The Conflicted Legacy of Abraham Lincoln
- 2009 9 Feb
On Feb. 12 we celebrated the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth, and on Feb. 16 we celebrate President's Day. The relatively short history of our nation makes these days particularly momentous milestones. Of all of our leaders after the founders, only Franklin Roosevelt approaches Lincoln's renown and stature. In poll after poll, historians and political scientists rate Lincoln as one of our greatest presidents, often the greatest. The many op-eds and essays comparing Barack Obama with Lincoln illustrate how large the 16th president continues to loom in American history.
Many have portrayed Lincoln as a paragon of piety, a champion of freedom, a demigod, and the national redeemer. Despite his unorthodox views, many laud Lincoln as the nation's most exemplary Christian chief executive. No American, Theodore Roosevelt insisted, more fully applied what the churches taught than Lincoln. The 16th president "stands at the spiritual center of American history," historian Sidney Mead argued. To theologian William Wolf, Lincoln was "‘a biblical prophet' who saw himself as ‘an instrument of God' and his country as God's ‘almost chosen people' called to world responsibility." No other president, Robert Michaelsen maintained in Christian Century, so fully expressed "in word and deed the Christian virtues of charity and compassion under trying conditions." Few have surpassed the rhetoric of Josiah Holland, who lauded Lincoln in an 1866 biography as a "statesman … savior of the republic, emancipator of a race, [and] true Christian."
Since his assassination, many others have extolled Lincoln as a man of exemplary character, a near saint. They have assigned him their "most noble traits—honesty … tolerance, hard work, a capacity to forgive … a clear-sighted vision of right and wrong, a dedication to God and country, and an abiding concern for all." Historian Stephen Oates contends that "Lincoln was as honest in real life as in the legend." The Republican was able to take strong moral positions without appearing smug or self-righteous. Numerous observers have praised Lincoln's self-control, calm demeanor, unending patience, and even temperament.
Many have stressed Lincoln's willingness to pardon his political opponents and military enemies. He declared that he was "always willing to forgive on the Christian terms of repentance." Dealing graciously and generously with the South, Lincoln proposed mild terms for Southerners' readmission to the Union. As historian William Lee Miller puts it, he showed "magnanimity to rivals and critics, mercy to the accused, patience with insolent generals, eloquent sympathy to the bereaved, generosity to associates and subordinates, [and] nonvindictiveness to enemies."
Some have even compared Lincoln with Christ. Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy called him a "Christ in miniature" and "a saint of humanity," and John Hay labeled him "the greatest character since Christ." Admirers claim that, like Jesus, he was able to share other people's suffering—especially their feelings of pain, loss, and guilt. He was more ready "to pardon than to punish."
Lincoln's faith is very hard to categorize. Like Job, before his death, Lincoln appeared to trust God without needing to know his reasons for everything. In the final analysis, the assessment of his friend Joseph Gillespie rings true: "Lincoln cared but little for tenets or sects but had strong & pervading ideas of the infinite power & goodness of Deity and of mans [sic] obligation to his Maker and to his fellow beings." So does the conclusion of his private secretary John Nicolay: "Benevolence and forgiveness were the very basis of his character. His nature was deeply religious … he had faith in the eternal justice and boundless mercy of Providence, and made the Golden Rule of Christ his practical creed."
Despite his almost legendary status, Lincoln had many critics while he was president, and he has some today. Writing in the New York Times in 1865, a journalist alleged that Lincoln had experienced more "hate and obloquy" than "any other great leader in modern history." Contemporary critics contend that Lincoln's use of total war violated just-war standards and helped hasten the appalling assaults on human rights unleashed in 20th-century warfare. Some claim that Lincoln violated the Constitution by greatly expanding presidential powers and violating people's civil liberties in his quest to save the Union. Other scholars fault him for not transcending his racist culture and more forcefully condemning slavery.
Most scholars and other Americans, though, portray Lincoln much more positively. As we see it, during the most trying time in American history, Lincoln testified to God's sovereignty, held together a coalition of free and border slave states, kept his fragmented party from falling apart, defeated the rebel states militarily, liberated four million slaves, and preserved the Union.
Henry P. Tappan, the president of the University of Michigan, wrote Lincoln in 1862 that he hoped the history of the country would someday read: "Then the United States redeemed and regenerated commenced a new career of prosperity and glory; and Abraham Lincoln was hailed by his countrymen & by Mankind as the Second father of his country, and the hero of Liberty." Tappan's wish has largely been granted.
*This article published on February 11, 2009.
Gary Scott Smith chairs the history department at Grove City College, is a fellow for faith and the presidency with The Center for Vision & Values, and is the author of Faith and the Presidency: From George Washington to George W. Bush (Oxford University Press, 2006).