When considering great American presidents, Abraham Lincoln’s name is usually near the top of any list. It’s a deserved recognition. Lincoln guided the nation through a terrible civil war that preserved the Union. He also, more than any other person, can be credited with removing the stain of slavery from America’s national fabric.
Lincoln, like any great leader, had unique ability as well as common flaws. Those flaws, however, have not diminished his standing; instead, they help us appreciate the complex time in which he governed. Unlike most national leaders, this president was largely indifferent to others’ opinions of him. He was also tolerant of contrary views and showed a willingness to overlook the mistakes of others. Biographer David Herbert Donald ascribes these various traits to “the essential passivity of his nature.” They produced a presidency whose hallmark was quiet and patient negotiation with allies, rivals, subordinates and opponents.
Lincoln was a man of drive, ambition and confidence. Famously born in a log cabin in Kentucky in 1809, his formal education totaled less than one year, but from that limited foundation he taught himself reading, writing and the principles of math.
His parents were church-going Baptists, but as a young man Lincoln turned away from formal Christianity because of what he considered the emotional excesses of frontier religion. He was also influenced by Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason, with its rationalist attack on religion. Despite this skepticism, Lincoln read the Bible often and would seek spiritual understanding and connection in times of trial and difficulty. His belief in a deity was governed by the Doctrine of Necessity, which holds that an individual’s actions are predetermined and shaped by the unknowable wishes of some Higher Power. He repeatedly quoted Shakespeare in this regard: “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will.”
The Path to Politics
Lincoln moved away from home at 22 and settled in New Salem, Illinois. Helpful, hardworking and with a gift for storytelling, he was immediately liked in that small community. “It was the rare man,” Donald relates, “who could fail to be amused when this shambling youth with the mournful visage began to spin out one of his tales.” This skill extended to political speeches as well. Before he moved to New Salem, friends had asked him to give what they thought would be a humorous rebuttal to a local politician who failed to follow custom by providing drink to those attending a political meeting. Lincoln instead launched into a speech echoing Whig calls for improving local rivers to support the economy.
His natural leadership qualities and his understanding of the Sangamon and Ohio Rivers and their economic value (gleaned from two river trips to New Orleans) led to his name being put forward as a Whig candidate for the Illinois legislature.
“I have no [ambition] so great as that of being truly esteemed of my fellow men, by rendering myself worthy of their esteem. How far I shall succeed in gratifying this ambition, is yet to be developed.”
When Lincoln lost this first attempt at elected office, he purchased half interest in a general store, and when that enterprise failed, he did a stint as local postmaster, taught himself trigonometry and the surveying trade, and even began to study law from borrowed books.
In 1834 he ran again for the state legislature and won, going on to serve four consecutive two-year terms in the Illinois House and becoming a Whig leader in that legislative body. By 1836 he had earned his license to practice law and moved to Springfield to establish a law office. It was there that he met and married Mary Todd.
In January 1838, during his second term in the state legislature, Lincoln gave an address in which he attacked excessive emotionalism in politics. Inspired by recent racially induced mob violence in St. Louis, he warned that democratic freedom was endangered by “the jealousy, envy, and avarice, incident to our nature.” He suggested an approach to governance created “from the solid quarry of sober reason.” To navigate a straight line to right decisions in government, he insisted that the nation must rely on “cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason.”
Lincoln applied this approach to one of the most divisive issues of his day. He had always been antislavery (“If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel.”); but he objected to the emotionalism, hypermoralizing and judgmentalism of abolitionists, believing their effort did more to divide than resolve. While he believed slavery was constitutionally protected in the states where it existed, he felt its demise would come through bans on its expansion into the western territories.
“Near eighty years ago we began by declaring that all men are created equal; but now from that beginning we have run down to the other declaration, that for some men to enslave others is a ‘sacred right of self-government.’ These principles can not stand together.”
Mr. Lincoln Goes to Washington
Lincoln was elected to the US House of Representatives in 1846 and served an unremarkable term. Before and afterward, he focused on his law practice, becoming one of the leading attorneys in Illinois.
