The Magazine

Pious Abe?

Lincoln's Christian Fatalism

Apr 10, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 29 • By DAVID FRUM
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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).