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Interview: Ronald C. White, Jr.
White is an author and editor who has written extensively about Abraham Lincoln. His recent books include A. Lincoln: A Biography and Lincoln's Greatest Speech. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on July 14, 2009.
What was religion's role in Americans' lives in the 1850s and 1860s?
Religion was central to Americans in the middle of the 19th century. The Second Great Awakening had caused a tremendous renewal in membership in churches, in missionary activities, and this was kind of the ethos in which people lived. So they talked about religion, they attended sermons -- often long sermons -- and this was just an everyday part of their life. ...
Is religion [important] to understanding the impetus to go to war? Did it play a role?
It did. "Religion" and "liberty" were terms that were used interchangeably. Although liberty might seem to come directly [and] only from the Declaration of Independence, the South in a sense saw themselves as doing what the colonists had done. They were breaking free from a tyrannical rule. They felt God was on their side. The Union felt that they were preserving this great experiment, and religion was central to this experiment. ...
... Is it important to understand Lincoln's religion, what we can know of it, to understand his leadership and the Civil War?
Lincoln's religion in the Civil War as president is absolutely central to understanding who he is and how he understands America.
“[Lincoln] redefines the meaning of America so that this is really all about a second American Revolution … a new America, a new birth of freedom... ”
When he delivers his Second Inaugural Address, ... in 701 words, he will mention God 14 times, quote the Bible four times, and invoke prayer three times.
The point isn't to add up these numbers but to really probe the meaning. Is he simply quoting the Bible as someone might quote Scripture -- this was something people did in the middle of the 19th century -- or is he, as I believe he is, offering a rather deep and profound theological observation on the meaning of the war?
In the buildup to the war, is there an optimism about American progress?
... As America goes forward, the whole sense of Manifest Destiny is very much growing out of the Second Great Awakening, and part of this is to missionize the mid-part of the continent and then the West. Over this was the Protestant fear of the encroachment of Roman Catholicism. ... So the question became, what kind of a Christian America would this be?
How does the expansion of slavery challenge people's notion of the American experiment?
Slavery is the great enigma. It is the great problem in the middle of this Manifest Destiny. ...
Slavery, which many people thought was going to become extinct, begins to be defended economically, politically, socially, but [also] on religious grounds. ... Ministers are forced to take sides, one or the other. And this is a very important part of the story.
Is abolitionism a religious movement? ...
Abolitionism begins really as a religious movement, but it divides. William Lloyd Garrison, a figurehead of abolitionism, becomes very disenchanted with the churches and believes that they're ultimately not going to lead the way.
So you have one whole wing of abolitionism that is evangelical abolitionism. They will found their own churches: Free Methodist, Free Presbyterian. By this they mean churches which will not allow slaveholders to be members or certainly to be ministers.
On the other hand, you have a kind of political abolitionism that is very distrustful, quite critical of what they would see as the compromising of the churches.
Does abolitionism itself almost become like a religion?
Abolitionism becomes almost like a religion. Abolitionists had a very mixed reception in their own day. ... Many of them were viewed as self-righteous extremists who had no capacity to understand their fellow Americans in the South.
So I think Lincoln's struggle with abolitionism was not so much with its ideas but with its tactics. He never liked people who were self-righteous, and he saw this in the abolitionists, that they had this self-righteous, condescending attitude to people. And this is why he distanced himself, not from what they believed in but from the way they went about it.
Where does Lincoln stand on slavery in the 1850s?
... He would be a little bit to the left of center. He wouldn't be way to the left as an abolitionist. He certainly wouldn't be to the right. He said in his own words that he always thought slavery was wrong, yet he never spoke too much about it.
Finally, it is the Kansas-Nebraska Act that will bring him back into the fray. And in the almost 200 speeches he will offer from 1854 to 1860, slavery will be at the heart of every single one of those speeches. ... He cares about it deeply.
Where does that come from?
Perhaps his own experience. He took two trips to New Orleans as a young man. He saw there slaves separated, men from women, sold on the auction block. That certainly was a part of it.
In the 1850s, Lincoln brings back into the national conversation the Declaration of Independence. ... The Declaration in many senses had been gathering dust in the early decades of the 19th century. It was viewed by many Americans as only an historical signpost that pointed to our break with the mother country. It was not seen as a reforming document that offered something for the future.
Lincoln redeems the Declaration of Independence. He makes it front and center in his central speeches, and he says that when Jefferson says all men are created equal, this really is a document that is yet to be fulfilled. ...
This is where he challenges those within his party, but certainly those within the Southern part of the Democratic Party, who say, well, obviously Jefferson did not mean, when he said, "All men are created equal," to include African Americans. He was only speaking about white, male, British citizens. And Lincoln says, oh, no, this document embraces all people in terms of their political rights.
How would you describe the religion that Lincoln is exposed to as a child?
