials about Lincoln most famously associated with the interviews conducted by Lincoln’s Springfield law partner of fourteen years, William Herndon–into a sophisticated and persuasive presentation of Lincoln as “a man of ideas.” This is definitely a plus, though a somewhat obtrusive one, given the copious citations he inserts in almost every paragraph. (The book lacks endnotes, but the chapter annotations contain most primary and some secondary sources.) Herndon’s Herculean efforts to interview any and all persons associated with Lincoln have given us a testimonial record that any serious student of Lincoln must consult to fill out the man, and, with Guelzo’s use of this record, we finally have the “unvarnished” portrait of Lincoln that Herndon long sought to produce.
As for Lincoln’s presidential politics, Guelzo pays due attention to southern unionism, without which much of Lincoln’s war strategy becomes incomprehensible. The 1863 Emancipation Proclamation–its content, extent, and timing–is perhaps the best example of a stumbling block for those who first come to know Lincoln as the Great Emancipator but find fault in his apparent tardiness in declaring the freedom of slaves in rebellious portions of the Union. Guelzo comments that Lincoln’s “self-control showed even in his prose,” and the Emancipation Proclamation is but one example of Lincoln’s devotion to the rule of law and constitutional self-government in principle and practice.
Creative and Challenging Interpretive Leaps
Billed as the first “intellectual biography” of Abraham Lincoln, Redeemer President is not afraid to take a few risks in its interpretation of America’s foremost political icon. To mention just a few, Guelzo argues that in dismissing General George McClellan, “Lincoln was taking the greatest political risk of his life, and perhaps in the history of the republic.” Rumors had spread of a contemplated coup by McClellan to lead the Army of the Potomac in a march on Washington, to be followed by a peace process more amenable to the Confederacy. Guelzo also invests great interpretive capital in the Emancipation Proclamation as a sign of a shift in Lincoln’s understanding of God–no longer a remote, impersonal force of providence but a personal caretaker of America and the plight of its enslaved blacks.
He takes a whopper of an interpretive leap, however, by making the real American Civil War an intellectual one between Lincoln and, not Jefferson Davis, but Thomas Jefferson. Guelzo heightens the anti-Jefferson animus of Lincoln’s Whig politics to a fever pitch at the outset by citing an apocryphal 1844 speech in which Lincoln was reported to have lambasted Jefferson’s character as a slave owner. Guelzo quotes William Herndon to the effect that Lincoln hated Jefferson the man and politician but kept this opinion to himself when Jefferson assumed iconic status in the 1850s.
Leaving aside this spurious reference to a speech Lincoln never gave, Guelzo does give a plausible interpretation of Lincoln as a hard-line Whig and, therewith, Jefferson’s nemesis. In contrast to Jefferson–“the anti-Federalist, the critic of Washington and avowed enemy of Alexander Hamilton, the patrician republican and slaveholder, the agrarian opponent of cities, of industry, of any form of wealth not tied to land”–Lincoln “glorified progress, middle-class
individualism, and the opportunities for economic self improvement which the new capitalist networks of the nineteenth century were opening up across the Atlantic world.“ Well put, but how does one reconcile this with the man who rendered ”all honor to Jefferson“ and declared that ”the principles of Jefferson are the definitions and axioms of a free society“? Without a more extensive look at what Lincoln actually said or wrote about Thomas Jefferson and that most famous of American public documents, the Declaration of Independence, Guelzo is able to turn Lincoln’s muse into a ghost that haunts rather than inspires him.
Neglect of Lincoln as a Political Thinker
Guelzo’s portrait of Lincoln as a man of his times, only more so, is close enough to the truth, but without considered reflection on his speeches and writings, Lincoln’s soul remains somewhat veiled. It is as if Guelzo wrote a biography with the assumption that his readers know the great Lincoln speeches by heart and therefore need no further elaboration of their meaning. However, in an intellectual biography, what Lincoln actually wrote should take precedence over the various and disparate intellectual currents shaping America and, presumably, Lincoln’s mind.
Moreover, not much is made of Lincoln as a political or constitutional thinker in his own right, or at least as an interpreter of the American founding: to wit, Lincoln had “no constitutional theory as such.” Lord Charnwood, who wrote a 1916 biography of Lincoln that, for this reviewer, sets the gold standard for Lincoln biographies, later remarked that his own biography did not sufficiently acknowledge Lincoln’s bona fides as a political philosopher: “I think I hardly emphasized enough his claims to what may be called a philosophic statesman.” But Charnwood’s Abraham Lincoln belied this statement with ample references to Lincoln’s own words that make his political thought clear to the reader. Given that Lincoln’s claim to fame is a political philosophy beholden to the constitutional touchstones of the American founding, more of Lincoln’s own thinking–as opposed to those who influenced his thinking–should have been showcased by Guelzo.
For example, Guelzo offers little discussion of Lincoln’s first inaugural address, which soberly and methodically lays out his view of his presidential powers and intentions in the face of seven states already “seceded” from the Union. Moreover, Guelzo finds more of Lincoln’s contemporaries in his thinking than the Founders. And for a book that emphasizes Lincoln’s belief in “the doctrine of necessity,” Redeemer President gives only a passing reference to his 1842 temperance address, which discusses human nature as governed by “interest” as opposed to merely religious or moral appeals.
In Frederick Douglass’s 1876 “Oration in Memory of Abraham Lincoln,” the escaped slave and abolitionist orator observed of Lincoln that “those who only knew him through his public utterance obtained a tolerably clear idea of his character and personality.” I would add that they knew his philosophy as well. Unlike most other countries, America is a nation founded not on tradition or mere force of arms but on an idea. And so we cannot help but take our bearings from repeated reflection on the principles that informed this novus ordo seclorum that constituted the American experiment in self-government. We need Lincoln, and statesmen like Lincoln, to help us know who we are, what we stand for, and how we should act as citizens to perpetuate a republican way of life. For this, there is no better place to start than with Lincoln’s own reflections on the American regime.
Two Towering Biographical Achievements
This last half-century saw three landmark studies of Abraham Lincoln’s life that stood, for their time, as the biography to read: Benjamin Thomas’s Abraham Lincoln: A Biography (1952), Stephen B. Oates’s With Malice toward None: A Life of Abraham Lincoln (1977), and, most recently, David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln (1995). Today’s reader can be thankful that Guelzo has not produced a Lincoln biography “for our time”; he has done something better and grander. We now have a chronicle of Lincoln’s life that, by recovering a lost age of intellectual disputation and fervor, instructs and challenges us to understand Lincoln as the most faithful and profound interpreter of the American founding and regime. If Charnwood’s biography presents the life of Lincoln as an American civics lesson, Guelzo’s biography offers a much overdue American history lesson.
As one-volume treatments of Father Abraham go, Redeemer President is a welcome complement to Lord Charnwood’s more constitutionally astute biography. For those interested not only in the intellectual crucible of Lincoln’s political thought but also in an interpretation of the thought itself, consider these two works the k-2 and Mount Everest of Lincoln biographies. Of course, Lincoln’s speeches and writings serve as the best introduction to the man we have most to thank for preserving what he called “a system of political institutions, conducing more essentially to the ends of civil and religious liberty, than any of which the history of former times tells us.”