The Spring 2015 issue of the Claremont Review of Books featured a review by Lucas E. Morel of Richard Brookhiser’s latest book, Founders’ Son: A Life of Abraham Lincoln. We’re pleased to offer a discussion of important points raised in the review and book. Mr. Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and the author of 12 books, eight of which concern the American founding. Mr. Morel is a professor of politics at Washington and Lee University. Their discussion is joined by Allen C. Guelzo, Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College, and a frequent CRB contributor.
Richard Brookhiser: First, thanks to Lucas Morel for his incisive and large-hearted review. It is a lucky author who is taken so seriously and explained so well. Truly it is a keeper.
Morel and I mostly agree on Lincoln and the founders, but part ways on Lincoln’s religion. There are two reasons for this, one biographical, one historical.
Morel downplays Lincoln’s congenital darkness. It is risky diagnosing dead people, but Lincoln was certainly prone to depression in the ordinary sense of the word, if not the medical. His temperament found expression in his reading. Morel leaves Byron, romanticism’s Jim Morrison, off my list of Lincoln’s favorite poets, and leans too much on the religious consolation to be found in Shakespeare. But there isn’t much religious consolation in Shakespeare, except perhaps in the romances and some of the comedies, which Lincoln did not prize. His inner theater played Macbeth, not The Winter’s Tale or A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The verses Lincoln himself wrote are bleak indeed.
Lincoln’s temperament inflected his understanding of the nature of things. I believe one reason his youthful intoxication with Thomas Paine’s deism wore off was that it was too optimistic for him: religions are horrible, but the God of philosophy and science made a wonderful world! We must imagine Lincoln thinking, And where is that?
Morel argues that Lincoln, like George Washington before him, believed in an all-superintending Providence. He did, but their Providences were different. Washington’s was no New Age comforter (follow your bliss), but it did tend to reward hard work in the world. Lincoln’s Providence could be capricious, cruel and opaque. In Lincoln’s lifetime it killed his mother, sister, sweetheart, and two of his sons. Before he was born it murdered Abraham Lincoln, his grandfather and namesake. Probably that is why Lincoln invoked Providence less often than Washington did.
Morel also downplays Lincoln’s war-time experience. The depressive found himself in a world even more depressing than his worldview. Morel acknowledges the “body count” of the Civil War, “exceeding any sane American’s expectation.” But we should dwell on that body count. Friends, relatives, and strangers, disfigured, killed, or executed for breaches of discipline, all reported as a matter of routine to the commander-in-chief and doubled by the victims on the other side who, Lincoln believed, were also all Americans—it was his own multitudinous seas, incarnadined. For four years nothing he tried—neither the appeal to “the better angels of our nature” in the last paragraph of his First Inaugural, nor his restless search for commanders who could give him victory, nor his repeated offers to both loyal and rebel slave states of compensated emancipation—lessened or stanched the flow. Lincoln the reasoner was finally driven to the explanation he offered in the third paragraph of his Second Inaugural: God willed these horrors to punish the national sin of slavery.
I called the “moral calculus” of this eloquent paragraph “outrageous” because I cannot see why a youth from Vermont whose nearest brush with slavery was the cotton in his shirt should be sliced by grape shot, or why a youth from Tennessee who never owned a slave should be snuffed by a Minie ball. (The Tennessean would be more culpable as a supporter of secession, but is even that grave mistake a capital crime in the Lord’s books? The Union did not summarily execute rebel POWs). Lincoln was trying in his Second Inaugural to explain devastation that had already occurred. But what does an explanation that outrages sense and morality explain? “The Almighty has his own purposes,” said Lincoln. He might better have left it at that.
Thankfully, he gave us in the fourth paragraph of the Second Inaugural a new thought and a new task, embodied in his list of what Americans must now do to heal their wounds. If I may add a footnote to prophecy, I will quote myself:
The end of the Second Inaugural marked one more stage in Lincoln’s thinking about fathers and sons. After letting go of the founding fathers he had faced God the Father directly. He wrestled with Him, as he and his father had wrestled with bullies; as Jacob had wrestled with the angel. Lincoln had a bad bout of it, being thrown again and again. After that painful turmoil, now he and the country had to address the tasks of peace. Now they would have to be men.