... Lincoln's parents are what are called Separate Baptists in Kentucky and Indiana. It's a quite conservative tradition, emotional. Lincoln struggles with it. At the same time, he struggles with his father. He has a conflicted relationship with his father.
As he grows up, this tradition cannot really embrace his point of view. It's too emotional. Lincoln is always suspicious of emotion. He always wants to raise the trumpet of reason in all of his thinking and acting.
It's also a tradition, I suspect, that did not tolerate the kind of questions that Lincoln wanted to ask. So as he grows into a young adult, he pushes against that religion even as he pushes against his parents, and he pushes it away. ...
What makes us want to understand Lincoln's whole life story?
The whole part of Lincoln's life story is, as with his religion, he's able to change. He grows; he changes; he changes his mind. He changes his mind about his political beliefs; he changes his mind about slavery. Ultimately he will change his mind as president. Here's a man in flux, who's willing to look critically at the events and the issues and his own experiences, and therefore move off in a new direction. ...
What does that change tell us about him as a person? ...
Lincoln has such a wonderful sense of intellectual curiosity. My favorite images for this are the little slips of paper -- sometimes the back of a flap of an envelope -- and he'll write down his ideas on them. Often he'll start with a problem. The problem of slavery dominates, but there are other problems, and he kind of works his way through these problems by his own writing. This is the way he defines himself, redefines himself, and this is a key to his own growth and change.
What do you mean by the emotional kind of religion practiced by his parents?
The Second Great Awakening began on the frontier, at a place called Cane Ridge [in Bourbon Co., Ky.], where upwards of 20,000 people gathered in 1801. It was combination carnival and revival, and the preaching was very emotional. The response was emotional: howling and shouting and, some would say, even barking like dogs. ...
This Second Great Awakening in Tennessee and Kentucky spawned the growth of the Baptist churches, so the preaching was quite emotional. We know this because the young Abraham Lincoln, as a boy 9, 10 years of age, would come out of these church meetings, stand on a stump, and say from memory the words of the preacher, trying to emulate all of his emotional gestures, to the great delight of his childhood friends but not the delight of his father, who would take him down from that stump and get him on home. So Lincoln, in a sense, mimicked this kind of emotional religion.
When Lincoln as a young man rebels against his father, what goes against this emotional outpouring? What makes him reject that?
When Lincoln finally moves with his parents from Indiana to Illinois, after a very few months he moves out on his own and settles in the small village of New Salem. There he begins to read some of the Enlightenment writers, who are critical of revealed religion. ...
The story is told -- many people testify to it, [but] we're not absolutely sure -- that Lincoln one day wrote a paper criticizing this revealed religion, and as he was reading the paper in one of the stores or taverns in New Salem, it was ripped out of his hand by a friend who recognized this was not a smart thing for a young, aspiring politician to be associated with, and he tossed it in the fire.
But this symbolizes Lincoln's reaction to the emotion, his working toward something that was more of an Enlightenment tradition, and his questioning of all the tenets of traditional Christianity. ...
Explain the God that Lincoln sees. How does that God work?
The God that Lincoln affirms would be more the God of Jefferson or [Benjamin] Franklin. It is the watchmaker God who sets the world in motion. The world has a certain order to it, but we are left by ourselves in this world. God does not intervene directly. This is not a God with personality, not a God who is a loving God, but rather the God who is the first force or the source of the world.
... If he feels that everything is predetermined, how does that affect Lincoln's vision of his role as an individual?
When we say that fate is predetermined, this doesn't necessarily preclude the possibility that individuals have a role in this fate. So Lincoln is very conscious of his own role in other people's lives, in the life of his best friend, Joshua Speed. He hopes he has a role to play in the life of Illinois -- not yet thinking about the nation. So there's a role for him in politics. ...
... If God is a clockmaker, are God's ways mysterious at this stage for Lincoln?
The watchmaker God who is removed from the day-to-day happenings on this earth is therefore very mysterious. We don't fully understand his ways. There's a certain humility before this God, but there's also a certain sense that these ways can never be fully understood.
Why does Lincoln think slavery is wrong? How does his being "self-made" affect his understanding of slavery?
... Lincoln believes in what he calls the "right to rise." ... He believes that every person in America, by hard work, by education, by integrity, can rise.
[Slavery] denies the possibility. People are stuck in the caste system in which they are born. They cannot emerge from it. This makes him deeply angry, but he also believes that this makes us hypocrites before the rest of the world, those of us Americans who wish to trumpet freedom and democracy as the hallmark of why we are such a wonderful nation.
Why, as an aspiring politician in the 1850s, does he feel constrained to potentially act against slavery? What holds him back?
... Lincoln, who is a strong believer in the Constitution, believes that he has no right -- none of us has a right -- to deal with slavery where it already exists in the South. The Constitution doesn't give that permission.
But if slavery is now about to be expanded, Lincoln will stand up and decry that expansion and believe that if it can be stopped at the waters of the Mississippi, that it may [be], as the Founders thought it would be, ultimately on its road to extinction.