In 1854 he ran for the US Senate and lost. At about the same time, the Whigs became irreparably split, and Lincoln joined the newly formed Republican Party, which stood for progressive economic thought and opposition to the spread of slavery. In 1858 he ran again as a Republican candidate against Democrat Stephen Douglas. The focal points of the contest were seven debates between the two men, held across Illinois. In the campaign Lincoln expressed his antislavery conviction strongly, commenting that the founding fathers “intended and expected the ultimate extinction” of slavery. Quoting the Bible, he declared, “‘A house divided against itself cannot stand.’ I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.”
But Lincoln was a politician, and politics inevitably exposes human flaws. He was absorbed in a race where the contest for votes took place in a yet-strong anti-Negro environment. It may therefore have been in his best political interest to draw a line between freedom from bondage and social and political equality. “What next?” he asked. “Free them, and make them politically and socially our equals? My own feelings will not admit of this; and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of white people will not.” He made other, similar statements, which make for deeply disappointing and inconvenient reading today. But in reality his views regarding race reflected the majority view in the North. Throughout his life he remained vague as to the future of freed slaves and may never have completely abandoned the view that gradual emancipation was the means by which the two races could best change their relationship.
Pulitzer Prize–winning historian David Potter says Lincoln could be described as “a mild opponent of slavery and a moderate defender of racial discrimination. . . . [Yet] he held a concept of humanity which impelled him inexorably in the direction of freedom and equality.”
“When Judge Douglas says that whoever, or whatever community, wants slaves, they have a right to have them, he is perfectly logical if there is nothing wrong in the institution; but if you admit that it is wrong, he cannot logically say that anybody has a right to do wrong.”
Though Lincoln lost his second bid for the Senate, the race established him nationally as a rising star in the Republican Party. His name began to be mentioned as a potential presidential candidate—a candidate whose chances of nomination were increased as the frontrunners all had political baggage, making election difficult. Additionally, the party knew that carrying Illinois would be essential for Republican victory.
Newspaper editor Horace Greeley captured party sentiment: “I want [the Republican Party] to succeed this time, yet I know the country is not Anti-Slavery. It will only swallow a little Anti-Slavery in a great deal of sweetening. An Anti-Slavery man per se cannot be elected; but a Tariff, River-and-Harbor, Pacific Railroad, Free-Homestead man may succeed although he is Anti-Slavery.” There was no clear first choice for the party; Lincoln became the candidate because he was, in the words of a supporter, “the second choice of everybody.”
Throughout the presidential campaign Lincoln’s reliance on reason caused him to reject the emotional Southern threats of secession as a bluff, and he made light of potential disunion. He did not rightly calculate the Southern mood, however. Ohio journalist Donn Piatt later wrote, “Mr. Lincoln did not believe, could not be made to believe, that the South meant secession and war.” Four years earlier Lincoln had commented, “All this talk about the dissolution of the Union is humbug—nothing but folly.”
After his election Lincoln gave assurances to the South that slavery would be untouched in the Southern states. He was wholly committed to the preservation of the Union, though by force if necessary. And force it would take. Despite his assurances, 11 states eventually bolted. War came in April 1861 and raged for four terrible years.
Seeking Peace—and Purpose
With his election as president, Lincoln began to speak in increasingly religious terms. On his way to assume office in Washington, he told an assembled crowd, “Without the assistance of [the] Divine Being, . . . I cannot succeed.”
As the casualty lists grew and the war continued without resolution, he told a small delegation of Quakers (as reported the next day in the New York Tribune) “that he was deeply sensible of his need of Divine assistance. He had sometime thought that perhaps he might be an instrument in God’s hands of accomplishing a great work.” He often searched the pages of the Bible for answers to why the struggle endured.
