President-Elect Obama started and ended his train trip to Washington Saturday, emulating the last leg of President-Elect Lincoln’s train trip to Washington. Most Civil War era reenactors I know don’t care too much for Lincoln, but this guy Obama channels him, even to the extent of choking up on the day he left Illinois for Washington.
Lincoln, for his part, practically channeled Christ at Gethsemani when he boarded his train and left Springfield for Washington. Standing on the back platform of the train’s rear passenger car, “his voice choked with feeling” according to Harold Holzer in his book Lincoln: President-Elect, Lincoln could hardly get out his masterful farewell address to the town’s citizens:
To-day I leave you; I go to assume a task more difficult than that which devolved upon General Washington. Unless the great God who assisted him, shall be with and aid me, I must fail. But if the same omniscient mind, and Almighty arm that directed and protected him, shall guide and support me, I shall not fail . . . (299)
Lincoln’s law partner, Billy Herndon, testified to Lincoln’s conviction at the time he left Springfield that he would never return:
Not only was he sorrowful at the prospect of leaving home, he was convinced, he whispered, that he would never return alive. Herndon implored him to abandon such thoughts. It was not “in keeping,” he argued, “with the popular ideal of a President.”
“But,” Lincoln replied icily before saying goodbye, “it is in keeping with my philosophy.” (Holzer 294)
* * *
From that time Jesus began to make it clear to his disciples that he had to go to Jerusalem, and endure great suffering at the hands of the elders, chief priests, and scribes; to be put to death, and to be raised again on the third day.
At this Peter took hold of him and began to rebuke him: ‘Heaven forbid!’ he said. ‘No, Lord, this shall never happen to you.’
Then Jesus turned and said to Peter, ‘Out of my sight, Satan; you are a stumbling block to me. You think as men think, not as God thinks.’ (Matthew 16:21-23, REB)
* * *
What “philosophy” would have lead Lincoln to believe that he wouldn’t make it back to Springfield alive? Was it his depression? Was it his fatalism, that underground, life-giving river that caused him to quote morose poetry and helped him to make some sense out of his children’s early deaths? I think Lincoln’s fatalism may have led to his premonition that he wouldn’t return to Springfield, but I think his fatalism in this instance was also reinforcing an important aspect of his political philosophy.
It has been fun reading Lincoln: President-Elect, Holzer’s almost-day-by-day account of Lincoln’s four months as president-elect, during Obama’s mercifully shorter term as president-elect. Despite Obama’s choking up and his train trip, and despite the two visits he has already made to the Lincoln Memorial in the short time since his move here last week, the comparison of the two presidents-elect that the timing of my reading has led me into has brought to mind more of the differences between Obama and his times, on the one hand, and Lincoln and his times, on the other. Polls show, for instance, that the vast majority of Americans are upbeat about what Obama may accomplish, while the public, North and South, was generally pessimistic about Lincoln’s chances of holding the Union together against the steady stream of succeeding Southern states. Obama has turned down several offers to put our economic downturn on a par with the Great Depression, while Lincoln, as quoted above, claimed that his job would be more difficult than Washington’s.
The two train trips served vastly different purposes, too. Obama wanted to honor Lincoln, his chief political inspiration and the Great Emancipator whose work, in one sense, has reached another milestone with the election of the first African-American President. Lincoln, though, wanted to introduce himself to Northern states who had seen little or nothing of him before. He also used frequent opportunities for speeches the trip afforded him to try out themes that would make their way into his Inaugural Address.
Most of those speeches were poorly thought through, and a few got Lincoln in some trouble. The wording of one Ohio speech was overly lawyerly and unduly provocative to the South, confirming, on its face, some of the South’s worst fears by suggesting that Lincoln might go beyond his oft-stated position of upholding slavery where it existed and of disallowing its further expansion. The next day, he was too conciliatory, agitating some of his Republican allies in the North.
Lincoln seemed to hit his stride towards the end of his train trip, though, particularly when he got personal and when he referred to George Washington, as he had done when he had left Springfield. Lincoln did both while speaking at Trenton’s state house, which was across the street from where Washington was bivouacked during his victory against the English. After referring to Washington’s struggle there, Lincoln said:
I am exceedingly anxious that this Union, the Constitution, and the liberties of the people shall be perpetuated in accordance with the original idea for which that struggle was made, and I shall be most happy indeed if I shall be an humble instrument in the hands of the Almighty, and of this his almost chosen people, for perpetuating the object of that great struggle. (Holzer 373)
Holzer points out that Lincoln was onto something in Trenton that he would return to in some of his later, greater orations: a “civil religion” that might help Americans connect the impending struggle for Union with the Founders’ initial struggle for independence. This connection figures largely, of course, in the Gettysburg Address.
Lincoln was saying, Holzer believes, that Americans perhaps “were still but ‘almost chosen people’ . . . because they had not yet endured the pain required to sanctify what [God] had granted them. The test, Lincoln implied, was yet to come” (374).
How much did Lincoln see himself as a type of Moses or Christ, a deliverer or a redeemer who would lead the United States towards the promise prophesied by the Founding Fathers? A lot, I think. But Lincoln’s belief had less to do with a Messiah complex (something Obama has been unfairly accused as having, too) and more to do with an aspect of his political theory rooted in Aristotle and in the Federalist Papers.