What did people generally think would happen to slavery, pre-19th century?
In the forming of this nation, in the drafting of the Constitution, ... everybody knew that slavery was a central issue. But if we were going to get all 13 colonies to agree to become one nation and to agree to a Constitution, there was an agreement, in a sense, not to talk about slavery, because this would certainly have excluded one or two or maybe three colonies from ever joining the Union.
At the same time, there was the unvoiced understanding that slavery would be on its road to extinction. This was viewed not simply by people in the North but by people in the South. And there wasn't any great rush to defend slavery, but rather it will pass out of existence.
Then, in the 1820s and '30s, the invention of the cotton gin, the centrality of slavery to an agricultural market in the South, suddenly things begin to change, and the South begins to defend slavery economically, politically, and also from religious grounds. Then as the North begins to attack slavery, specifically through the abolitionists, the South defensively begins to get its back up and defend slavery for all it's worth. ...
... When the denominations split, is that a forecast of what's to come? Is it important?
... The first major divisions were in three of the dominant churches in this land. Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian all divided in the 1830s and 1840s. ...
Could this be a harbinger? If the churches divide, North and South, might this be a foreboding of what might be happening to the whole nation? Somehow this story has often been very much missed in understanding the energy or causes of the division that will result in the Civil War.
We have popular conceptions of Lincoln, and I think one of them is that he must have been some kind of spontaneous genius who simply could sit down and, with a stroke of a pen, write out his most famous addresses. Perhaps the most marvelous [example of] this is how many people have bought the story that Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg Address on the back of a flap of an envelope on the train to Gettysburg. Not true.
Lincoln was actually often not confident of his ability as a spontaneous or extemporaneous speaker, so when we look carefully, we realize that his major speeches all had several drafts in which he made improvement after improvement. I like to say there's no such thing as good writing; there's only good rewriting. Lincoln was a rewriter. He was an editor. He was a reviser.
Do we know how he did it, physically?
Lincoln had some distinctive methods by which he wrote. He said he always read out loud because he wanted to catch things with two senses: the sense of the eye and the sense of the ear. I've discovered that he wrote out loud. He would often speak or whisper a word before he put it on the paper. ...
But back behind those speeches were the little scraps of paper that became the kind of bedrock of his thinking, where Lincoln would be writing down an idea. Once he was writing out a letter, and someone came to him and said, "That's remarkable that you wrote that letter out." "Oh," he said, "no." And he opened his drawer. He said: "I've had these ideas sitting in here for more than two years. I could never sit down and write this letter just from scratch." There's a gestation period by which the letter finally will achieve its final form. ...
What is so tricky about [the First Inaugural] speech? What does he decide he needs to do?
Lincoln has had four months between his election and his inauguration. In those four months, he makes literally no statements of his public policy, even in the 12-day train trip from Springfield, [Ill.,] to Washington, [D.C.] He makes little speeches, but he doesn't really reveal what he's going to say. So there's a great anticipation. In fact, there's a great angst about this. Why doesn't he tell us what he's going to do? The tension that he feels is the tension between strength and conciliation. ...
Where does he end up? It feels like a conciliatory speech to me.
I think Lincoln ends up bending toward conciliation. ... Yet in the South, the speech is not viewed as conciliatory at all. They cannot really hear Lincoln. He is the black Republican. He is a caricature. They do not want to hear, probably did not hear his words. ...
Does the speech reveal anything about Lincoln's religion?
Lincoln's religion, in the First Inaugural, is largely absent. You might say it's present in its effort toward reconciliation, but there is no mention of God really, no quotation of the Bible, no invocation of prayer, which makes it quite traditional in terms of previous inaugural speeches. ...
It's also very much a rational speech. It's sort of the lawyer Lincoln speaking: If I can make these rational arguments, somehow the South will understand and pull back. ...
How does [escaped slave and social reformer and abolitionist] Frederick Douglass react to talking about slavery in a rational way?
Douglass is deeply angry, deeply disappointed. He believes that Lincoln has missed an opportunity to say that this war is really about slavery. And by [Lincoln's] saying that he will continue to abide by the Fugitive Slave Law, by which slaves who do escape from the South can be hunted down and returned to their masters, Douglass, who had supported Lincoln and had applauded his "house divided" speech in 1856, now is deeply disappointed. ... He expected so much more. ...
... Is religion important for Southerners in supporting secession?
... [Southerners] see themselves as retaining the purity of the conservative religious tradition. ... They see themselves as not only the defenders of the original colonies' break from King George, but they also see themselves as the defenders of the Puritan vision of a new Israel. They are the new Israel, whereas they believe that many in the North are turning their backs on their own religious traditions.
How do the abolitionists push them? Are they the worst of the worst?
The abolitionists are the worst of the worst, because they are ... pushing what the South believes is a political agenda, not a religious agenda.
