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Lincoln at War

Lincoln seems to have wished for a faith his reason could not grant to any religious institution; and some way into his speeches and writings, one is struck by his habit of using other words for God: “providence,” “my maker”—as if he were groping for a truer term. It remains a fact that his concern with more-than-human purposes was strong in 1860, when he mentioned God in many of his short speeches on the way to Washington, and it seems to have been even stronger in 1864–1865. Yet in the Second Inaugural (the proof of his piety for those who see Lincoln as a God-haunted man), a curious reservation gives a conditional cast to an all-important sentence:

If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences 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 offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him?

What is strange is the third-person reference to “the believers in a Living God.” Would someone sure of his own belief have chosen this long way around the saying of it?

Lincoln did not believe in a personal God. His “providence” is an idea of fate, wholly impersonal, which no ritual or text can be supposed to capture. Though the sayings of the Sermon on the Mount find echoes in his speeches, the character of Jesus as a redeemer is never mentioned. The potent words “under God,” in the Gettysburg Address, almost certainly do not mean “under the guidance of a watchful and loving God”; rather, as Lincoln’s other uses of “under God” make clear, his intended sense is likely to be the plainer and more provisional “God willing.” While defending some of his weightiest judgments by allusion and proximity to God, Lincoln may have believed in a power as elusive as a Spirit of the Years. When he ran for Congress in 1846, a rumor forced him to respond to the charge of “infidelity” (at the time a synonym for atheism); and the handbill Lincoln wrote to clear his name is instructive. He says that he is “not a member of any Christian Church” but has “never denied the truth of the Scriptures” or “spoken with intentional disrespect of religion in general.” Yet he admits that in his younger years, he engaged in discussions of “Necessity” (broadly speaking, the thesis that every physical effect has a traceable, nonaccidental, and nonmiraculous cause). Even in this critical position, with his back against the wall, Lincoln took care not to say that he was a believer. Concerning the origin of things, he seems to have thought nothing whatever could be known. His writings contain not a word about the afterlife.

Yet he believed with unwavering conviction in the reality of the moral order. Whether or not the attributes of God can be vouched for, men and women with a conscience know the difference between right and wrong; and mention of God or providence may be the most effective and uncontroversial way of affirming that knowledge to the believing majority. “If slavery is not wrong,” Lincoln declared, “nothing is wrong”: Carwardine suspects the sentence is an echo of the anti-slavery preacher Leonard Bacon. There should be nothing incongruous in that. Lincoln concerned himself with the truths of justice that people believed and practiced; not with the sources of the belief in personal interest, experience, or doctrine.

A New Salem friend, Isaac Cogdal, said of Lincoln that “his mind was full of terrible enquiry”: a suggestive phrase which manages to imply that his search for truth was frightening because it could lead anywhere. Maybe Cogdal meant to suggest, too, that Lincoln was partly driven by fear of what he would find, and that most people lack the courage to pursue such an inquiry. It takes a stretched reading of the evidence to discern, with Carwardine, a “dialogue” between Lincoln and the evangelical preachers which brought his “changing ideas on divine intervention” closer to “the evangelical mainstream.” To give credence to this view, one must accept a remarkably attenuated idea of “dialogue.”

The truth is that people who speak of ultimate things often resemble each other to the extent that they believe morality has an imperative claim beyond any question of utility. Lincoln did think this. One need not go on to say, as Carwardine does in his preface by a quotation from Norman Judd (an Illinois politician and friend), that “Lincoln never told mortal man his purposes—Never.” Judd, in this remark, was not a penetrating observer; the comment hardly rises above commonplace mystification. After all, Lincoln for most of his life was telling his purposes to all who would listen. His largest continuous and avowed purpose was to interpret the Constitution in the frame of the Declaration of Independence.

Recent disputes about Lincoln and religion proceed from an honorable struggle with ambiguous materials. No such excuse can be made for a coarser fallacy, a concocted mystery, as it were, which has gained some currency among journalistic supporters of America’s war in Iraq. They argue that the purpose of the Civil War, like that of the war in Iraq, changed essentially while the battles were in progress. The original cause of war was to preserve the Union, to keep the North and South together, by permitting slavery where it was already established and not allowing it to spread. The late-found purpose of the war was emancipation. This much has always been acknowledged. The new reading adds that Lincoln, like other adroit war presidents, improvised justifications as he went.