This salvific aspect of Lincoln’s political theory is set out in a speech he gave in 1838 before the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield. By “civil religion,” Holzer was referring to Lincoln’s advocacy in that speech for a “political religion” to counteract mob violence that had been recently committed locally and in neighboring states. In his essay “The Teaching Concerning Political Salvation,” Chapter 9 in his book Crisis of the House Divided, Harry V. Jaffa uses Lincoln’s Lyceum speech to show that Lincoln didn’t believe that the American people had demonstrated the capacity to govern themselves (209). Lincoln spoke at Lyceum of a coming crisis that would threaten American democracy and test its capacity for self-governance. A “towering genius” along the lines of Alexander or Ceasar had yet to test the young republic, a genius who, with ambition and superior talents, would rise to leadership and eventually usurp republican democracy:
[The towering genius] thirsts and burns for distinction; and, if possible, it will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves, or enslaving freeman. (210)
Such a figure, according to Aristotle, would have to be ostracized in order to save the community (214).
Laying the philosophical groundwork for his Springfield departure speech twenty-three years later, Lincoln at Lyceum suggested that the Founders’ role was minimal compared with the leader who would have to take America through this crisis:
That our government should have been maintained in its original form from its establishment until now, is not much to be wondered at. It had many props to support it through that period, which now are decayed, and crumbled away. (205)
The Founders’ danger was outside – England – but the future danger would be internal, since the towering genius would come from among us. Lincoln believed that America had learned through Jefferson to assert its rights, but that it had not yet learned that a majority – as central as majority rule is in a democracy – could become as despotic as Caesar. Jaffa states:
The people must be taught, as Jefferson taught them, to assert their rights. But they had not yet learned to respect what they had asserted. The people had not yet learned to be submissive in the presence of their own dignity. (225)
If Americans were to accept Stephen Douglas’s doctrine of popular sovereignty, for instance – the doctrine that left to the legislatures of individual territories the decision of whether slavery would be permitted there – the American people collectively would become as Caesar:
The doctrine of popular sovereignty . . . was a base parody of the principle of popular rights. It implied that whatever the people wanted they had a right to, instead of warning the people that the rights which they might assert against all the kings and princes of the old world were rights which they must first respect themselves. (224)
The Kansas-Nebraska Act, popular soverignty, and the Dred Scott decisiton demonstrated that America’s self-governance at the time of the Civil War was fundamentally flawed, and Lincoln believed America’s self-governance required a kind of political redemption.
Political redemption followed from Lincoln’s concept of political religion, a concept that had at least two levels for Lincoln. Lincoln’s concept of political religion was – on the surface, which is an important place in politics – an attempt to unite the two main, antagonistic strands of American “thought and conviction”: the “Puritan religious tradition” and the Enlightenment. On the Enlightenment side, he agreed with Jefferson’s position on the primacy of the Declaration of Independence’s proposition that “all men are created equal.” On the religious side, he spoke in biblical (and, yes, in Platonic terms as well) about birth and rebirth, as he did in the Gettysburg Address. In this deeper sense of a political and religious unity, Lincoln expanded Jefferson’s notion of “all men are created equal” beyond a compact of citizens at any given time:
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. (228)
Leaning on Plato, The Federalist suggests that, because we are not a nation of philosophers for which an appeal to “enlightened reason” alone is sufficient, appeal should be made to “examples which fortify opinion [that] are ancient as well as numerous” (230). According to Jaffa, “A regard for ancient opinions is a peculiar necessity and a peculiar difficulty for free popular government.” Lincoln provides these ancient opinions by adding to the Declaration’s compact.
In this political religion, the Founders provide the ancient opinion and, eventually, God provides redemption through the Civil War. The peroration of Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address focuses on our connection with ancient opinion, appealing to “the mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart.” A full third of Lincoln’s earlier Cooper Union speech is a refutation of the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision through a masterly historical argument that the Founders would never have countenanced the extension of slavery. Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, however, focuses on redemption, finding religious significance in the war’s protracted horror:
Yet, if God wills that [the war] continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, “The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
To be precise, it is Lincoln’s well-developed political religion and not Christianity or Judiasm that he espoused here, though he was relying on his audience’s strong connection with biblical concepts and quotes in selling it.
All this is muddled, and not reinforced, by Lincoln’s premonition that he wouldn’t return to Springfield alive and by his assassination on Good Friday of 1865. As Allen C. Guelzo points out in his book Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President, clergymen all over the country rewrote their Easter sermons the day they heard of Lincoln’s death. “. . . [A]lmost irresistably, [Lincoln] was compared to Jesus Christ. Had not Lincoln come to set his people free? Had he not entered into Richmond in the same triumphant spirit, close to Palm Sunday, that Jesus had entered Jerusalem? Had he not been slain on Good Friday?” (440) (Never mind that he was shot laughing in a theater – not a particularly martyrish venue that many clergymen of Lincoln’s day had condemned from the pulpit.) As the days and years went by following Lincoln’s death, the circumstances of his death seemed to put his religion in controversy. Christians and the more secular segment of the public each tried to appropriate Lincoln as one of their own. I think the latter had the better case, but my point is that the political religion that Lincoln had fostered fell apart again, at least on the outside; Jaffa’s “two main currents of thought and conviction” – the Puritan’s spiritual descendents and the Enlightenment’s spiritual descendents, if you will – went back to their separate corners and were both trying to tug Lincoln’s legacy along with them.
I guess that’s all right. If, after reading Jaffa, whom I do little justice to here, you find that he works for you as he works for me, then I guess you’re just glad that it was safe after the war for those two fighters to have resumed their cyclical struggle. By that time, we Americans had become God’s chosen people, after all, according to Lincoln’s political religion – not through Lincoln’s death, but through the mighty scourge of Civil War.
But I wonder if Obama feels as if America’s democracy has been entirely purged of its collective towering genius, that is, of its tendency to make a minority’s fundamental rights the subject of a majority’s will. Our heritage of slavery demonstrates, I think, that American democracy may still struggle with submitting to the presence of its own dignity.
Posted January 19, 2009.