God figures in Lincoln’s manly vision as a guide (“as God gives us to see the right”) but the work is up to us. I find Lincoln’s religion deep, dark, frightening, partial, and (somewhat) hopeful.
Allen Guelzo: I understand Richard Brookhiser’s unwillingness to concede much ground to Lucas Morel on the shape of Lincoln’s religion. And I think he rightly perceives a distinct difference between Washington, who was shaped by a chilly Latitudinarian Anglicanism, and Lincoln, whose religious background was painted by the starkest of frontier Calvinisms. In fact, I would draw a brighter line between the two than either Brookhiser or Morel. Washington moved comfortably within the orbit of 18th-century Latitudinarianism—the orbit of Tillotson, Clarke and Bishop Butler, as opposed to Whitefield, Edwards or the Wesleys—as did many of the founders. One never finds in Washington much that could be described as devotional, notwithstanding those saccharine depictions of Washington at prayer (which strike me as the closest thing in Protestant iconography to Eudist devotion) in the snows of Valley Forge. Lincoln, however, was an intellectual rebel. In just the same spirit that he rejected his father’s come-day-go-day world of rowdyism, drunkenness, and bullying, he also rejected his father’s unvarnished predestinarianism, and it’s probably true that if his father had been a member of the Drones Club, Lincoln would have had something snarky to say about that, too.
This is why he found Paine so irresistible: Paine plays well to youthful rebels, as does Volney. This is also why, as Lincoln matured, he was more willing to listen to James Smith and other common-sense reconcilers of reason and revelation (his last comment on the subject to Noah Brooks was an expression of admiration for Bishop Butler and a desire to tackle Jonathan Edwards’s The Freedom of the Will). They speak with patience, not ferocity; they are adult, not juvenile; they are bourgeois, rather than Romantic. And the adult Lincoln put a high value on being patient, adult (even to the point of earning the moniker old Mister Lincoln when he was in his forties) and bourgeois.
It seems to me, however, that Lincoln is more nearly akin to the prisoner who assaults his jailer but remains in jail. He rejected his father’s Calvinism; yet, determinism of some sort remained the default position of his thinking, like an incubus he could never quite shake off. This is why, although he thought “nothing equals Macbeth” in the Shakespearean canon, his favorite passage was the king’s soliloquy in Hamlet (O, my offense is rank)—not because it articulates any distinctive theological viewpoint, but because Claudius’ lament is a kind of soft, almost Stoic, moral determinism:
Though inclination be as sharp as will,
My stronger guilt defeats my strong intent,
And, like a man to double business bound,
I stand in pause where I shall first begin,
And both neglect.
This is an unusual feature in Lincoln’s thinking, since so much of the religious Enlightenment, and even the religious counter-Enlightenment, fled in terror from any form of determinism into a more intellectually-lackadaisical free-willism. Only the most radically secular Enlightenment thinkers—la Mettrie or d’Holbach—were frank mechanists. Lincoln spoke of himself as a fatalist, a sort of denatured Calvinist, who believed that self-interest was the governing motive in human decision-making. Whether there was a self-conscious personality directing those motives was the key issue. Earlier in life, Lincoln was inclined to believe there wasn’t; under the pressure of the Civil War’s erratic course, he could find no other explanation for the twists-and-turns of events except in some over-ruling intelligence. Similarly, determinists of the Utilitarian sort generally included (like Jeremy Bentham) a dismissal of natural law in their portfolio as “nonsense on stilts.” Lincoln, however, believed whole-heartedly in a fundamental natural law and natural rights. These formed his ultimate appeal against slavery. Slavery was “a gross outrage on the law of nature…so plain, that the most dumb and stupid slave that ever toiled for a master, does constantly know that he is wronged.”
And yet, even at that point, Lincoln was disinclined to sidle-up too closely to the theologians. I am not as convinced as Brookhiser that the God Lincoln invokes in the Second Inaugural is “capricious, cruel, and opaque.” That requires an ability to define God which, by simple definition, human beings lack, and which Lincoln himself expressly denied to himself. That we find the “calculus” that punishes North and South alike for slavery “outrageous” is irrelevant, and in the long view, impertinent. Lincoln does not wrestle with God the Father; quite to the contrary, he over-and-over insisted that he was yielding to him at every point, without questioning. “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me,” he wrote in 1864. “If God now wills the removal of a great wrong, and wills also that we of the North as well as you of the South, shall pay fairly for our complicity in that wrong, impartial history will find therein new cause to attest and revere the justice and goodness of God.” It was, in fact, only by embracing this view that Lincoln could in any way avoid an “outrageous” conclusion, since the alternative would have been to see the North through the very un-Calvinistic lens of Julia Ward Howe, and pressed-out the grapes of wrath on the defeated Confederacy until the blood ran as thickly as it had from Robespierre’s guillotine.
