Divinely Ordained

Eric Foner

  • Lincoln by Richard Carwardine
    Longman, 352 pp, £16.99, May 2003, ISBN 0 582 03279 2
  • Lincoln's Constitution by Daniel Farber
    Chicago, 240 pp, £20.50, May 2003, ISBN 0 226 23793 1

History never repeats itself, but there are uncanny resemblances between policies of the Bush Administration since 11 September and the way the Government under Abraham Lincoln responded to the crisis of the Civil War in the 1860s. Both Presidents assumed powers that went well beyond what the Constitution seems to allow. In both cases, thousands of people suspected of assisting the enemy were arrested and held without charge, and military tribunals were established to circumvent civilian courts. Both Lincoln and Bush met frequently with evangelical ministers, trying to ensure their active support for government policies. Leading members of both Administrations described the military conflict as an epic struggle between good and evil, inspired by the country’s divinely ordained mission to spread freedom and democracy throughout the world. The Bush Administration’s cavalier disregard for civil liberties has directed attention to the permissible limits on the rule of law in wartime. The same issue has become central to recent accounts of the Presidency of Abraham Lincoln.

Every generation reinvents Lincoln in its own image. He has been variously described as a consummate moralist and a shrewd political operator, a lifelong enemy of slavery and an inveterate racist. The most recent full-scale biography, by David Donald, published in 1995, offered a Lincoln buffeted by forces outside his control, a man of few deep convictions who failed to lead public opinion – rather like Bill Clinton. Although conceived before 11 September, both Richard Carwardine and Daniel Farber’s books have at least one eye on the present.

Carwardine focuses on Lincoln’s relationship to different kinds of power – political, military and moral, and the power of public opinion and religious enthusiasm in an overwhelmingly Protestant democracy. (Although feminists have demonstrated that power is an issue in intimate settings too, this is very much a study of Lincoln as a public figure.) Carwardine’s organising theme appears to have been dictated by the title of the series, Profiles in Power, in which the book appears. But it works extremely well. The book offers an insightful, judicious and in some ways original study of Lincoln’s public career.

Where Carwardine breaks new ground is in his treatment of Lincoln’s complicated relationship to evangelical Protestantism. Lincoln came of age during the Second Great Awakening, a prolonged series of religious revivals that reinvigorated and democratised American Christianity, but seems to have been unaffected by these revivals. As a youth, he had a reputation as an ‘infidel’, who read Paine’s Age of Reason and never became a member of a church. But he studied the Bible carefully, and biblical language and cadences suffused his rhetoric.

What little Carwardine says about Lincoln’s religious beliefs is, unavoidably, speculative, but he effectively demonstrates that Lincoln appreciated evangelicism’s political significance. During the 1850s, he worked to mobilise the political activism of those Protestant believers who saw the Republican Party, with its anti-slavery positions and thinly veiled hostility to Catholic immigrants, as the ‘Christian party’ in politics. As President, he frequently met with ministers at the White House and harnessed their vision of the war as a divinely inspired battle between national sin and national redemption. Carwardine shows how brilliantly Lincoln fused appeals to Protestant millennialism and Enlightenment rationalism, to the Bible and the Declaration of Independence, in the Union cause. During the war, he learned to use ‘cadres of mainstream Protestants’ as his ‘ideological shock troops’, and his success in creating powerful public sentiment in support of the war effort contrasted dramatically with the failure of his Confederate counterpart, Jefferson Davis, to mobilise Southern public opinion effectively.

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