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.

Lincoln led a battle to preserve the Union that fuelled an intense new nationalism, which, in turn, legitimised an unprecedented increase in the powers of the federal government. The Civil War has been seen as part of a broader 19th-century process of nation-building, and Lincoln described as the American equivalent of his contemporaries Mazzini and Bismarck. But Lincoln’s nation was different from those that were being constructed in Europe. They were based on the idea of unifying a single people with a common ethnic, cultural and linguistic heritage. To Lincoln, the American nation represented not a particular Volk, but a set of ideals centred on political democracy and human liberty, a beacon of freedom in a world overrun with oppression.

Yet American nationalism has also had a strong ethnic or racial element, dating from the very first immigration law, passed in 1790, which barred non-white immigrants from becoming citizens. Lincoln himself displayed the tension between a rhetoric of universalism and the reality of racial proscription. Hovering over Carwardine’s book is the shadow of another recent study, Lerone Bennett’s Forced into Glory (2000), a full-scale assault on Lincoln’s reputation that presented him as a lifelong racist. Bennett’s prosecutorial brief was highly exaggerated, but he did offer compelling evidence of a consistent tendency among historians to downplay Lincoln’s commitment to ‘colonisation’ – the project of sending blacks from the United States to Africa or the Caribbean. This was not a passing fancy: Lincoln mentioned the idea in numerous prewar speeches, a number of messages to Congress and at a notorious meeting with black leaders at the White House in 1862, at which he urged them to encourage their people to emigrate. Carwardine does not try to sugar-coat the fact that for nearly his entire career, Lincoln ‘refused to entertain political and social equality for blacks’ – to allow them to vote, hold office or intermarry with whites. He also notes, correctly, that unlike his Democratic opponents, Lincoln never made crude political appeals to racism and insisted that, whatever their political status, blacks were entitled to share in the ‘unalienable Rights’ listed in the Declaration of Independence.

However, like many previous scholars sympathetic to Lincoln, Carwardine falls victim to what Bennett called the ‘fallacy of the isolated quotation’. He cites many of Lincoln’s condemnations of the evils of slavery, but often fails to note that in the same speeches he called for the colonisation of blacks outside the country (on at least one occasion using the ominous word ‘deportation’). Carwardine quotes Lincoln’s dismissal of warnings that freed slaves would move North to compete for white jobs as ‘largely imaginary’ but not his comment in the same December 1862 speech that the North could bar black migrants if it so desired. (Illinois, where Lincoln spent most of his adult life, made it illegal before the Civil War for any black person to enter the state.)

On the other hand, Carwardine rightly identifies a capacity for growth as the hallmark of Lincoln’s greatness. By the end of his life, Lincoln had abandoned the idea of colonisation and embraced policies he initially opposed – emancipation, the enrolment of black soldiers in the Union army, the right to vote for at least some blacks. But Carwardine is not entirely successful in explaining the transformation. The actions of slaves who ran away from plantations in the first years of the Civil War, and radical Republican pressure for an attack on slavery, placed emancipation and black rights on the national agenda and forced a reluctant Lincoln Administration to begin devising policies on these issues. Carwardine ignores this. He notes that Lincoln never strayed too far from the mainstream of Northern public opinion, but the reader is left wondering whether he guided or was guided by changing public sentiment regarding slavery and race.

Needless to say, Lincoln’s vision of the United States as the ‘last, best hope of earth’ remains very much alive today. So does its corollary: a willingness to flout national and international law when the country’s interests seem to require it, and the widespread tendency to equate criticism of an American administration with treason to the nation and to the idea of freedom. Lincoln’s Constitution examines the legal issues arising from Lincoln’s efforts to suppress the South’s secession. Daniel Farber’s book tackles large questions: did the South have a right to secede; did Lincoln trample on civil liberties? Largely because he shares Lincoln’s belief in American exceptionalism, Farber comes down on Lincoln’s side in almost every case.

He makes a strong argument for Lincoln’s position that the Founding Fathers did not contemplate the right of a state or group of states to secede, and that the Constitution empowers the President to suppress any effort to break up the Union. Nonetheless, he admits that secession poses ‘a difficult problem for democratic theorists’, in that government is supposed to rest on the consent of the governed. Is there no way for part of a people to withdraw its consent – as the signers of the Declaration of Independence did in 1776?

Today, this is a moot point in the United States. No one is threatening to secede (although residents of New York City are sometimes tempted), but internationally, the question is very much alive. We have lived through a period in which established nation states disappeared and new ones suddenly emerged. Would the Soviet Union or Czechoslovakia have been justified in using force to prevent their own dissolution? Will Canada be justified in doing so, if the people of Quebec one day vote in favour of independence?

Farber insists that the existence of slavery undercut the moral legitimacy of the white South’s claim to self-determination. Fair enough, except that the same could be said of the Revolutionaries of 1776, most of whom were slaveholders. In the end, Farber’s discussion of secession reveals the enduring power of Lincoln’s idea that the US is not like other nation-states. It embodies a world-historical mission, and the South’s triumph would have not merely redrawn the world’s political boundaries, but dealt a severe setback to the ideals of democracy and freedom.

