U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Lincoln’s Most Devastating Question

I am at the end of a course entitled “The Long Revolution” that looks at the ways the legacy of the American Revolution was challenged and changed over time. The concluding week or so looks at a collection of essays edited by Eric Foner called Our Lincoln. The contributors include quite a cast, from James McPherson and Foner to Mark Neely and Andrew Delbanco. You can see lectures from the crew at C-SPAN.


Delbanco contributed an essay on Lincoln’s “sacramental language” that my students and I found interesting, in part because Delbanco argued that Lincoln’s language is a bridge to pragmatists of later periods. John Diggins had made a similar point as had, I think, William James. For my own purposes, I found Delbanco’s view useful as a way to suggest that Lincoln illustrated how a president could both construct an American civil religion and question the ideological uses of civil religion. In Lincoln’s case, he created meaning for a war that swung between terrible despair and righteous flights of meaning without claiming the war stood outside of history.

To make this point I offer a reading of a particular question Lincoln poses in the most sacramental of all of his addresses, the second inaugural. I would like to try that argument out here.

My argument is based in part on historian Mark Noll’s contention that prior to the Civil War, Americans had developed a dangerous confidence in their ability to understand history. In his excellent book, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis he writes that in the years leading up to the Civil War, a grand alliance between the bible and the Enlightenment encouraged Americans to believe that “they could see clearly what the world was like, what God was like, what factors drove the world, who was responsible for events, and how the moral balance sheet should be read. They were children of the Enlightenment as well as children of God.” Such confidence imparted by the nation’s unique intellectual consensus contained a dangerous hubris for “it also imparted a nearly fanatical force to the prosecution of war.” We know the results of that fanaticism—mass violence and death on a scale never equaled on American soil.

The theological crisis Noll identifies in his book was not over competing views of God, but rather “a story of how a deeply entrenched intellectual synthesis divided against itself, even as its proponents were reassuring combatants on either side that each enjoyed a unique standing before God and each exercised a unique role as the true bearer of the nation’s Christian civilization.”

No other person grappled with this American paradox better than Lincoln. And Lincoln did so because he was intimately familiar with the confidence that led to dangerous delusions about reason and God. Lincoln was a devout rationalist for most of his life, yet, later in his life, also acquired a significant belief in Providence. Lincoln the rationalist had to come to terms with whether the Civil War was a transcendent experience. There was no making sense of a nation with so much promise nearly committing suicide.

But it was also Lincoln’s particular kind of faith in God that prevented him from accepting the war as some kind of blood sacrifice to a God sitting in judgment. As Lincoln reasoned in his “Meditation on the Divine Will,” “The will of God prevails,” but nobody could know what that will was, after all “God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time.”

In his Second Inaugural, I think Lincoln went a step further, pointing out not merely the obvious blasphemy of claiming God’s grace in war, but the irony of a nation that seems ideologically designed to do so.

At the end of the longest, most deliberative passage in his Second Inaugural, Lincoln ruminates, yet again, about the will of God. He says:

“If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we,” Lincoln asked, “discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?”

“Shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?”

It seems to me that the implications of that final question were almost as apocalyptic for the promise of America as the war itself. Did not Lincoln ask if the Civil War had undermined the belief that God had any active interest in the United States? Indeed, knowing that the mixing of religion and politics were not incidental to the prosecution and interpretation of the war, Lincoln wanted to know if the horror of the war had deflated American confidence in the grand synthesis of reason and faith.

I know we often focus on Lincoln’s sentiment that both sides prayed to same God and then both were judged and condemned by that same God. In that notion, Lincoln is said to portray a providence that Americans could not fully know but would clearly feel. Yet, it seems to me that the question I pull from this same address illustrates Lincoln profound skepticism that an objective or normative civil religion might exist–or better, that such a civil religion should ever be believed. And for this reason, Lincoln is not merely condemning the hubris of pre-war American faith but breaking the bond between providence and American history that had led to the popular confidence in a biblically based moral order.

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Ray,

    There are matters and degrees of interpretation here. If slavery and freedom have both been sanctioned by God, then it seems that Lincoln is saying that the best we can do, in the absence of a clear directive from Providence in a particular time and place (e.g. a claim of Divine revelation), then we have to rely on human reason in the sense of interpreting the Bible, or Providence writ in general, for our situation at hand (e.g. slavery, war, union, disunion, free markets, education, Wall Street regulation, etc.).

    I think the “Shall we discern…” statement/question points to limits, but neither undermines (e.g. breaks) nor supports (strengthens) the role of Providence in relation to America’s historical circumstances. Lincoln seems to me to say that we can’t know—we’re on our own with the tools provided (e.g. Bible, moral law, Golden Rule, good sense). And this is a message of the Enlightenment: reason must prevail when surety is absent (and make no mistake, it is nearly always absent).

    Aside: Think of the reaction from the Religious/Political Right if a president acted in this way, meaning framed the rhetoric in this way. Oh wait, we’ve seen it. When Obama says that we can’t know the consequences of our actions, he is attacked as weak and waffling. That’s how Lincoln would be treated today.