Brookhiser thus misses an important point about Lincoln’s religion. It was indeed deep and dark, but only in the way finite human beings will always find the infinite deep and dark. It was by no means frightening or partial. To the contrary, it was precisely because God had indeed ordained “that every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword,” that ordinary mortals were required to lay aside both lash and sword to practice “malice toward none” and “charity for all.”
All of this, though, does not get us very far down the road to Brookhiser’s larger point about Lincoln serving as the heir of the founders. Religion is an interesting point of distinction between Washington and Lincoln, but not necessarily the decisive one. What bulks larger in my mind is the argument that connects Lincoln and the founders as a whole, since this connection has been boisterously challenged by both living-Constitution Progressives and libertarian Calhounites. The first believes (and the best-known and most witless example is Garry Wills) that Lincoln broke decisively with the Constitution and erected the Declaration as the new standard of political life in America; the second believes that Lincoln not only committed that crime, but committed a host of other crimes against the founders that turned the constitutional republic into Bismarckian nation-state (an idea which we find drooping in the hands of Thomas Di Lorenzo and other members of the Order of the Fevered Brow).
Brookhiser understands that Lincoln was called-upon to preserve the constitutional order in the midst of a situation for which the Constitution provided no remedies, but which Washington, Madison, Hamilton, and Jefferson had all anticipated with equal horror. Washington believed that the unsteady period between the end of the Revolution and the calling of the Constitutional convention would prove whether a sovereign people were capable of governing themselves, or whether a republic was an illusion. Lincoln saw the Civil War as a similar test—the third of three, in fact, the first being the creation of the constitutional republic. Lincoln thus finishes the labors begun by Washington, and on precisely the same terms. Review Lincoln’s protests against overstepping the Constitution (“Would I not thus give up all footing upon constitution or law? Would I not thus be in the boundless field of absolutism?”) and the Progressives’ argument falls limply to the ground; review his constitutional and jurisprudential analysis of secession, habeas corpus, and Reconstruction, and we may as well be hearing Washington’s condemnations of Shays’ Rebellion.
But this point is not unconnected with the issue of Lincoln’s religion. Lincoln never saw the Civil War as Progressives wish he had seen it—as a crisis which should not be let go to waste. This is why he refers its outcomes so continuously to God, because he does not see the war as the North’s or the Republicans’ or the abolitionists’ opportunity to remake the republic, but as a visitation of judgment on the republic for failing to live up to the founders’ ideal. If Lincoln’s God is a vision of the deep and the dark, it is infinitely preferable to the vision of those for whom political life really is a mechanism, clear and merciless and abstract, which they have been commissioned to rebuild.
Lucas Morel: Thanks to Richard Brookhiser and Allen Guelzo for their penetrating reflections upon the weighty matters of politics and Providence. Permit this fool to rush in to address a few key points. It’s a commonplace observation that Lincoln was a depressive. As I see no sign of its shaping his understanding of God’s way with His creation, I conclude that whatever affinity he had with Byron (or William Knox: “Oh! why should the spirit of mortal be proud?”), at best it helped Lincoln abide the travails of mortal life with a humility that leavened an ambition his law partner William Herndon called “a little engine that knew no rest.”
I emphasized Shakespeare as a fellow traveler of Lincoln’s not for “consolation” so much as earnest engagement with fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith. Although Lincoln never joined a church, as he was not given to pledging fealty to doctrines of a particular denomination, the Bible intrigued the adult Lincoln to the point of general assent by the time he ascended to the presidency. That assent led him to see his political role through the prism of Providence. In a note to himself during the war, Lincoln mused, “The will of God prevails…. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party—and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect His purpose.” While a private reflection, it gives the impression of being written with the nation looking over his shoulder—a meditation designed to bear public scrutiny, which he revealed ultimately in his Second Inaugural Address. Just as Shakespeare wrote in a manner that shows the challenge that the Prince of Peace poses to the kings of earth (e.g., Hamlet and Henry V), Lincoln drew upon the Bible to depict what the Almighty might be doing in a war neither side truly wanted and with results that neither expected at the outset.