At a particularly difficult time during the war, the president wrote to himself some thoughts on God’s purpose in allowing the conflict: “I am almost ready to say . . . that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet. . . . He could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest. Yet the contest began. And, having begun He could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds.” He had prefaced these words with an especially insightful yet unsettling notion: “It is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party.”
After 15 months of war, the military fortunes of the North were in jeopardy. With humiliating defeats in battle, the hope of a short encounter to end the rebellion had evaporated. During a carriage ride with two members of his cabinet, Lincoln said he “had about come to the conclusion . . . that we must free the slaves or be ourselves subdued.” On another occasion, recalling events that had brought the nation to that point, he noted that “we had about played our last card, and must change our tactics, or lose the game!”
Lincoln believed Congress lacked the authority to end slavery. But he knew he had the authority within his war powers to act himself. The Emancipation Proclamation issued January 1, 1863, was put forward as a “fit and necessary war measure.”
Without question Lincoln was convinced that this was the correct course: “I never, in my life, felt more certain that I was doing right, than I do in signing this paper.” But it was more than a maneuver to free society from a national shame. Lincoln spoke truthfully regarding military necessity, as he sought to deprive the South of the slave labor needed to support its economic ability to wage war and to man the Confederate Army. He also acted to ensure that Britain and France would not formally recognize the Confederacy as a nation.
Yet in August 1862 the president had written, “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery.” Written so soon before the Emancipation Proclamation, this statement may seem oddly incongruous, but it simply reflects his long-held certainty that slavery would end anyway by means of exclusion from western states and territories. As deaths increased, however, he also deeply desired the soonest possible end to the bloody conflict, with the Union fully restored. If the war could have ended with the Union intact and slaves gradually emancipated, Lincoln would likely have accepted that option. But his thoughts were bending toward a greater objective.
On November 19, 1863, the president dedicated a cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where a three-day battle had resulted in the war’s highest casualties. The Gettysburg Address is one of the briefest yet most moving of all national writings. In his address he offered a renewal of the intent of the Declaration of Independence—that the nation had been “conceived in Liberty”; he urged his audience to “highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.” Lincoln thus enlarged the aims of the war from preservation of the Union alone to preservation of the Union and freedom from bondage for all.
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”
As the war drew to an end, Lincoln was reelected president. In his second inaugural address, given March 4, 1865 (six weeks before his assassination), he presented the nation with a message that social reformer and former slave Frederick Douglass termed a “sacred effort”: The president now confidently declared that “the Almighty has His own purposes” apart from the partisan goals of either side in the conflict. He later wrote that to deny this was “to deny that there is a God governing the world,” adding, “It is a truth which I thought needed to be told.”
Lincoln went on to speculate that the war might be God’s punishment for the entire nation’s inhumanity. With hope more than certainty, he stated the nation’s desire: “Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away.” But then, darkly, he suggested that atonement for the national sin, present since the founding of the country and with common responsibility, might yet require a high price. Despite this, he had come to a point in his life where he recognized that God’s wisdom and purpose were unassailable: “If God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.’”
He concluded his address: “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds. . . .”
Lincoln’s desire was for reunion, not retribution. He advocated a lenient pathway to reunification with the rebellious states, asking primarily for an oath of loyalty to the Constitution and an acceptance of presidential proclamations and legislative acts to end slavery. But his assassination by John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865, gave control of Reconstruction to a harsher element, thus prolonging sectional strife after the war’s end.
“In regard to this Great Book, I have but to say, it is the best gift God has given to man. . . . But for it we could not know right from wrong. All things most desirable for man’s welfare, here and hereafter, are to be found portrayed in it.”
Given the gradual evolution of his views, Abraham Lincoln could be described as a pilgrim on the road to emancipation. But American author Stephen Mansfield also portrays him as “a religious pilgrim” searching for spiritual truth. Although early in life quite skeptical of religion, Lincoln’s skepticism was replaced with a deep belief in God’s interaction with man for His own purpose. While the 16th president of the United States is remembered and widely respected for what he accomplished during his time in office, this critical aspect of his eventual worldview is only rarely acknowledged.