A review of Lincoln's Moral Vision: The Second Inaugural Address, by James Tackach
Lincoln's Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural, by Ronald C. White, Jr.
Lincoln, Religion, and Romantic Cultural Politics, by Stewart Winger
As Lincoln's speeches go, his Gettysburg Address gets most of the press. Its 272 words encapsulate the meaning of America and the Civil War with unrivaled eloquence that still sings to this day. But a recent flurry of books argues that Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address should head the list of Lincoln's greatest hits.
Following his second inaugural, Lincoln wrote that he expected his address "to wear as well asperhaps better thanany thing I have produced; but I believe it is not immediately popular." He explained, "Men are not flattered by being shown that there has been a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them. To deny it, however, in this case, is to deny that there is a God governing the world." Where Lincoln's original draft of the Gettysburg Address contains no direct reference to God, his Second Inaugural Address offers a four-paragraph reflection on theodicy: specifically, American slavery in the providence of God. The address shows the extent to which Lincoln sees the reason and religion of men fall short in averting civil war. In a telling demonstration of pious statesmanship, Lincoln ironically uses both reason and religion to deliver the lesson.
James Tackach, professor of English at Roger Williams University, interprets Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address as the culmination of what Lincoln thought about the most salient issues of mid-19th Century American politics: namely, slavery, race, and religion. Tackach self-consciously attempts to produce a book like Garry Wills's best-selling, Pulitzer-Prize-winning Lincoln at Gettysburg (1992) by blending the latest Lincoln scholarship with his own close reading of Lincoln's speeches and writings. But Lincoln's Moral Vision suffers the vice of its virtue, resulting in a jumble of good and bad interpretations that fails to convey the singular coherence of Lincoln's political thought.
Each chapter of this short and surprisingly well-researched book delivers a confusing amalgam of overstatements and subtle explications that obscures the difficulty of Lincoln's political project and the steadfast adherence to principles that marked his public service. Beginning with his chapter on Lincoln's views regarding slavery, Tackach fails to show the social and political context within which Lincoln had to forge a public consensus to make any progress against an institution he said was "founded on both injustice and bad policy." Tackach closes the chapter with a glib summation of Lincoln's position on slavery as the incoming president: "Though he considered it a great evil, he would let it remain in half the country." Exactly what constitutional power does Tackach believe Lincoln possessed as president to do anything about slavery where is already existed in the states?
What Lincoln explained in his First Inaugural Address and throughout his political career was that the ends of political justice must be sought through the means of constitutional government. In short, any serious student of Lincoln's statesmanship need not wait, as Tackach suggests, until the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, let alone the 1865 Second Inaugural Address, to discover Lincoln's understanding of both the possibilities and limitations of government action toward slavery--an institution that had long received both state and federal protection. What Lincoln called "the sheet anchor of American republicanism"the consent of the governedfound its political expression in the rule of law and the Constitution. In contrast to mob action, these operate to secure the public's pursuit of justice in an orderly, deliberative fashion. What Tackach interprets as Lincoln's "inaction" toward slavery is simply Lincoln's profound awareness that any good he tried to achieve politically must derive from the powers of office vested in him by the American people.
A more direct interpretation of the Lincoln corpus suggests that any apparent shift in Lincoln's view of the existence of slavery in America reflects less a change of principle and more a change of strategy due to shifting public opinion. Prior to the notorious Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, Lincoln rested in the belief that slavery was understood by most Americans as an evil to be tolerated where it already existed but which was placed "in the course of ultimate extinction" by repeated state and federal actions. But as Lincoln carefully explained in speeches delivered during the tumultuous 1850s, only when public opinion moved toward accepting slavery as a possible (or even a "positive") good did he find it necessary to combat it rhetorically so as to limit its spread into the federal territories. Moreover, the popularity of U.S. Senator Stephen A. Douglas, especially among influential Republicans back east, required Lincoln to refute the doctrine of "popular sovereignty" and demonstrate its subversive character in a regime based on the equality of all human beings.