Lincoln ultimately rejects Paine’s deism not because Paine was too optimistic for the melancholic Lincoln but because he does not believe in an absentee, clockmaker God. The fact that he made frequent and explicit reference to the Christian Bible demonstrates that Lincoln came to some terms with the Christian God. Paine’s beneficent, albeit godless, universe was certainly of no help to Lincoln here.
More to the point, I see Lincoln following Washington’s example in his consistent and substantive political appeals to the nation’s predominant religion. To some extent, this appeal found its roots in personal piety, but the key point is that Lincoln saw in Washington a political model for how religion could be a boon to the republic in a manner that respected religion’s primary aim, which is not political, as even Madison observed in his 1785 Memorial and Remonstrance (cf. Lincoln’s1846 handbill responding to charges of religious infidelity during his successful campaign for Congress). By the end of Brookhiser’s rejoinder—arguing that “God figures in Lincoln’s manly vision as a guide…but the work is up to us”—Lincoln’s providence sounds very much like his description of Washington’s providence (akin to Ben Franklin’s deistic adage, “God helps those who help themselves”). I suppose I should content myself with that observation, but as I do not think Washington’s providence was Franklin’s, I maintain that Lincoln eventually likened his God to Washington’s in referring and appealing to God as one who intervenes in the affairs of men.
So what does one make of Lincoln’s outlook on a world that sometimes makes God look indifferent to, or complicit with, the woes of His creation? As Friday in Robinson Crusoe put it, “Why God no kill the devil, so make no more do wicked?” Lincoln’s definitive word on the Civil War as America’s theodicy came in his Second Inaugural Address: “The Almighty has His own purposes,” which Lincoln supposes could be a “mighty scourge of war” as divine chastisement for the sin of slavery.
I disagree somewhat with Guelzo’s interpretation, where God “ordained ‘that every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword,’” to free “ordinary mortals…to lay aside both lash and sword to practice ‘malice toward none’ and ‘charity for all.’” The motivation to replace malice with charity follows from believing that a just God could be merciful: if God were to end the war short of punishing the nation for the entirety of its history of enslavement, this divine mercy should lead men North and South to extend the same mercy towards each other upon the war’s imminent end.
Thus, what Brookhiser sees as a welcome non sequitur to “an explanation that outrages sense and morality,” I read as a logical exhortation set up by the preceding paragraph’s thought experiment about the war, emancipation, and the will of God. At bottom, while religion was not the main affinity Lincoln had with the founders, it proved an important enough connection that Lincoln saw no other way to bring the war to a viable conclusion but through an appeal to the God of the Bible.
I still believe that Lincoln wrestled with God, and not merely “yield[ed] at every point, without questioning,” as Guelzo would have it. Yes, Lincoln said that there’s no resisting God’s will; even Job saw that. To wrestle in this vein is to struggle with an acknowledged Superior in hopes that with the inevitable loss, one comes away better for making the effort. The wisdom is in recognizing that the change in oneself is for the best.
Lincoln admitted as much in his frank letter to the New York political operator Thurlow Weed, who congratulated the re-elected president on his Second Inaugural Address: “I expect the latter to wear as well as—perhaps better than—any thing I have produced; but I believe it is not immediately popular. Men are not flattered by being shown that there has been a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them.” He added: “To deny it, however, in this case, is to deny that there is a God governing the world. It is a truth which I thought needed to be told; and as whatever of humiliation there is in it, falls most directly on myself, I thought others might afford for me to tell it.” In keeping with Brookhiser’s reference to Jacob’s wrestling with the angel of God, Lincoln’s tussle with the Almighty left him humbled to the point of public confession. That he chose the occasion of a state paper to share this “humiliation” is all the more wondrous as he used his position to set an example rather than pontificate at God’s elbow.
