April 14, 2004

Lincoln Linkin'

Posted by Ed

I'm afraid I don't have much time for blogging today, what with the unholy trinity of taxes, teaching, and research, but here's an interesting link for you: a Wall Street Journal article by Richard Carwardine on the British view of Abraham Lincoln.

I found one passage especially interesting, but I suppose I'll need to read the author's book to see it fully developed:

Certainly I take very seriously Lincoln's moral relationship to power, and in this I differ from Charnwood only in emphasis, and not in general interpretation. What strikes the neutral reader is the tenacity of Lincoln's ethical convictions: his meritocratic faith; his belief that no one's opportunities for self-improvement should be limited by class, religious beliefs or ethnicity; his repugnance for slavery as a system that denied men their chance of moral and economic self-fashioning; his unwavering commitment to a Union freighted with moral value, as a democratic model; and his determination that the Union should not be lost on his watch. Lincoln's moral understanding of the demands of power was not founded on a conventional Christian faith. But the evolution of his religious thought, his quest to understand divine purposes during the war, his Calvinistic frame of reference, and the ease with which he rooted his arguments in scripture, make it essential to take his religion seriously.

I am also struck by the way Lincoln derived strength from his political relationship with evangelical Protestantism. This has been a neglected theme in previous studies, in Charnwood and since. Yet religion was deeply embedded in the culture of Lincoln's age. Mainstream evangelicals helped shape the new mass politics that reached their maturity at about the same time that Lincoln arrived at his. In Illinois, as elsewhere before the Civil War, the lines of party political division often coincided with religious ones. Alert to the influence of religious opinion, Lincoln's appeal blended Protestant conscience and Enlightenment rationalism. The orthodox Protestantism that sustained the Republican Party and much of the wartime Union coalition was not Lincoln's religion. But he successfully harnessed its power, both to win the presidency and then to rally support behind the war.

I generally find Lincoln's religious beliefs quite fascinating, and they're a nice argument against the view that America's greatest leaders have always been orthodox Christians. I'm also intrigued by the relationship between religion and organized politics. Combine these two stories and I think you'll end up with an interpretation of American history that would surprise a lot of people.

Update: The ongoing series of Civil War articles in The Washington Times discusses Richard Carwardine's new book on Lincoln.

Posted by Ed at April 14, 2004 02:53 PM
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