As for Lincoln's "racial attitudes," Tackach takes more than a page from Lerone Bennett's screed against Lincoln as a white supremacist and reluctant emancipator. Even after citing scholars who offer opposing assessments of Lincoln's racial views, Tackach concludes that Lincoln could have espoused racial equality in his senatorial campaign against the incumbent Stephen A. Douglas without "sacrificing a political career." Why? Because it was a view expressed by William Lloyd Garrison "and others in the abolitionist vanguard." Apparently, Lincoln's attempt to garner the votes of legislators in a state that barred blacks from immigrating to Illinois, let alone vote there, was no match for the inflammatory moralizing of individuals who were not even running for public office.
Tackach conveys almost no sense of the animosity toward blacks that Lincoln faced in establishing a political party among folks struggling to find a principle upon which to beat the Democrats. The Republican Party was a fusionist group of Conscience Whigs, Free-Soilers, and Nativists, to name just a few of the disparate political threads Lincoln helped weave into a national banner that would grace the presidency only a few years later. For Lincoln to call for complete equality of civil and political rights for black Americans in 1858 Illinois, where no black constituency existed, would be to resign himself and his party to political irrelevancy. The consent of the governed is the political elephant that Tackach and other moral absolutists refuse to acknowledge in the room that is American self-government. Can anyone speak with certainty about the continued existence of the American union had Lincoln not exhibited a prudence that planted the seeds of greater security for the rights of all in the soil of self-interested but freedom-loving citizenry?
On the religious front, Tackach leans heavily on Allen C. Guelzo's instructive biography Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President (1999) to surmise that Lincoln's perplexing piety comprised a fiercely independent admixture of Enlightenment rationalism and Calvinist fatalism. He traces Lincoln's journey to theistic moralism back to a Victorian skepticism that did not rest content with the "infidelity" of writers like Paine and Voltaire. As almost every biographer of Lincoln has noted, Lincoln's faith deepened during the war years to the point that various Christian denominations claimed him as their own. But how does Tackach bring Lincoln's faith to bear on the crisis of reunification that faced him as he took the presidential oath of office for the second time?
Tackach tries to turn the Second Inaugural Address into a rhetorical sword that cuts an alleged Gordian knot of Lincoln's pre-presidential political career. He sees the address reflecting a "profound" change of Lincoln's views due to the Civil War, and representing a national confession of "humiliation" deriving from "two decades of erroneous thinking."
To be sure, Lincoln acknowledges that he, like the rest of the nation, expected neither "the magnitude" nor "the duration" of the war. In addition, he did not expect that slavery would "cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease." As he described the parties to the conflict, "Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding." However, Tackach takes this to mean that Lincoln learned something new about slavery, race, and the purposes of God in the development of American self-government that would lead him to act differently had he to do over again.
Of course, neither Lincoln nor any other historical actor gets this option. All must proceed, as Lincoln states in the concluding sentence of the address, "with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right." Lincoln consistently applied his rational, rhetorical, and political powers to the perpetuation of America's political institutions in a manner consistent with a self-governing people. Widespread racial prejudice and the machinery of constitutional government limited what he could do, and hence what he could propose the nation do, with regards to slavery and black American citizenship.
To his credit, Tackach makes a provocative and illuminating connection between the Second Inaugural Address and Christ's prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36-42). He links Christ's prayer that "this cup be taken from me" to America's predicament in March 1865: namely, an opportunity for Americans to view the Civil War as a providential "scourge" or punishment for the national sin of slavery and forego the temptation to ask God to bless a more short-sighted solution to the nation's problems. Instead of a foreign nation acting as the rod of God's chastening wrath upon the United States, providence has ordained that America punish itself through a civil war. What more fitting way for a self-governing people to suffer for its national sins than for a domestic war to break out instead of a foreign power to mete out God's punishment. Here, Lincoln's prescience is demonstrated, for he predicted in 1838, "If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide."
Lincoln's Greatest Speech, by Ronald C. White, Jr., Dean and Professor of American religious history at San Francisco Theological Seminary, also attempts to follow Garry Wills by presenting a brief, clear account of the rhetoric of the Second Inaugural Address. Where Tackach's approach seems too clever by half at several points, White limits the scholarly references and attempts a more direct exegesis of the text. To this extent, his less proves to be more, making his a more sensible introduction to the address. But given the profundity of Lincoln's message and the cataclysms through which Lincoln steered the ship of state, White's subject is too weighty a matter not to produce a better book for the effort.
