The mysticism of Abraham Lincoln

[book cover]When I was eight or nine, a relative gave me my first Lincoln book, The Abraham Lincoln Joke Book.  I loved how Lincoln folded himself onto the cover and how he held the book I held in his hands.  It drew me in: I figured that the Lincoln on Lincoln’s copy would also be holding a book with Lincoln on the front, holding, in turn, his own copy of Lincoln.  Ad infinitum.

It made me think about the recursive images of round frames my sister and I created afternoons at my grandmother’s apartment around that time by forcing her boudoir’s hand mirrors to face each other.  We reflected on eternity: was time involved?  It was hard for me to look into one of those paired mirrors without seeing myself seeing myself many times over, stretching out like mystic chords of memory.

You read enough Lincoln books and you start to see that the books are as much about the authors and readers as they are about Lincoln – that they provide more mirror than window.  The history of the history of Lincoln includes some mighty wide swings in several directions, though mostly from “revisionism” and back.  And no decent Lincoln book gets five stars on Amazon because a lot of people who favor the South’s cause in the Civil War give it bad reviews.

I think the relative who gave me the joke book would herself have given Lincoln about three stars.  Since growing up, I’ve discovered that she has ambivalent feelings about Lincoln, not uncommon for Virginians of her generation.  His party affiliation gives her some heartburn (she is a liberal Democrat, and I think you’d have to grow up here to understand how Lincoln’s Republicanism would be a strike against him even today), and her lineage, which is a large part of anyone’s self-understanding, includes some Confederate soldiers and officers.

But my relative’s ambivalence chiefly comes down to the war.  Although she fully supported the Civil Rights movement and has been a model to me of an active social conscience, she still justifies the South’s succession.

If you opt in, the argument goes, you can opt out.  She also invokes Jefferson – an authority who would settle things around these parts if he hadn’t been so conflicted about things that still bother us – who stated, rather ominously late in life, that “every generation needs a new revolution.”

Lincoln liked to quote Jefferson, too, but mainly to throw Jefferson’s most famous phrase into the teeth of his Democratic opponents, politicians like Stephen Douglas who saw Jefferson as their hero.  In an 1859 letter declining an invitation to speak at an event honoring Jefferson, for instance, Lincoln said:

All honor to Jefferson – to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.

Antebellum Southerners and Democrats didn’t know what to do with Jefferson’s “all men are created equal.”  Some rationalized it, and some, like John C. Calhoun, the great philosopher of secessionism, understood that “all men” included blacks and consequently attacked the Declaration’s equality clause as error.

But the clause was the center of Lincoln’s political thought.  He famously described the Declaration of Independence as the source of “all the political sentiments” he had ever entertained, and he saw the Constitution as mankind’s greatest attempt at bringing the Declaration’s “abstract truth” into a functioning government.  The Constitution was to be defended at all costs, despite its flaws, because the Declaration’s ideals would otherwise fall along with it.  Lincoln’s political moderation found its fullest expression in his strict adherence to the Constitution, including all of its flawed provisions, such as the one requiring adherence to laws requiring the return of fugitive slaves.

Leading up to the war, Lincoln struggled to hit the proper note between his idealism and his moderation.  Allen C. Guelzo’s excellent book, Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates that Defined America, is the story of how Lincoln worked out his idealism and moderation in the context of a political campaign and the polemics of Stephen Douglas, his talented opponent.  Early in his 1858 campaign for Douglas’s Senate seat, Lincoln tried his audience out on the equality clause’s racial ramifications:

“Let us discard all this quibbling about this man and the other man,” as though there were no differences between men big enough to negate their natural equality.  Let us even discard all the blathering about “this race and that race and the other race being inferior, and therefore they must be placed in an inferior position.”  Instead, let us “unite as one people throughout this land, until we shall once more stand up declaring that all men are created equal.” (Guelzo 82)

Guelzo goes on to describe Lincoln’s audience’s reaction to this peroration as “a frozen burst of silence.”