The South in these years had developed a doctrine ... in which they spoke of the spirituality of the church. As a spiritual institution, it had no right to meddle in political or economic or social affairs. So the spirituality of the church told them that slavery was a political issue, not a religious issue, and this is how they defended their own response to it, as religious people.
If slavery is a political issue, it means you're not supposed to interfere with slavery?
Religious people are not to be involved with political questions. That's another part of life, another part of reality. You can make up your mind how you want to react to political questions, but don't bring those political questions inside the church. The church is a spiritual institution.
How does that change with the start of the war? Whose side is God on?
Once the Civil War begins, of course, many of these distinctions go by the wayside. [President of the Confederacy] Jefferson Davis had delegations of ministers, as did Abraham Lincoln, telling him, "God is on our side." Remarkably, great revivals were taking place within the Confederate troops. They lifted up their religiosity as a sign of their superiority to their Northern counterparts.
In the North, is religion important to the rallying cry for the war?
Simply to read the letters of the Northern soldiers is to sense the powerful role of religion. Social history has taught us that we need to listen to the common person, and the common soldier will again and again, in his writings, use religious language, use the Bible, speak of prayer, that this is some of his own self-understanding as to why he is fighting this war.
Dominant preachers such as Henry Ward Beecher ... are people who are leading the charge in terms of the motivation, the ideology as to why we should be fighting this war.
And what is the ideology?
The ideology is that Christianity is all about freedom. It is about redeeming the land, and it is ultimately about anti-slavery. So the dominant motif of Northern preachers ... is that the North has this opportunity now to really complete what was left incomplete at the founding of the nation and to offer freedom as part of the meaning of the Civil War. ...
Does Lincoln think that God is on the Union's side of the war?
Lincoln is very attentive to both the use and the misuse of religion. On the one hand, during his four years as president, he becomes more and more convinced that God is the quiet actor in this war. At the same time, he becomes more and more upset at the use -- often by religious leaders, but also political leaders -- of what he would have thought of as a chauvinistic, a tribal God. So he doesn't like it when people come to him to say, "God is on our side." ...
Although Lincoln will increasingly affirm the activity of God in the war, he also does so with a real sense of humility that these ways of God are ultimately somewhat inscrutable, and that Lincoln is not arrogant enough to suggest that he knows exactly how and when and in what ways God is acting in the war.
Does Lincoln believe this country is special in God's eyes, that we are a chosen nation?
Lincoln buys into the notion that we're a chosen nation, but with a caveat. In his 12-day trip from Springfield to Washington, he speaks to the Legislature in New Jersey. And for the fourth time, he will use the image that he is himself a humble instrument or a chosen instrument.
But this time in New Jersey he will add, "and this almost chosen nation." How I would like to ask him, what did he mean by "almost"? He uses the language of the day, "chosen nation," but he qualifies it.
Is he possibly really speaking here about slavery? We cannot be a chosen nation as long as we have this terrible inequity of slavery in our midst? ... I think that Lincoln is really, in a sense, thinking of slavery here. ...
The notion that you can be so sure that we're the chosen nation seems to contradict Lincoln's approach in general. Does he feel comfortable with uncertainty?
... Some of the finest statements of his life are really couched, if you read them carefully, in ambiguity. In the Second Inaugural Address, "The Almighty has his own purposes," there's a sense of purpose here, but there's a sense that we're not quite sure what these purposes are.
Ambiguity in our day has often been viewed as weakness. In Lincoln's day, we had the true believers on the left, who were the abolitionists; the true believers on the right, who were the secessionists. Lincoln, in a sense, was critical of both, for people who were so sure of their belief. For himself, he was comfortable with ambiguity.
... How does Lincoln feel about the death and suffering a year into the war?
Lincoln, like almost everyone else in America, is taken aback by the casualties. The first person killed on the Union side is the young man Elmer Ellsworth, who had become like a son to the Lincolns. ... His dear friend Edward Baker, who had been a congressman from Illinois along with Lincoln, is killed in 1862. So these deaths are not simply numbers on a chart. They are deaths that affect him very personally. ...
But in terms of the war, he believes that this is the cost that is necessary, that this war must be brought to a conclusion, and that the casualties ... are the price that must be paid. And Lincoln, with a heavy heart, is willing to pay that price.
Is Lincoln a man who feels things?
He feels things very deeply. He begins the practice of visiting the hospitals, the mounting number of hospitals in Washington with first Union soldiers and, as the war progresses, Confederate soldiers. He's deeply touched by this. He's already prone to melancholy, but this, I think, becomes part of his melancholy as he recognizes the pain all around him, and the cost not simply of the lives of these young men, but to their wives, mothers, sweethearts, what this is going to mean for the future of the country.
Describe his personality and how death like this might affect him.
I have learned ... that those who are prone to depression are actually people who are partly depressed because they feel things so deeply. They encounter reality that perhaps those who are so positive all the time do not quite feel.
