Lincoln's Christian Fatalism
Apr 10, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 29 • By DAVID FRUM
Alan Greenspan calculated a little while ago that the United States' economy is getting lighter: One thousand dollars' worth of economic production literally weighs less than its equivalent did in 1973. If true, it's little thanks to the Lincoln publishing industry, whose output shows no sign of miniaturization. Give the word that you'll review the year's output, and you'd better up your Christmas tip to the delivery man, for he's going to be hauling half a hundredweight of books to your door.
Most of these books are, needless to say, intended for specialists. Mark S. Reinhart, a Columbus, Ohio, librarian has compiled a monograph listing every movie and television show in which Lincoln is represented: Abraham Lincoln on Screen. Thomas P. Lowry, a doctor and amateur researcher, has made a remarkably thorough study of Lincoln's famously merciful treatment of deserters from the Union Army, Don't Shoot That Boy! -- a book that offers Civil War buffs great gobs of new facts to master. George Anastaplo of Loyola University in Chicago closely parses Lincoln's rhetoric in a fine essay on the Emancipation Proclamation in Abraham Lincoln: A Constitutional Biography.
These books may venture pretty far off the beaten track. But they add to our knowledge of America's greatest national trauma, and even those who don't feel moved to read them should feel grateful that somebody felt moved to write them.
Alas, it is impossible to feel grateful to the parties responsible for the most lavishly publicized of the new Lincoln books, Jan Morris's Lincoln: A Foreigner's Quest. Not even the most scathing reviewer could do justice to this book's worthlessness. It approaches a kind of absolute zero of badness.
A Foreigner's Quest is ignorant: Morris asserts that "the Missouri compromise [drew] a boundary which became known as the Mason-Dixon line" -- moving the world-famous line more than eight hundred miles to the south and west of its actual terminus, rather a hairraising mistake in a book about the Civil War. It is lazy: Morris's idea of research is to visit places where Lincoln lived and quote what the park rangers say about him. It is cynical: In a desperate attempt to find something new to say about Lincoln, Morris borrows without attribution playwright Larry Kramer's flimsy, but at least novel, allegation that Lincoln was homosexual. It is morally obtuse: Morris analogizes New York governor William Seward's role in Lincoln's rise to power to that of Franz von Papen in Adolf Hitler's. And it is almost physically painful to read: Morris, a former soldier and newspaperman who accompanied the expedition that conquered Mt. Everest in 1953, underwent a sex-change operation nearly 30 years ago and now writes in a tone that is alternately giggly and bitchy, and that altogether sounds as much like a real woman as a blackface minstrel sounds like Paul Robeson.
Morris's book is nearly enough to discredit the Lincoln industry. But, as if in tacit atonement for it, that same industry has produced Allen C. Guelzo's Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President -- one of the subtlest and deepest studies of Lincoln's faith and thought in many years.
Abraham Lincoln was born in the last month of the presidency of Thomas Jefferson on the slave side of the Ohio River to a poor farming family. His Baptist parents adhered to an especially grim version of Calvinism. Lincoln himself rejected their faith, but he never fully escaped their predestinarian theology. In 1846, during his first campaign for Congress, Lincoln explained (to reassure neighbors anxious about his reputation for unbelief) that he had never been a "scoffer" at Christianity, but added that "in early life I was inclined to believe in what I understand is called the 'Doctrine of Necessity' -- that is, that the human mind is impelled to action, or held in rest by some power, over which the mind itself has no control."
Such an opinion might seem to incline a man to despair and fatalism, but Guelzo endorses the opinion of Lincoln's law partner William Herndon that the fruit of Lincoln's Doctrine of Necessity was "not passivity, but charity." "Since Lincoln was a 'thorough fatalist' and 'believed that what was to be would be, and no prayers of ours could arrest or reverse the decree,' then 'men were but simple tools of fate, of conditions, and of laws,' and no one 'was responsible for what he was, thought, or did, because he was a child of conditions.'"
Brooding over the practical implications of providence and free will was by no means a personal idiosyncrasy of Lincoln's. Guelzo powerfully argues that differences over this religious doctrine were as fundamental to the party politics of antebellum America as disputes over banking and tariffs. Whigs and Democrats disagreed over the extent to which state and federal governments should take responsibility for the moral life of the people. Whigs supported universal schooling, restrictions on alcohol, and Sunday blue laws; Democrats opposed all three. One of the recurring controversies of the Age of Jackson was whether the post office should deliver mail on Sunday -- Democrats said no, Whigs said yes. That much is familiar, as is the textbook explanation of these disagreements in terms of states' rights and laissez faire. Guelzo proposes that we factor religious doctrine into the story too.
Because predestinarians believed that everybody's destiny was fixed eons before his or her birth, they tended to be skeptical about projects to uplift the human character. They were therefore powerfully attracted to Andrew Jackson's minimal-government Democrats. Anti-predestinarian evangelicals, on the other hand, held that individuals could redeem themselves by accepting Christ and that temperance and public schools could save those individuals from the self-destructive habits that would impede such acceptance and redemption.
Lincoln was not a devout man. But he did passionately believe in the possibility of individual self-improvement: Indeed, it was this belief that inspired his admiration of Henry Clay, the original author of the phrase "self-made man" -- a phrase that did not in fact describe Clay very accurately (his family was quite well-to-do by colonial standards), but which fitted Lincoln precisely.
While Lincoln's early political battles involved such seemingly routine matters as navigability of the waterways of central Illinois, Lincoln perceived something much larger at stake: the transformation of the United States from an agrarian society, in which individual conditions were largely fixed, into a commercial and industrial society that offered individuals an opportunity to rise as he had.
