The Magazine

Pious Abe?

Lincoln's Christian Fatalism

Apr 10, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 29 • By DAVID FRUM
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.