So Lincoln felt deeply the pain of those around him, initially the pain of friends in his life, but now the pain of the death of these soldiers. And this is why he goes and visits with the soldiers. He became the soldiers' president. The soldiers recognized that he was their president, and that's why, as the war progressed, they would call him Father Abraham. They recognize his deep engagement with them.
What was Lincoln's relationship with his son Willie?
... Many people observed that Willie was the boy most like the father, and so there was a very special bond with Lincoln and Willie. He had lost one son in 1850. Robert was away at Harvard as the presidency begins. Now there's just Willie and Tad. Willie is the older of the two. So when Willie dies in February of 1862, this just strikes at the very heart of Lincoln.
Mary Lincoln, I think this is the beginning of her slide downward. She will never fully recover from the death of this young boy. But this death really strikes Lincoln deeply, and I believe it also becomes a central part of the occasion for Lincoln rethinking his own religious beliefs.
Elaborate on Willie's being the most like his father, his place in the family.
There are four boys in the Lincoln family. The youngest son dies at 3 1/2, in 1850. Robert, who perhaps had a somewhat conflicted relationship with his father -- even as Lincoln did with his own father, Thomas -- is off at Harvard. So the two boys, Willie and Tad, are really the heart of the family.
Lincoln is an indulgent parent. He plays with these boys. He doesn't seem to discipline them very well. He's closest, it seems, to Willie. ... He's a boy of high jinks, of ability, just a lovely boy to be around. He rides his pony on the ground of the White House. Lincoln loves Willie, and then Willie becomes ill.
Do Willie's illness and death bring Lincoln's suffering into a sharper focus?
Willie's death is really the sharpest arrow that strikes Lincoln's heart. ... This is his son, and he'd put so many hopes into this boy. ...
On a February evening, , Abraham and Mary are offering the largest party they've ever offered. Hundreds of guests are in the White House, but what the guests never realize is that both Abraham and Mary are going back and forth, up and down the stairs, because Willie is not doing well. Within a week, Willie will be dead, and this is just a devastating blow for Abraham and Mary.
How does Lincoln deal with this death? Who is Phineas Gurley?
I think the missing person in the Lincoln story is Lincoln's pastor, Phineas Densmore Gurley. Gurley, a large, handsome man, finished number one in his class at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1840. He is a member of what's called the Old School Presbyterians. The churches had divided in 1837. He represents a rational wing of the church, a stellar preacher, someone that Lincoln can appreciate and respect.
Lincoln begins to attend the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church with more and more regularity, more so than he did First Presbyterian Church in Springfield. ... With Willie's death, Gurley is asked to bring the funeral sermon in the White House, in the East Room.
What does Gurley tell Lincoln at Willie's funeral?
Gurley's sermon is remarkable. We have the entire text. It really represents the kind of high, Old School preaching. In the middle of a funeral sermon, Gurley is treating out the tension between determinism and free will. He talks about this. And then he suggests that God's will is ultimately a mystery.
I can imagine him leaning forward, saying to Abraham, "I ask you to trust in biblical Providence." And I think this sermon is a real pivotal moment in Lincoln's life. Your son has died. You listen to this sermon. This pastor whom you have respected comes into the White House and suggests to you that you need to trust in biblical Providence. ...
Providence is belief in a loving God with personality who acts in history. And Gurley is asking Lincoln to believe in biblical Providence; in other words, to believe in a loving God who loves us in life and death and life beyond death. I think this sermon represents Gurley's teaching, which will then become more embodied as the war goes forward in Lincoln's ideas and words.
Describe Lincoln sitting, listening to Gurley's words. Why might they strike him?
... I believe that Lincoln begins, in the moment of crisis and suffering, to reappropriate religious beliefs. ... He now gravitates to Old School Presbyterianism, a very rational, thoughtful belief, something that he can get his hands on but where he can still ask his questions, even as Gurley, in the middle of this sermon, is asking questions about determinism and free will. It's quite remarkable.
It's a very intellectual sermon. And here Lincoln is beginning to engage religion at a deeper level, in the crucible of the crisis: the crisis of the Civil War, but the very personal crisis of the death of Willie Lincoln. ...
If you lose a child, what is the comfort in knowing that God's ways are mysterious?
... The comfort is in a loving God, a God who cares for us. ... There's no sense of punishment. There's no facile explanation as to why Willie might be better off in heaven. There's none of that in this sermon. There's this recognition of the mystery of God's dealings, but there's also the affirmation of the comfort God at times of loss.
After Lincoln's assassination, Hay finds a scrap of paper. Why is it remarkable?
... After Lincoln's death, his young secretary John Hay found in the bottom drawer of his desk one of those innumerable scraps of paper. It was untitled and undated. It's on a little slip of lined paper.
Hay ... kept it, fascinated by it no doubt, and in 1872 he gave it the title the "Meditation on the Divine Will." This isn't Lincoln's title; this is Hay's title, but it's probably a pretty apt title for this reflection that Lincoln wrote.