The widening of Lincoln’s emphasis from 1863 onward is one of the conspicuous facts about the war, but this development was neither accidental nor opportunistic. The longer one looks at the record, the more impressed one becomes by how little Lincoln had to change of his earliest reasoning. The cause of the war was plain: the South had seceded and attacked Fort Sumter. Lincoln dedicated himself to preserving the Union because he thought the idea of constitutional democracy would perish if it was not allowed to persist in the form of a single, spread-out republic, with representatives from the most diverse states and regions. With secession, he saw the prospect of a multiplication of slave republics in the New World, possibly including the Caribbean and South America, which would destroy the meaning and tarnish the example of the United States.

During the early months of the war, he had grown aware of the enormous cost the South was spared by its use of black slave laborers, who dug trenches, built fortifications, and worked in messes and hospitals and transportation, while many continued to work in the fields at home. This was a resource of which Lincoln believed he ought to deprive the South; and it was nothing against that argument that it would also allow him to right a wrong. He was kept for a time from proposing emancipation by particular hopes and fears: the hope that the South would accept conciliatory approaches and re-enter the Union; the fear that premature abolition would squander the loyalty of the border states; the fear that the slaves once liberated would have no prospect for equality with white people; the hope that the voluntary adoption of gradual and compensated emancipation would bring a less astounding result, with a less fundamental shock.

In the end, he convinced himself that emancipation was justified as a military necessity, and he supported it on that narrow ground with absolute firmness. “The promise being made, must be kept.” From each stage of justification to the next, his logic was sound, and though it was possible to argue the opposite side, no intelligent person of charitable instincts who wanted to win the war could have doubted his cogency. If ever a war had coherence of purpose from start to finish, the American Civil War had it. Then again, coherence is not a thing we should look for wars to supply; and Lincoln had more regret than pride in thinking of himself as commander in chief. He reviewed the cases of deserters from the army condemned to death, and gave orders for clemency where he could see a possible doubt or extenuating circumstance.

He relied on his cabinet, in the ways that Doris Goodwin exhibits in great detail, but his hardest decision was made alone. Lincoln bided his time on emancipation to be certain it would seem inevitable when it did come. The idea of a new policy began to occupy him steadily in summer 1862, and he shared his thoughts with William Seward, the secretary of state, and Gideon Welles, the secretary of the Navy, on July 13; the initial reading of a draft of the proclamation to the cabinet occurred on July 22.

At first, only Edward Bates, the attorney general, and Stanton backed the measure, the former conditioning his approval on the deportation of blacks to Central America or Africa. Unexpectedly, Chase, as Stanton’s notes reveal, argued that the new law “would lead to universal emancipation” and thence to anarchy in the South, “depredation and massacre on the one hand, and support to the insurrection on the other.” Once Lincoln had decided to go forward, Seward gave his support, but he had reservations about the expediency of taking such a step when the Union was discouraged by a series of military setbacks. Lincoln saved emancipation for a moment after a victory.

A second popular fallacy has crept into recent discussions of the Civil War in the light of the present “war on terror.” Two groups, unrestricted libertarians and admirers of an imperial presidency, now look back on Lincoln as a radical innovator in the use of emergency powers. Libertarians deplore what they think Lincoln did, while champions of executive power endorse it, but the two agree that he went extraordinarily far. How true is this? Let us remember that Lincoln was president at a time not of foreign but of civil war, the only extended war on American soil, when the very existence of the republic was in peril. He spoke of the situation candidly: “Must a government, of necessity, be too strong for the liberties of its own people, or too weak to maintain its own existence?” He had both a profound and a practical love of liberty, and a notably unexaggerated view of the meaning of “maintaining its own existence.” He was in fact, by the standards of later presidents such as Roosevelt, Nixon, and George W. Bush, restrained in his use of emergency powers. Lincoln went by a contracted not an expansive definition of state security.

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