Lincoln learned to dial it back, later emphasizing a distinction between natural rights, which included freedom from slavery, and civil rights, which included voting and marrying whom one wished to.  Douglas was railing, rather effectively in the racist society that existed in antebellum Illinois, about “Black Republicans” (all Republicans were “Black Republicans” then), “nigger equality,” and “amalgamation.”  Lincoln countered in his fourth debate with Douglas: “I do not understand that because I do not want a Negro woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife. My understanding is that I can just let her alone.”  But the political damage was probably done to his senatorial hopes, thanks to Douglas’s race-baiting as well as Lincoln’s own “house divided” remarks in accepting nomination for the Senate – remarks that reinforced Democrats’ claims that Illinois Republicans were abolitionists who would sacrifice the nation to pursue their cause.

Lincoln was usually more effective when he permitted his idealism to burn like a slow, invisible fuse as he defended his moderate constitutional views.  In his 1860 Cooper Union address, probably his best speech setting out Republican orthodoxy on the slavery issue, Lincoln made the historical and constitutional case for his party’s view that slavery should be restricted to the states where it existed and should not be brought into the territories.  The audience’s and press’s responses were electric, and the speech, more than any other single thing that Lincoln did, got him elected president.

Lincoln’s remarks about the Declaration’s equality clause served him much better in the war than they did during his 1858 campaign for the Senate.  As his Gettysburg Address demonstrates, the clause was the lynchpin that held together what had developed into two war aims: the explicit aim of preserving the Union, and the implicit aim – for the abolitionists, anyway, after the Emancipation Proclamation – of ending slavery.  Union men who cared not what became of slavery were fighting to make sure self-government “shall not perish from the earth,” and abolitionists, some of whom years before had supported the overthrow of the Constitution, which protected slavery, were fighting to further the proposition that all men are created equal that the Constitution was designed to protect.

The equality clause became more than the means Lincoln used (in his own mind, at least) to hold together the Union’s disparate war aims, however.  It also became the means by which Lincoln changed America’s view of itself.  The political and religious aspects of the equality clause became a pair of mirrors that allowed Americans to see themselves as both already and not yet – already a co-signer of the Declaration though not yet corporately a full partaker in its promise.  This view came in handy in subsequent struggles to give the equality clause fuller breadth – the women’s suffrage movement and the Civil Rights movement, for instance.

Lincoln was a mystic, I believe, in the sense that Paul the Apostle may be called a mystic. Paul’s genius, according to Albert Schweitzer in his book The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle, was in suggesting to Christians disappointed in Christ’s failure to return in their generation that eternity began at Christ’s resurrection and that they now live, by virtue of their association with that resurrection and in a personal and broadly mystical sense, in both time and eternity.  Eternity, like Lincoln’s notion of equality, was both now and not yet.

Lincoln’s America faced a crisis similar to Schweitzer-Paul’s Christianity.  Just as Early Christians had been looking for their redemption on only an outward and a chronological level, antebellum Americans had been looking to advance republicanism over only time and territory.  Douglas believed America’s territorial advances through Manifest Destiny would help to spread republicanism over the world to the detriment of the world’s oppressors.  The Kansas-Nebraska Act, which rekindled Lincoln’s political ambitions in 1854, was, for Douglas, a way of settling the slavery question so America’s territorial expansion could continue without distraction.  Lincoln felt that slavery and its expansion under Kansas-Nebraska detracted from the moral force of American republicanism, and he said as much in his first speech concerning the Kansas-Nebraska act in the fall of 1854 in Peoria:

Our republican robe is soiled, and trailed in the dust.  Let us repurify it.  Let us turn and wash it white, in the spirit, if not the blood, of the Revolution . . . Let us re-adopt the Declaration of Independence, and with it, the practices, and the policy, which harmonize with it . . . If we do this, we shall not only have saved the Union; but we shall have so saved it, as to make, and to keep it, forever worthy of the saving.  We shall have so saved it, that the succeeding millions of free happy people, the world over, shall rise up, and call us blessed, to the latest generations.

As Harry Jaffa says in his book Crisis of the House Divided, Lincoln believed that America’s “primary action on the international scene was to be moral, not political” (85).