    – TL

  2. Tim: Thanks for the comment and the expansion of this theme. In light of reading stuff from Mattson on Carter’s Crisis of Confidence Speech and Kloppenberg on Obama’s pragmatism, I was curious about which aspect of Lincoln’s critique of America we should emphasize. We have everything from Wills’s view of Lincoln recreating the notion of America in the Gettysburg Address, to Allen Guelzo argument that Lincoln is basically the font of American moral authority. So it just seemed to me that the irony in that question I pulled out Lincoln’s speech was such a incisive comment on an especially vexing American dilemma.

  3. Ray,

    I trust you completely on the historiography. I only meant to comment on the tough quote you provided (I had to reread the “discern therein…” clause 4-5 times to catch the entire drift). I agree also that the quote does capture, relatively concisely, the American religious dilemma. I suppose my reaction was to your “apocalyptic” conclusion. I was arguing that the quote doesn’t destroy religious interpretations of Providence in America’s history, but seems to provide moments where the role is held in suspense—which can be negative or neutral, depending on one’s mood while reading.

    I apologize for the awkward, long second sentence of paragraph #1. It should’ve read like this: “If slavery and freedom have ~both~ been sanctioned by God, then it seems that Lincoln is saying that the best we can do, in the absence of a clear Providential directive for a particular time and place (e.g. a claim of Divine revelation), is rely on human reason in conjunction with interpreting the Bible, or rely Providence writ generally, for whatever situation is on hand (e.g. slavery, war, union, disunion, free markets, education, Wall Street regulation, etc.).” …I hope this clears up my communication anyway.

    – TL

  4. Hi Ray–
    My reading of the Second Inaugural is that Lincoln actually answers this question, which is offered in rhetorical form, and therefore has an implied answer. But he goes beyond the implied answer and is fairly explicit: “so still it must be said ‘the judgements of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.” So the qualities ascribed to God by his believers–his truth and his justice–are in no way undercut by an image of a God who cannot be made to serve man’s limited purposed. If error is to be attributed, in this view, it is the error of man in his arrogance, his self-righteousness, and his limited perspective–the attributes of God are those that his believers have always seen in Him. Instead of reading this as an open question, as you do here, I see Lincoln resolving the skepticism by an affirmation of the balance between the suffering of the slave and the suffering of war.

  5. Dan stole my thunder; I, too, think Lincoln answers this question affirmatively.

    I teach the 2nd Inaugural alongside the Gettysburg Address. And while that earlier speech says nothing about North and South, the 2nd Inaugural, after its brief introductory passage, starts with a rather complicated comparison between the two, what they shared, what they differed on, and how these differences (and similarities…since both were willing to fight) led to war.

    Then he turns to slavery, which, while noting that slaves were concentrated in the South, Lincoln calls “American slavery.” The whole passage on slavery and the war is addressed to both North and South. And it’s built around qualities that North and South shared (quite a rhetorical move given the sectional division over slavery).

    Among these shared attributes are attitudes toward the War’s outcome and God’s will:

    Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.

    Lincoln does reject these two sectional Gods. But he does so in favor of an affirmation of divine providence directed toward a (presumably divinely ordained) Union.

    A side question (and here’s where my knowledge of the SOTA in Lincoln scholarship is lacking): I’m not at all sure that Lincoln’s personal religious beliefs were anywhere near as robust as the civic religion that he outlines in this speech. What is the current wisdom on Lincoln’s personal religiosity?

  6. Thanks again to you Tim, for your thoughtful comments and to you Dan, for your reading of this text.

    I want to ask one more question to you both: is Lincoln making a theological or an ideological point as moves from his rhetorical question to his statement regarding the judgements of the Lord?

    I ask this, because Mark Noll seems to suggest that Lincoln questions a particular kind of American confidence.

    In the Civil War as a Theological Crisis, Noll writes: “After Lincoln, American thinkers were increasingly divided between those who, on the one side, continued to trust in providence and who knew very well what God was doing in the world, and those, on the other, who gave up on providence and embraced agnosticism about the ultimate meaning of the world.”

    Was Lincoln’s insight so non-denominational and quasi-Christian that his theological profundity was not specific to any religion, but rather very much directed at the faith Americans had in the nation as a moral entity?

  7. Ben:

    Sorry, I was interrupted while writing my last comment and you had posted your comment in the time it took me to finish mine.

    Again, I am using Mark Noll on the religious views Lincoln held and Noll sees (as other historians have pointed out) a transformation of Lincoln’s comfort with being considered religious as the war progressed. Though Noll also points out that Lincoln had been well-read in the bible before while in Illinois and quoted from it when useful. There seems to be some work yet to be done on the kinds of religious folks that passed through Lincoln’s life during his presidency, from mediums who visited the White House to mainline Protestants. So, if there is a consensus it seems to be that Lincoln could not find a single church that held as complex a view of God as he did and therefore he could not be claimed by an single denomination.

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