The irony, of course, is that administrations whose rhetoric equates the interests of the United States with the fate of freedom themselves frequently limit freedoms at home. The Civil War was no exception. Lincoln was not a dictator: elections occurred on schedule throughout the war, and the Democratic press continued to flourish. Restrictions on civil liberties in no way matched the massive repression during World War One. But during the Civil War an estimated thirteen thousand civilians were held under military arrest. Most were suspected of dodging or otherwise interfering with conscription, or of actively trying to aid the Confederacy. But many were jailed for criticism of Administration policies – or offhand remarks disrespectful of the President. Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus several times (even though the Constitution appears to reserve the right to do so to Congress, not the President) and ignored court orders with which he disagreed. Farber generally approves of Lincoln’s actions. Rights were violated, but not ‘on a massive scale’. He attributes excesses to subordinates and insists that the Constitution is ‘ambiguous’ about Presidential powers during wartime. In the end, his argument is often pragmatic rather than constitutional, based on the need for vigorous action to defend the integrity of the Union.

Unfortunately, Farber fails to address the question most likely to be of interest today: did the violations of civil liberties make any difference to the war’s outcome? It seems unlikely. It is hard to believe that the Union would have lost the war if ‘disloyal’ civilians had been told the charges against them and tried before civilian courts. Similarly, there is no evidence that the repression of freedom of speech during World War One aided the Allied victory, that Japanese-American internment had any effect on the outcome of World War Two, or that the arrest of thousands of persons of Middle Eastern origin without charge, the establishment of military tribunals, and the vast expansion of government surveillance of ordinary citizens since 11 September has made any real contribution to the ‘war on terrorism’. It is entirely possible to maintain the rule of law while fighting a war.

Farber ends his book with a four-page afterword, ‘The Lessons of History’, ruminating on what lessons, if any, we should learn from the fate of civil liberties during the Civil War. The discussion is both sparse and inconclusive. Farber seems worried that his audience will take his defence of Lincoln’s actions as a justification for President Bush’s recent violations of civil liberties. He warns that the Civil War experience does not provide a ‘general warrant’ for abandoning constitutional protections in times of crisis. Rather, he argues, Lincoln’s career reveals the central role of ‘character’ in the actions of the President, since he kept violations to a minimum. But reliance on the President’s character is an odd stance for a professor of legal history to adopt. The point is surely to have a government of laws, not men, one dependent on widely recognised principles of government conduct, not on the personal qualities of the individual who happens to occupy the White House.

What the history of civil liberties during the Civil War and the events of the last two years demonstrate is the fragility of civil liberties in the face of assertive patriotism and wartime demands for national unity. At a time when it has become a cliché among the political punditry that we are witnessing a struggle between Islamic civilisation (violent, intolerant, anti-libertarian) and Western civilisation (liberal, tolerant, devoted to freedom), these histories draw our attention to the fact that strong protections for civil liberties are not an inherent feature of American culture. Well into the 20th century, the social and legal defences of free expression and individual liberties were extremely fragile. Labour activists, socialists, advocates of birth control, campaigners for racial equality and others faced numerous legal and extra-legal obstacles to their ability to publicise their views, hold meetings, picket and distribute literature. Time and again, moreover, the courts acceded to violations of civil liberties during wartime.

Not until the 1960s did the modern jurisprudence of civil liberties become fixed in law. It took as long for the legal foundations of equality before the law for all Americans regardless of race and ethnicity to gain constitutional and judicial protection. These liberties and rights remain neither self-enforcing nor self-correcting. As the past two years have shown, large numbers of Americans (like citizens of other countries) are willing, when hurt, frightened and feeling vulnerable, to countenance significant violations of civil liberties and of the principle of equal protection of the laws, especially when they seem to apply to one ethnically specific segment of the population.

Today, we are constantly reminded that the United States is a special nation, chosen by God to instruct the rest of the world in the meaning of liberty. The language would have been familiar to Lincoln’s generation. Despite his co-operation with the religious ‘shock troops’ of Northern patriotism, however, Lincoln never quite succumbed to the idea that he, or the nation, embodied God’s will. His fullest statement on this question came in his second inaugural address of March 1865, widely considered his greatest speech. How easy it would have been, with Northern victory imminent, to view the outcome as the will of God, and to blame the war on the sins of the Confederacy, paramount among them slavery. But Lincoln’s invocation of religion was self-deprecating, not self-justifying. Both sides, he pointed out, believed they were fighting with divine support, but no person, he insisted, truly knows God’s intentions. Some listeners objected to his comments. ‘Men are not flattered,’ Lincoln remarked to a colleague after the speech, ‘by being shown that there has been difference of purpose between the Almighty and them.’ As Carwardine points out, Lincoln ‘showed much more humility than did most Protestant preachers’. Or, one might add, most current American political leaders.

We have progressed a great deal since 1865. Today’s politicians have a direct line to the divine. Lincoln may not have known God’s will, but George W. Bush is certain that he does. It is worth remembering Lincoln’s great ‘lyceum’ speech, delivered in 1838 when he was just starting out in Illinois politics. Shocked by mob attacks on abolitionists, he pleaded for respect for the rule of law. The real danger to American liberty, Lincoln warned, lay not overseas, but at home: ‘if destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher.’