What questions is Lincoln grappling with in the meditation, and what does the meditation reveal about him?
... The central question is, where is God in the midst of this Civil War? He will use the word "will" over and over again, so that this is a God who acts in history. ...
Lincoln is also disturbed -- as he often is in his notes by what he has seen around him -- that each side claims to act on the will of God. Then the logical Lincoln replies in the next sentence: "It cannot be both sides; one side must be right, and one side must be wrong." And then he offers a remarkable sentence: "It may be that God's purpose is different from the purpose of either party." ...
The Puritans would have said, "Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition." In other words, really traditional Christian faith is about God's action and human action, and you can't ever really finally reconcile the two. They're together in ways that are a mystery. ...
But [Lincoln] is saying in this meditation that somehow God must want this war to continue. There's a debate about when it's written: 1862, 1864. Lincoln is charged with ending the war; he's the commander in chief. And yet privately, Lincoln is saying it may be that God wants this war to continue.
This is something Lincoln never expected any of us to ever see. He was not about to publish this. This was his own private musing and reflection. ...
What do you notice in the writing of the meditation? What does it tell you?
What the meditation doesn't tell us is some finished, complete, objective description of his belief. It really says more about his wrestling, his brooding, his reflecting.
But it is not reflecting any more about fatalism. It's reflecting upon who is this God and how does this God act in the Civil War. Lincoln has come to a determination that God does act in the Civil War. ...
Ultimately, as we step back from it, we see it's the kind of intellectual foundation of the Second Inaugural Address. It's written in quite a philosophical or theological language. There's nothing very historically specific about it. It's asking the bigger questions. ... We see Lincoln, his intellectual curiosity, at work here.
Is it important that he crosses out "this" and replaces it with "his"? ...
... God is becoming more the quiet actor in this war. It's not "this force," "this purpose," "this origin," but it is God, providential God who acts in history.
... If God is letting the war continue, what is Lincoln's conclusion, emancipation?
... When Lincoln ultimately makes his move toward emancipation, he will also believe that God is leading him in this.
In September 1862, he says in a Cabinet meeting where he announces his preliminary emancipation that God is leading him to free the slaves. Two of his Cabinet secretaries, ... [Treasury's] Salmon Chase and [Navy's] Gideon Welles, record this is what Lincoln said. God is leading Lincoln toward the emancipation of the slaves.
... The meditation is undated. Why is it not so important to date it exactly?
Historians have long pondered when was this written. ... Ultimately I think the dating is not important. What's really important is that this is symbolic of his journey of faith. ... It shows how Lincoln is changing his mind about religion in the midst of the crucible of the Civil War.
... Is Lincoln entering into a covenant with God? ... Is it a vow? What has he entered into with God over Antietam, [the battle which led to Lincoln's delivery of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation]?
I think Lincoln's words at Antietam are really one more example of his belief that he is a humble instrument in the hands of the Almighty.
Said perhaps by someone else, this might come across as quite arrogant. Lincoln doesn't see this as arrogant at all. He simply believes that this is an act of God in history, to free the slaves, and he, as president of the United States, is put in this position to be, in a certain sense, the executor of this particular act. This brings no particular credit or fame to himself. ...
Up to this point, Lincoln has been adamant that the war is about preserving the Union. In issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, he now says slavery is an important part of the war. How is he "wrestling with the soul of America"?
... He tried every option in the first couple of years of the war. He tried colonization, a plan that slaves would [emigrate] to Africa or parts of Central America and found their own colony. He tried compensated emancipation, where slave owners would be paid all the way up to 1895 for their slaves. And as each of these options came to a dead end, he moved forward with emancipation. ...
The clock struck 12:00 in the summer of 1862. Lincoln had exhausted all the options. And he steps forward -- to the surprise of many in his Cabinet and many in his own party, the moderate Lincoln -- and declares he will offer an Emancipation Proclamation.
How do his personal beliefs and his professional role as commander in chief come together in the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation?
... There are a number of times where Lincoln will offer an official document, and then at the end he will say, "Personally, I believe." What this means is, Lincoln said: If I did not want to obey the Constitution, I shouldn't have taken the oath. I'm operating as a public servant here. You who are others, abolitionists, whatever, you have your own more private role. I am charged with obeying the Constitution.
So this was always a struggle for Lincoln, which I think is often not appreciated for people today, his sense of fidelity to the office and fidelity to the Constitution. Personally, there's absolutely no question that Lincoln's belief was that all men should be free.
Then why is he willing to issue the Emancipation Proclamation? What has changed personally? Why does he make this about religion?
What jumps out in the story of the Emancipation Proclamation is that on the face of it, this is a political move. It's a shrewd political move. It's been criticized as the political move. It's a military move that will ultimately bring soldiers into the Union Army.