For example, at the end of each chapter, this reader found himself yearning for "more matter with less art." White's strongsuit is giving the historical context of the speech, but this comes at the expense of a more sustained examination of its logic, thereby diluting precisely what makes the address so distinctly "Lincolnian."
White reads the speech as a political sermon, an apt approach and one noted by Frederick Douglass, who told Lincoln that the address was "a sacred effort." Alas, White's thin interpretation does not explain sufficiently how the theological reflection of the key third paragraph of the speech sets up the concluding fourth paragraph's exhortation, which begins most famously, "With malice toward none, with charity for all." To say that "God had been present in the midst of the Civil War," or that "This 'Living God' was bringing about renewal through the purification of human purposes," is true as far as it goes, but White does not go far enough to explain how the "ethical imperative" of the concluding paragraph follows the "political and theological indicative declared in the first three paragraphs."
Lincoln points out that both the war and emancipation came to the country despite the initial intentions of either side of the conflict. Another power must be at work, and Lincoln returns the country to that other, higher power in hopes that a common, national humility before the Almighty would help Americans both North and South to fix what they had broken. How else could Lincoln expect there to be "malice toward none" and "charity for all"? Only by the grace of God could all Americans experience that "new birth of freedom" he called for at Gettysburg.
By his own earlier reasoning, Lincoln has his work cut out for him, for despite a common Bible and God, the American people did not have a common view of slavery. Debate over its injustice eventually led to the Civil War. So Lincoln tries to produce a common view of the war by withholding judgment upon the South alone for the evil of slavery. He supposes that slavery was an offense that came due to both Southern and Northern citizens, and one that God "now wills to remove" through "this terrible war" that afflicts Americans both North and South.
But why should Americans, especially those on the Confederate side, believe this rendering of history? Why should Southern secessionists and former slaveholders now believe that slavery was wrong and thus view the war as a "scourge" of the Almighty? Because it offers the best explanation for what Americans experienced with regards to the war and slavery. How else to account for a war no one wanted and an emancipation no one expected?
If God visited a war upon America as punishment for the offense of slavery, and slavery disappears by virtue of that war, no American North or South could blame the other for the calamity and escape censure himself. Their common guilt means common punishment, and if accepted as such, a common, peaceful future is possible under God. Therefore charity, not malice, must mark their actions toward each otherNorth vs. South, former slave vs. former master, white vs. black. Unfortunately, following the failure of Reconstruction, peace between North and South would be purchased primarily for whites at the cost of scapegoating blacks.
Lincoln had to hide or diminish the culpability of the South for the Civil War, for "a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves"in short, a restoration of the Uniondepended on blame being shared or assumed by all Americans. But Lincoln could not ignore the issue entirely, for he also sought to unite the country as a slave-free one. As he declared at Gettysburg, he intended the American people, North and South, to experience "a new birth of freedom." This meant that Southern secessionists would not be held solely responsible for causing the war; but it also required that they change their mind about the meaning of America. The United States was now to be what Lincoln always understood it to be in principlea nation devoted to protecting the equal rights of all of her citizens. It was a bargain of sorts, which Lincoln explained with a political and theological rhetoric far exceeding any of his public career.
In keeping with the theological focus of Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, Stewart Winger makes Lincoln's religious rhetoric the focus of a thought-provoking study of Lincoln as an exemplar of American Romanticism. A professor of humanities and social sciences at Lawrence Technological University, Winger seeks to plumb "more deeply into the intellectual and cultural contexts surrounding Lincoln" than the typical biography. Lincoln, Religion, and Romantic Cultural Politics presents Lincoln as neither a pure liberal nor pure evangelical in his view of America. Instead, "Foremost among leading Republicans, Lincoln took it upon himself to remind the nation that above the political battle hovered a more important war of words and ideas and, behind this, somewhere hidden, lurked the will of God."
