Fans of MSNBC’s Morning Joe are familiar with the historically oriented and occasionally reassuring commentary of historian and presidential biographer Jon Meacham, currently the Canon Historian of Washington’s National Cathedral. (How many cathedral chapters anywhere have a canon historian?) Meacham, who won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Biography for American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House, has now addressed the crisis of our present moment by means of a re-examination of our Civil War president, Abraham Lincoln, in The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels (NY: Random House, 2022).
« Driven by the convictions that the Union was sacred and that slavery was wrong, » writes Meacham, Lincoln was instrumental in saving one and in destroying the other, expanding freedom and preserving an experiment in popular government that nearly came to an end on his watch. In him we can engage not only the possibilities and the limitations of the presidency, but the possibilities and limitations of America itself. »
Lincoln is always relevant. Recently, however, renewed rumblings of secession – if only as performative anti-politics – should serve to remind us how relevant Lincoln remains. Thus, Texas Senator Ted Cruz recently proclaimed with unabashed absurdity: « Now, listen, if the Democrats end the filibuster, if they fundamentally destroy the country, if they pack the Supreme Court, if they make D.C. a state, if they federalize elections and massively expand voter fraud, there may come a point where it’s hopeless.” Comparing that to the mid-19th-century debates about slavery, one is tempted to recall Karl Marx’s famous observation in The Eighteenth Brumaire that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.
Cruz et al. may appear farcical, but our crisis is not. Hence, Lincoln’s abiding relevance for us.
Meacham is especially eager to highlight the moral and religious dimensions to Lincoln, but he begins and ends with Lincoln as a politician. « Lincoln made his living practicing law, but politics was his vocation. » For Meacham, « while Lincoln cannot be wrenched from the context of his particular times, his story illuminates the ways and means of politics, the marshaling of power in a democracy, the durability of racism, and the capacity of conscience to help shape events. » Lincoln remains worthy of our study, Meacham argues, « not because he was perfect but because he was a man whose inconsistencies resonate even now. So, too, does his bigness. »
Unlike many Americans, then and now (and especially in between), Lincoln left little doubt that he understood the fundamental root cause of the war as slavery and the aspirations of what was often called the slave power. Thus, the 1864 Republican convention which renominated Lincoln (whose reelection was far from a foregone conclusion) resolved: “That as slavery was the cause, and now constitutes the strength of this Rebellion, justice and the National safety demand its utter and complete extirpation from the soil of the Republic.”
What may be news to many is the extent to which the southern pro-slavery cause was not just preservationist but expansionist. « White Southerners dreamed of a slave empire headquartered in the American South but stretching to Cuba, to Mexico, and other parts of Central and South America. Such a white-dominated new nation, a Charleston, South Carolina, newspaper wrote, would ensure slaveholders ‘a great destiny’.” Lincoln understood this, as early as his opposition to the Mexican War (1846-1848) and continuing through his unyielding commitment to emancipation during his reelection campaign and during the subsequent peace « negotiations. » As late as Lincoln’s famous February 3, 1865, meeting with the Confederate negotiators on The River Queen, Alexander Stephens tried (unsuccessfully) to interest Lincoln in a joint campaign against the French in Mexico.
That Lincoln came from frontier poverty is a truism with which we are all familiar. What Meacham does is to highlight the link between Lincoln’s class background (« materially and emotionally impoverished ») and his long-term opposition to slavery. The experience of poor white workers, like Lincoln’s father, led, as one contemporary commented, to a conviction that “slavery oppresses the poorer classes, making their poverty and social disrepute a permanent condition through the degradation which it affixes to labor.”
One could probably write an entire book about Lincoln’s religious beliefs, and indeed much of Meacham’s book focuses on Lincoln’s religious beliefs and their relationship to his ideas about slavery. “Probably it is to be my lot to go on in a twilight,” Lincoln reportedly remarked as a young man, “feeling and reasoning my way through life, as questioning, doubting Thomas did.” That said, « Lincoln’s acceptance of the moral case against slavery and his rejection of the passivity of Calvinistic predestination would help determine the course of his life, and of the nation’s.
As a young man, Lincoln had heard regular anti-slavery Baptist sermons. « The emphasis on emancipation in the Baptist world of the upper South, » Meacham argues, « was founded on a straightforward application of the biblical understanding of human equality. » And equality (as in the famous formulation of the Declaration of Independence) was supremely central to Lincoln.
Meacham emphasizes « « that the Lincoln of the White House years became more religiously inclined, attending services with some regularity and meeting with ministers and congregants. » He seems especially to have been influenced by Washington’ New York Avenue Presbyterian Church’s Reverend Phineas Densmore Gurley, a Princeton Presbyterian. Through Gurley, Lincoln received « an immersion in a Presbyterian theology in which God was an active participant in the affairs of the world. Gurley also saw the battle for Union as a holy cause, as did the minister’s old teacher, Charles Hodge of Princeton. » Of course, many southerners had a different take on God’s designs and, anticipating some contemporary right-wing rhetoric about the modern Democratic party, called the Republican party “essentially infidel!”
To a Tennessee woman, whose Confederate husband was a prisoner of war, Lincoln famously said: “You say your husband is a religious man; tell him when you meet him, that I say I am not much of a judge of religion, but that, my opinion, the religion that sets men to rebel and fight against their government, because, as they think, that government does not sufficiently help some men to eat their bread on the sweat of other men’s faces, is not the sort of religion upon which people can get to heaven!”
To the amazement of many, the United States successfully conducted a presidential election in 1864 even with a Civil War going on. Obviously with an eye to contemporary concerns, Meacham emphasizes Lincoln’s commitment to the constitutional principle of elections and to the peaceful transfer of presidential power. « It was a credit to the constitutional system that the election went forward—and that President Lincoln was committed to accepting an outcome adverse to his own interests. » In another nod to contemporary challenges to democracy, Meacham notes that « some states with strong Democratic state governments—including Indiana, Illinois, and New Jersey—refused to authorize absentee voting. » In the end, despite Democratic obstructionism, « Lincoln received 78 percent of the soldier absentee ballots in comparison to the 53 percent share of the vote that he received from the general population of those same states. The men in uniform had stood with their commander in chief. »
Lincoln, Meacham wants us to appreciate, « kept America’s democratic project alive. He did not do so alone. Innumerable ordinary people made sacrifices, even unto death, to preserve the Union against the designs of the rebel South. But Lincoln was essential, and his ultimate vision of the nation—that the country should be free of slavery—was informed by a moral understanding. To him, America ought to seek to practice the principles of the Declaration of Independence as fully as possible, for the alternatives were so much worse. »
And that, undoubtedly, remains Lincoln’s core relevance today as the nation and system he saved experience renewed versions of the threats he fought against so effectively.