But Lincoln describes the reasons for his acting in religious terms: I have been told by God to free these slaves. So Lincoln somehow, in his own religious journey, believes that freedom is something that all persons need to receive and that this story of the American Union is incomplete. If slavery will not become extinct, he's going to make it extinct. He will ultimately run in 1864 on a campaign that will stress both union and liberty. And the motivation is political, it's social, it's economic, it's the right to rise, but there's a religious dimension to this also.
Why does he make it about religion when he tells his reasoning for doing this now?
The fact that he talks about religion in this, I think, is just one more evidence of this quite internal religious pilgrimage, this religious odyssey that has been taking place in these years in the White House, that doesn't surface very much in public. But here it surfaces with the Cabinet, and it will surface in a few other places. And finally it will surface, big time, in the Second Inaugural Address.
... What is important about "the new birth of freedom" in the Gettysburg Address?
In the Gettysburg Address Lincoln uses this phrase, "the new birth of freedom." And as with all of Lincoln's words, we need to see those words at several levels of meaning.
In political terms, it is a new birth. It's something that was not fully realized in the birth of the nation in 1776 and 1787. So this is a new opportunity for the nation to realize fully its meaning.
But "new birth" is religious language. It's the language of conversion from the Gospel of John. It's the language of the Second Great Awakening. And Lincoln, I think very self-consciously, uses that religious meaning of this, which means that the old person has died; the new person has come to life. The old nation has died; the new nation has come to birth. ...
At first glance, it doesn't appear to be. It seems to be a wonderful speech of political vision. And yet Lincoln does something in the speech that is very uncharacteristic. He has written the speech out, which he increasingly has done as he's moved into the role of president. He has it in his vest pocket. He takes it out and holds it in his hand. But then he interjects a phrase, "under God."
That phrase, "under God," I suggest changes the whole meaning of the speech. It takes a natural evolution of political meaning and intersperses a supernatural, something beyond ourselves, God the actor again. ... This imparts a different meaning to the speech.
... Where is the Bible for Lincoln by 1863-64? Is he finding comfort from the Bible?
... Often it's been suggested that this is simply the Bible as literature; that Lincoln finds in the Bible apt phrases, beautiful cadences; that he delights in his knowledge of the Bible often in a jesting way, bringing people up short when they quote a Bible verse and he quotes it back to them more correctly.
I think, however, that in Lincoln's religious journey, the Bible becomes much more a source of theological thought for him. It is in the Bible that he now finds this God who acts in the Civil War.
There are multiple witnesses to Lincoln's use of the Bible in the latter years of his presidency, ... so the Bible is very much a companion of Lincoln, and I believe is part of this reawakening of his own faith and his theological thinking.
What are his favorite parts of the Bible?
His favorite parts of the Bible would be the Psalms, which he memorized. ... He liked the book of Job, perhaps because it talked about the whole question of suffering. But it's a mistake to say that Lincoln did not mention Jesus or that he did not read from the New Testament. He certainly read from the New Testament. Two of the four quotations in the Second Inaugural are from the New Testament. ...
How do you imagine Lincoln's state of mind as he's writing the Second Inaugural?
... Lincoln is asking himself a question that I think almost no one else was asking: How can the South be brought back into this Union? And he understands that if the South is meant to bear the blame and the shame of this war, they will never be fully reunited in the Union.
So he offers what is only a six-to-seven-minute address. It's couched in what I call inclusive language. The second paragraph talks about "all" and "both." All did not want this war. He imputes the best possible motivation to the people of the South. ...
If he would have said, "But those Confederates, that enemy, those traitors, those rebels," why, the crowd would have erupted in applause. I think he very self-consciously lowers the decibels of the address to not evoke that kind of emotion.
And then in the middle of the address, he suddenly says, "Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God." This is his signal to the audience that he's now going to think theologically as well as politically about the meaning of the war. ...
Is there a direct connection between this speech and the meditation?
... The chief antecedent [of the Second Inaugural] is really the "Meditation on the Divine Will."
"The Almighty has his own purposes," is the way Lincoln says it in the Second Inaugural. Lincoln, recall, in the "Meditation on the Divine Will," speaks about the purposes of God. Now Lincoln begins to make those purposes more explicit in the Second Inaugural.
He talks about American slavery. He talks about the judgment of God on the nation because of American slavery. So what was philosophical, theological, becomes more historical and specific when he offers a public address.
What does Lincoln ask of his audience that is not what they're expecting?
The audience was expecting a triumphalist speech, a speech that would lift up Lincoln as the triumphal person in a second inauguration, a speech that would demonize the South. ...
Rather, to the surprise of the audience, Lincoln is asking for forgiveness and reconciliation. ... "With malice toward none, with charity for all."
I think Lincoln must have thought long and hard. Could a nation so deeply, bitterly divided be prepared, be able to act in reconciliation? This is what he's asking the nation to do. ...
If the meditation is wondering about a higher purpose, by the Second Inaugural, what is Lincoln crystal clear about? Why have we had this horrible war?