Extending the work of Gabor Boritt's Lincoln and the Economics of the American Dream (1978), Daniel Walker Howe's The Political Culture of the American Whigs (1979), and Allen Guelzo's Redeemer President, Winger examines Whig political theory and rhetoric to show how it complemented Lincoln's poetic nature. He concludes that Lincoln "combined the forward-thinking, prodevelopment, and positive-government Whiggery of Clay's American System with the moral concerns of New England and of the evangelical movement."
While he is right to qualify Lincoln's Enlightenment bona fides with his religious sensibility, Winger puts too fine a point on "how far Lincoln strayed from rights-based Enlightenment thought." Lincoln was as much an Enlightenment thinker as your run-of-the-mill American founder, for he believed in the following tenets of Lockean liberalism: the equality of human rights; government's purpose is to protect rights; legitimate government operates by the consent of the governed; the rule of law; limited government; the right of revolution; and executive prerogative. Or as Lincoln himself put it, "I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence."
Regarding Lincoln's religious expressions, Winger sees them as driven by a Romantic impulse to connect with the divine, though not through conventional or orthodox Christian means. Curiously, Winger gives no serious attention to Lincoln's own poems and offers little consideration of Romantic literature to see exactly how it might have influenced Lincoln's outlook on life. In addition, for a book that explores how religion shaped Lincoln's personal and political outlook, Winger offers a meager interpretation of the Second Inaugural Address.
Winger rightly calls Lincoln "a master of irony," especially when it involves religious matters, but he accepts much of Lincoln's 1842 Temperance Address at face value. Winger asserts "Lincoln's deep affinity with the humanitarian reform movements of the antebellum period," but offers no evidence. To argue that Lincoln was more politician than reformer, as this reviewer would, does not downplay Lincoln's idealism. It simply reminds modern readers of the requirements of consensual government that make prudence necessary for the accomplishment of noble political goals. If Lincoln's speeches and writings prove anything, they prove that he was in his element as an aspiring statesman who in the providence of God was able to ply his natural talents and acquired skills for the sake of a grand public goodthe preservation of American self-government.
A significant contribution of Lincoln, Religion, and Romantic Cultural Politics is its highlighting of George Bancroft, an anti-slavery Democrat and author of A History of the United States, as a contemporary nemesis of Lincoln. Bancroft's populism manifested itself most famously through his surrogate, Stephen Douglas. In this context, Winger interprets Lincoln's "theological language" as expressing a "gut revulsion to the cynical, glib, and hollow libertarian worldview that made self-interest the only principle of right action."
If Winger's book demonstrates anything, it's that Lincoln does not fit neatly into any of the categories posited by most biographers and historians. A man of "superb intellectual confidence," Lincoln was no mere skeptic, no Enlightenment rationalist, no orthodox Christianand, I would add, no simple Romantic. While Winger neatly distills Lincoln's political project as "the effort to reconcile the demands of morality with the demands of self-interest or political calculation," this reader remains unpersuaded that this is the product of a Romantic bent in Lincoln's soul.
The great deficiency in much of Lincoln scholarship has been the failure to grasp and convey the prudence Lincoln displayed when addressing the most difficult political issues. Winger gives short shrift to Lincoln's prudence with a brief critique of Harry Jaffa's reading of Lincoln's "Aristotelian prudential thought"and all because Lincoln refused to compromise on the extension of slavery into the federal territories. The best reply, of course, is Lincoln's: "If we give up to them, we cannot refuse even their utmost request. If slavery is right, it ought to be extended; if not, it ought to be restrictedthere is no middle ground."
To examine Abraham Lincoln's view of religion's role in republican politics is to learn about American self-government: namely, to learn about the abiding tension between our commitment to the equal rights of humanity and our obligation to secure those rights by the consent of the governed. Understanding the relevance of religion and, especially, Christianity, to Lincoln's politics helps us better understand his defense of the American constitutional union as an expression of his faith in God's purposes for himself and his country. As Lincoln put it before the New Jersey Senate en route to his first inauguration:
I am exceedingly anxious that this Union, the Constitution, and the liberties of the people shall be perpetuated in accordance with the original idea for which that struggle was made, and I shall be most happy indeed if I shall be an humble instrument in the hands of the Almighty, and of this, his almost chosen people, for perpetuating the object of that great struggle.