Lincoln met republicanism’s darkest hour by expanding Jefferson’s notion of “all men are created equal” beyond a compact of citizens who lived fourscore and seven years earlier:

The “people” is no longer conceived in the Gettysburg Address, as it is in the Declaration of Independence, as a contractual union of individuals existing in a present; it is as well a union with ancestors and with posterity: it is organic and sacramental. (Jaffa 228)

Lincoln viewed the equality clause as affording each American a relationship, in an almost mystical sense, with the Founders through which he may, if he wished, see his signature at the bottom of the Declaration of Independence, just as Paul taught Christians that they were, in a mystical sense, crucified, buried, and resurrected in this present life by virtue of Christ’s resurrection.

By holding the book that Lincoln held, we hold the Founders’ book, too.

Lincoln’s concept of political religion didn’t start off so grand, but it matured over a quarter century.  Lincoln’s first prescription of “political religion” was in 1838, when he used the phrase to assert that adherence to law should be taught like religious precept.  I think his concept of political religion grew in response to the Kansas-Nebraska Act just as Christianity grew out of Judaism.  The 1850’s amounted to political religion’s second act involving redemption for a nation that had violated the laws not just of man but also of nature.  The openly religious language of Lincoln’s second inaugural is his most famous expression of his more developed political religion.

The Gettysburg Address also expresses Lincoln’s mature political religion.  Its extended metaphor is that of birth, with early references to “brought forth,” “conceived,” and “dedicated.”  Calhoun and Douglas would have had no problem with “our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty,” but they would have balked as soon as the birth analogy took its religious turn: “and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”  Lincoln’s audience knew that Jewish children, such as Jesus, were dedicated to God soon after their birth.  America’s Founders dedicated the new republic to a proposition, Lincoln was saying, and the blood spilled by the war dead – like Christ’s blood spilled on the cross – would lead to a second birth.  Lincoln concluded his address by referring to America’s political born-again experience as a “new birth of freedom.”

Lincoln’s political religion, then, added the concept of redemption and second birth to the political religion he received from the Founding Fathers.  After the war began, one might have updated Lincoln’s 1854 Peoria address, quoted above, to say that the Civil War dead, including those buried at Gettysburg, had washed the republican robe clean with their blood.

The Civil War was no “revolution” in Jeffersonian terms, then, but was the awful cost of a new covenant built squarely on the Founding Fathers’ ancient covenant.

Voters familiar with Paul’s epistles, particularly the Book of Hebrews attributed to him, would probably have been receptive, based on that familiarity alone, to the logic of Lincoln’s constitutional theory and to the force of his religious metaphors in its employment.

Lincoln’s and Paul’s “theologies” are similar in another major, related respect.  Paul described Jesus’ new covenant as an improvement over the earlier, flawed Mosaic covenant, and he associated the new covenant with the more prophetic and sketchy Abrahamic covenant that preceded the Mosaic one.  Lincoln did the same thing for America’s political religion: our second birth – our “new birth of freedom” – is a new covenant that looks back before our flawed but necessary covenant, the Constitution, to our original, sketchy, rights-affirming covenant, the Declaration of Independence.

The primacy of Declaration’s equality clause in Lincoln’s constitutional framework invites a full examination of the Lockean natural rights undergirding the clause, rights which presuppose a Judeo-Christian understanding of the separation and mutual respect among God, humanity, and the rest of nature. To this day, however, most liberals and conservatives believe natural rights are too religious a concept to serve as an aid for understanding American constitutional law.  Jaffa, a Declarationist, has attacked the constitutional philosphy of Robert Bork, William Rehnquist, and Antonin Scalia and has drawn fire from Bork in return.  Jaffa and other natural rights proponents say that, without a historical understanding of Lockean rights, we can become as disconnected from our national ideals as the South became as it radicalized in the quarter century preceding the Civil War and as the nation as a whole became under Manifest Destiny during the same period.

America is not a Christian nation.  Lincoln would never have found such a concept worth fighting for.  If one believes Lincoln, America is dedicated to a proposition and not to a god.  But that proposition requires a certain understanding of and respect for what the Declaration of Independence calls “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.”  Our constitutional understanding, if seen through the lens of the Declaration of Independence, is, much more than are our laws, based on a Lockean understanding of our Judeo-Christian heritage.

All honor to Lincoln, born two hundred years ago today.  May we always have the courage to stick our heads between his dangerous mirrors when the need arises.