False Messiah

A review of Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999) by Allen C. Guelzo.

Presidential hopeful John McCain recently stated that he was of “the party of Lincoln, not Bob Jones.” This could be taken in ways the gentleman from Arizona never intended. For it was not Bob Jones who said “I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white women.” Those were the words of an earlier presidential hopeful, Abraham Lincoln.

In this Age of Information it is remarkable that anyone would appeal to Lincoln as the politically correct standard for race relations. The Party of Lincoln rhetoric, for years the shibboleth of all national Republican candidates, is illustrative of the pervasive Lincoln myth that has held sway in American thought for over one-hundred and thirty years.

Allen Guelzo’s impressive biography, recipient of this year’s Lincoln Prize, mainly supports, but in some ways deflects, the conventional Lincoln myth. By taking William Herndon’s (long time Lincoln law partner) inner Lincoln seriously, but not always at face value, Guelzo builds a strong case for reevaluating Lincoln’s intellectual and spiritual influences. The principal currents that shaped Lincoln’s life-view, Guelzo argues, were his father’s hyper-Calvinist predestinarianism, which he agnosticized into a determinism of necessity and self interest; Lockean Enlightenment, which made him even more “religiously skeptical;” and classical liberalism, which provided him with a Whiggish social and economic progressivism and a decided hatred for Jeffersonian agrarians.

The combination of these influences gave the country a president who would wage war based almost entirely on self-interest; the ultimate means, Lincoln believed, by which providence operates. But “providence” has little to do with a personal God. To him it meant, Guelzo writes, “nothing more than the ‘necessity’ imposed by cause and effect, just as the will responded automatically to motives and the call of self-interest.” Thus, Lincoln’s regular appeal to God throughout the Civil War was in essence an appeal to himself.

Moreover, such self-aggrandizement made him accountable to no one. “Lincoln seems to have been unconcerned that, in attributing all action to an impersonal cause like ‘motives,’ he might be subverting all moral sense of right or wrong, or any possibility of attributing blame or praise for human actions.” But since Guelzo assumes that Lincoln’s self interest was based on honesty, he offers tortured defenses for some of his most controversial actions. For example, it is “ridiculous,” Guelzo writes, to see Lincoln’s suspension of the writ of habeas corpus—despite the presence of open civil courts—as “threatening free government.” The arrests of more than 12,000 political dissidents with “uncertain allegiances,” must be balanced [with] the absence on Lincoln’s part of any effort to establish a personal government” and with the fact that he did not “act more aggressively outside the Constitution.” Thus, as long as self-interest falls slightly short of an absolute dictatorship, and as long as disregard for the rule of law is tempered with good motives and moderation, actions, even brutal ones, are justified.

Uncritical trust in Lincoln’s honest intent leaves Guelzo groping to rationalize the irrational. Although throughout the book he aptly shows the contradictory as commonplace with Lincoln, rather than probing what would normally be seen as calculated deception, Guelzo excuses him as one possessed with a benign penchant for the “unpredictable.” This interpretive problem is well illustrated by Guelzo’s explanation for Lincoln’s convoluted views on slavery and race. Throughout much of his public career Lincoln eloquently spoke of black equality and rights, yet asserted, sometimes in the same breath, that whites were and would always be superior in every way and that the two races should not live together, lest whites be corrupted. He even held out as late as 1865 for colonization, long after most leading Jeffersonians had discarded that option as immoral and economically impossible. Frederick Douglass commented after meeting with Lincoln that he “assumes the language and arguments of an itinerant Colonization lecturer,” which revealed “all his inconsistencies, his pride of race and blood, his contempt for Negroes and his canting hypocrisy.”

This was something that could hardly be laid at the feet of Jeffersonians in the 1860s. As early as 1796 in his A Dissertation on Slavery, St. George Tucker, a leading legal spokesman for Jeffersonian ideals, made clear the moral, legal, and monetary disaster of colonization. But in order to maintain his thesis that Lincoln was an enlightened liberal, Guelzo repeatedly makes the dubious assertion, directly or by implication, that the Jeffersonians were the real Rousseauian naturalists hell-bent on the proposition that blacks were irretrievably inferior and utterly incapable of progress.

Even with his biased interpretations (and all of us have them), Guelzo has given us an exceptionally well written and researched account. Moreover, I can forgive many of his transgressions in light of the masterful treatment of a most insipid myth—Lincoln the “Christian President.” A seminary trained theologian in the Reformed tradition, Guelzo handles religious history and theology with a deft hand. He carefully follows Lincoln’s religiosity and shows the complete lack of evidence that the President ever believed in Christianity. Early in life Lincoln wrote an essay in praise of religious infidelity. Political expediency led friends to destroy the essay. Eventually, Lincoln the national politician emerged as a reverent spokesman for Christian ideals. Yet, there is no indication that his earlier views ever changed. During his presidency he may have, Guelzo writes, become “something very different from the scoffer or deist or infidel” of earlier days, but neither did he make the “confession of a convert.”

A spin-off from the “Christian President” myth was the “Redeemer President” blasphemy. After Lincoln’s death the comparisons of him to Christ flowed with surprising candidness. Joel Bingham’s words typify what came from multitudes of Northern pulpits the week after Lincoln’s assassination. The President gave “a bloody sacrifice, upon the altar of freedom” which “wrought out the painful salvation of the Republic.” His death on Good Friday was “the aftertype,” proclaimed Connecticut Baptist C. B. Crane, “of the tragedy which was accomplished on the first Good Friday, more than eighteen centuries ago.”

Guelzo shows that such fanatical claims were based on the erroneous belief that Lincoln had become a Christian. But in a remarkably subtle turn, Guelzo himself makes Lincoln into a messianic figure by virtue of the President’s unbelief! After all, Jesus the Redeemer did not seek salvation either. Do not the Scriptures state that “he who knew no sin became sin for us” and suffered our eternal punishment? Likewise, Guelzo’s Lincoln selflessly walked into the gates of hell for the nation’s salvation. And in this headlong act his brooding “peculiar providential-sim” of self-interest prolonged the war “past the possibility of negotiation, past the long-term physical and economic devastation of the South, past the horrendous casualty lists” of all the “battles that had to be fought in a war which [he] believed providence had designed.” But that war, a mirror of Lincoln’s own spiritual angst, “produced freedom for the slaves and the preservation of the Union . . „ a price that balanced the redemptive shedding of blood in the reckoning scales of public opinion.”

All-out-war was Lincoln’s way of accomplishing “liberalism’s greatest deed—the emancipation of the slave—” by actually stepping “outside liberalism and surrender[ing] himself,” like Christ, “to the direction of an overruling divine providence.” “Rarely . .. has so much public good and ill come from one kind of religious decision.” And through it all, Guelzo concludes, “Lincoln transmuted” his fiery furnace experience of spiritual doubt and damnation “into the extraordinary gold of a charity for all” and “a malice toward none.” Thus, we are left with our American god who, through his own eternal forfeiture, lovingly saved us from the Jeffersonian wrath to come. Sola Mythos.

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