If in the meditation Lincoln is pondering, asking questions, by the Second Inaugural, he is beginning to offer affirmation, if not answers. He is very clear that American slavery is the complaint that God has against us. ... When he says "American slavery," he is making sure that we are all responsible for this.
Lincoln does something that's almost never done in inaugural addresses. I like to say inaugural addresses are exercises in self-congratulation: self-congratulation of the candidate, self-congratulation to America, how wonderful we are. Lincoln is saying, no, we're not so wonderful. We have this great evil in our midst. ... This is a moral universe. God is offering his judgment upon us.
Why does he make such a religious speech?
I think this is Lincoln the private person now coming out as the public person. He has been thinking these thoughts. He's been working them over. He's been working them out on scraps of paper. And now he believes, knowing this is a religious nation, the best way this nation can come together is to call upon not simply the resources of the Declaration of Independence but the resources of the Old and New Testament, the resources of the Christian faith, which he hopes can issue in reconciliation and forgiveness.
... Lincoln is on a religious odyssey, and now he is sharing that odyssey with a broader public, convinced that this odyssey and these biblical moorings are the key to a reconciled nation that he hopes to lead in Reconstruction.
He had taught himself to be a good war president, taught himself to be commander in chief. But his training as a lawyer, which he defined always to be a mediator, a peacemaker -- I think he was looking forward to the next four years, believing that he had better gifts to be a peacemaker than to be a war maker.
Mostly the audience doesn't get the speech. Why did the African Americans respond to Lincoln's speech?
Frederick Douglass was in the crowd, and he noted in his diary that as he looked around, people were a little bit puzzled. They didn't fully understand what was Lincoln was saying. This was not what they expected. ...
At some point in this address, the reporter for the Times of London thought he heard something coming from the back of the audience. It began slowly and softly, and he picked up the sound. It began to be heard: "Bless the Lord. Bless the Lord. Bless the Lord." And it began to come forward through the crowd. The African Americans picked up the chant: "Bless the Lord. Bless the Lord."
Frederick Douglass understood what they were saying when he wrote in his diary that evening: "This was not a state paper. This was a sermon." And the African Americans were responding to that sense of what Lincoln was saying.
Why did African Americans get it?
... They had always had this high estimation of Lincoln, but now they felt that as Lincoln addressed the issue of slavery, talked about the drops of blood that had been shed, that he was lifting up their journey and putting it in a biblical, sermonic language that they identified with so naturally.
Douglass goes to the White House that evening. What does he mean when he tells Lincoln it was a "sacred effort"?
... I think it's fascinating, his choice of words: "sacred effort." This again shows this combination of religion and politics. It's not separation of church and state; it's religion and politics. Lincoln had done a masterful job of combining the two in the Second Inaugural Address, and Douglass' quite spontaneous response to Lincoln's question was to put them back to him, a "sacred effort."
Was religious meaning put toward Lincoln's death?
Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, , Good Friday. Died the next morning at 7:22 a.m. There immediately on that Saturday were kind of spontaneous gatherings across the country to offer eulogies to his death.
The next day, Sunday, April 16, ministers, pastors, preachers across the land quickly began to interpret Lincoln's death. And they interpreted his death as, in Christian language, an atonement, that he had died for the nation's sins, that his blood was a kind of offering. He was almost the last casualty of the Civil War. So they began to magnify his role. ...
How does the South respond to Lincoln's death?
The South responded to Lincoln's death as they had to his life, through caricature. ... Lincoln was still the black Republican, the tyrant, the dictator. Very few at that moment understood that he was really the best friend the South had.
... How does Lincoln's vision for America live on after his death?
... We see in Lincoln's words touchstones for ourselves. He's one of the very few people whose words seem strangely contemporary. We can still say them in the 21st century and they have meaning. ...
[His words] lift up basic values of what it means to be America. And despite the separation of church and state, he shows how religion and politics can be brought together -- in humility, with the use of inclusive language -- to help part of "binding up the nation's wounds" as he says in the Second Inaugural, ... how religion can be a force to bring the Union together.
... Does he redefine the meaning of America?
He redefines the meaning of America so that this is really all about a second American Revolution. The first American Revolution built this country, but it left a major part of the country as second-class citizens. Lincoln believed in the Emancipation Proclamation that this was a new America, a new birth of freedom, where freedom and union would go side by side. There could be no union without liberty.
Where are we left in terms of religion at the end of the Civil War?
At the end of the Civil War, as Lincoln says in the final paragraph of the Second Inaugural, religion's task is forgiveness and reconciliation. And the question will be, will that task be taken up and executed, or will religion slip back -- Lincoln's great fear -- into a tribal God, or tribal denominations who are going to vie with each other? Will the divisions in the Presbyterian, Baptist and Methodist church remain at the end of the 19th century, or will they be healed, even as the Union is healed? This is the question that religion must answer in the last three decades of the 19th century.
Published October 11, 2010
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