The denial of this opportunity was for Lincoln at the very heart of the evil of slavery. During his 1858 debates with Douglas, Lincoln carefully distanced himself from the proposition that blacks ought to live on terms of social equality with whites. But he insisted that in the right to the fruits of his labor, the black man was the equal of any person in the land. Nor was it only black people whose freedom to rise was inhibited by slavery: In his famous House Divided speech, Lincoln warned that the United States must become all free or all slave and, he seems to have further feared, that over the long haul slavery might not be inflicted on blacks alone. And even if that should not come to pass, it was nevertheless true that a society whose hard work was done by slaves would naturally drift toward condemning hard work as the province of slaves. Laboring men -- and Lincoln was always a laboring man, although eventually a reasonably well-paid one -- would sink in society's esteem and only men of leisure would enjoy first-class citizenship, as was the case in the republics of classical antiquity.
Many of the more radical abolitionists ended up as socialists, and twentieth-century liberals like Richard Hofstadter have speculated that had Lincoln escaped Booth, he would have arrived by the 1880s at an anti-corporate Republicanism very like that of Theodore Roosevelt in his Bull Moose phase. On Guelzo's evidence, this is implausible: New Deal liberals sometimes chose to regard the captains of nineteenth-century industry as the successors of the plantation masters; Lincoln never would have.
Nowadays, we use the libertarian language of Jefferson on behalf of an ideology of economic growth and technological advance. (To reverse Herbert Croly's famous line about the Progressives, modern conservatives use Jeffersonian means to Hamiltonian ends.) However, Jefferson himself had defended a static, rural way of life, without cities, without credit, without trade -- but with slaves.
In the 1830s and 1840s, that Jeffersonian dream still exerted enough power that those repelled by it were pushed in reaction to adopt the whole of the "American System" devised by Alexander Hamilton and named and popularized by Henry Clay: protective tariffs, a central bank, subsidies to canal and railway construction, cheap prices for Western public lands. Lincoln was not an economically minded man, and he was not going to pause to wonder whether each and every element of the Hamilton-Clay program was in fact likely to have the effect Hamilton and Clay hoped for.
It is at least arguable, for instance, that the United States would have industrialized in the late nineteenth century almost as rapidly and with much less class and regional strife had it eschewed protectionism.
Nonetheless, it is true that Lincoln's willingness to use government to promote economic development predisposed him to cooperate with those Northern evangelicals who wanted to use government to promote moral uplift. Improvement was Lincoln's creed, and it necessarily cast him in opposition to those who -- like the Jacksonian Democrats -- ruled out any hope of individual or collective moral progress. Which is how the skeptical, easygoing Lincoln could make his political peace with these advocates of state-enforced godliness. For him, as for his fellow Whigs, banning Sunday mail service wasn't an attack on the principle of separation of church and state, but an expression of the same spirit of evangelically-motivated moral advance that inspired the founding of the land-grant colleges and the spread of the railways.
The Republican party that Lincoln helped found represented the new commercial and industrial middle class, and it naturally came to be infused with that class's religion.
At the time, it must have seemed incongruous, to put it mildly, that the party of this reforming, improving, evangelical commercial middle class should have been led by a man as personally irreligious as Lincoln -- not to mention one as pessimistic, brooding, and obsessed by the immutable workings of providence. In some ways, he too must have seemed old-fashioned, a man more profoundly shaped by the dour Calvinism of colonial times than by the sun-dappled religion of the later nineteenth century.
Yet, in one way at least, Lincoln was a very modern man. The revolutionary generation yearned for a politics of virtue: They believed that wise and impartial men, if protected from the clamor of the populace, would act in the public interest. The Senate and the Electoral College were two of the places where the Founders expected this disinterestedness would manifest itself. A generation of historians -- Gordon Wood being perhaps the most famous of them -- have chronicled how this yearning gave way to a more realistic acceptance of conflict and the inevitability of party strife.
Accepting something, however, is not the same thing as approving of it. Many political leaders of the 1830s and 1840s were horrified by the efficient new party organization Martin Van Buren assembled for the Jacksonian Democrats.
Men like Henry Clay understood that the days of high-toned Federalism were over. But their minds never quite adapted to the new world, and they could never quite rid themselves of the feeling that there was something deeply illegitimate about party politics. As for the Jacksonians, they too were not quite up-to-date. While they never doubted the legitimacy of their own party, they were unable to tolerate opposition. The Jacksonians believed that they had a party; the other fellows were running an aristocratic conspiracy.
Among the things Lincoln taught his country was a serene acknowledgment of the legitimacy of all parties and points of view. Has ever a national leader waged a civil war against a worse cause with less rancor? Lincoln was led to this generous conclusion by his characteristically gloomy assessment of human nature. Guelzo is especially acute on this point. Lincoln believed human beings to be motivated by their interests; alter their interests, and their behavior will follow. He told self-righteous northerners that if they had been situated as the southerners were, they would think and feel as the southerners did.
Contemporary conservatism is often chastised for its allegedly excessive enthusiasm for material development and its scorn for political idealism. Lincoln, the greatest of all American conservatives, was guilty of both these supposed sins and they in turn led him both to a liberation of America's slaves and a reconciliation with America's slavemasters.
Seldom has the complex connection between Lincoln's predispositions and Lincoln's achievements been more insightfully studied than in Allen Guelzo's superb book.
David Frum is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD and author of How We Got Here: The '70s, The Decade That Brought You Modern Life -- For Better or Worse (Basic Books).