I close by affirming with Guelzo that Brookhiser’s Lincoln, as the legitimate heir to founders, contradicts the claims of modern-day progressives. A great example is Brookhiser’s interpretation of the Gettysburg Address, which distinguishes the speech’s “new birth of freedom” from the yearnings of progressives for a “birth of new freedoms.” Whereas the reigning wisdom views Lincoln as an evolving statesman, one who got better as he distanced himself from the slaveholding founders, Brookhiser sees Lincoln as fighting for “the old freedom, the freedom of ‘the fathers.’” What the war was to secure in the Year of Jubilee, with emancipation become a means of preserving the American union, was freedom for blacks as well as whites. This objective would fulfill the promise of the Declaration of Independence, and “complete their fathers’ unfulfilled intentions.”
And so there’s no need to discover new rights, new entitlements for a new age. This would require new powers for rulers to assume under a constitution alive to the potential that only a visionary few could realize for the benefit of the many. Instead, Lincoln spoke not of a new work but of “the unfinished work” to which the living could dedicate themselves. Brookhiser’s Lincoln learned from the founding fathers “that all men are created free and equal, and that all men (the people) must understand and defend those truths.” This was the lesson of the American Civil War, and Brookhiser’s life of Lincoln teaches that lesson like no other biography to date.
Brookhiser: Only a few quick responses to Morel and Guelzo (unlike Harry Jaffa, may his name be ever a blessing, I am easy to fight and agree with). Lincoln does wrestle with the Almighty in the Second Inaugural. No one accepts an inhumane judgment, however well-founded, without wrestling, unless he is psychotic or dull-witted. Lincoln was neither. Nor is it “impertinent” to argue with him. If we take great dead men seriously, if they are still alive for us, then we must praise, challenge, or condemn them as our lights direct.
I would like to agree with Morel’s synthesis of the judgments and the prospects in the Second Inaugural, because I would like Lincoln to be less torn. But I’m afraid there is still a lot of Byron in his Bible.
It may seem odd to students of philosophy to scrutinize such details of a man’s mind and life. Philosophers hate biography even more than history (they hate poetry more than either—see Plato’s relentless sniping at Homer). Reason should arrange our questions, and supply our truths.
But truth is not self-enacting. Even if we come to a right understanding of man or nature, it will not therefore dawn on the world or even on our lives. Circumstance and accident take their tolls; effort must pay it dues and contend with the efforts of everyone else. Living is a struggle; lives are stories.
Lincoln had no time for certain stories, all the time in the world for others. He did not care for novels; he said he could not finish Ivanhoe, this when Scott still ruled the world. As an adult he distrusted biographies. But his favorite poets were occasional storytellers (Holy Willie’s Prayer, Don Juan), and Shakespeare and the Bible are full of people and their stories. Lincoln himself had a bottomless fund of anecdotes—humorous short stories. All good training for a statesman—or a man.
Guelzo: I do think it is impertinent to dismiss Lincoln’s fatalism as the product of a dreary view of God. Determinism of various sorts seems at first blush to be a self-defeating way of thinking, which is what led David Donald to conclude that Lincoln was essentially “passive.” But time and again, it is the determinists—from Cromwell to Marx—who have been the most adventurous, in large measure because the confidence that the surety of all events’ outcomes can actually have an inspiriting effect. That certainly seems what put the iron into Lincoln’s soul during the wearisome years of civil war, when almost any other man we can think of in American politics would have been gradually worn-down into some form of compromise with the Confederacy. “Lincoln’s whole life was a calculation of the law of forces, and ultimate results,” said Leonard Swett, and he proved it to Swett “whenever I would get nervous and think things were going wrong.”
He kept a kind of account book of how things were progressing for three, or four months, and he would get out his estimates and show how everything on the great scale of action the resolutions of Legislatures, the instructions of delegates, and things of that character, was going exactly as he expected. …It was by ignoring men, and ignoring all small causes, but by closely calculating the tendencies of events and the great forces which were producing logical results.
Praising or challenging the ideas of “great dead men” is manifestly in order.
Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime.
But we have to be sure that we have inhabited those ideas first before praising or challenging.
Still, Brookhiser is certainly correct to say that truth is not self-enacting. That, unhappily, was the story of much of the 20th century, and remains so in world affairs today. But one has to be cautious even here. Ideas have what we may call valences; they connect in clusters with other attitudes and circumstances; they are not merely inert, awaiting our individual responses. They capture and hold people in remarkable and subtle ways. William James thought that ideas could be subdued to serve our personal therapeutic purposes. Lincoln would not have agreed at all. At the opening of his campaign against Stephen Douglas in 1858, he wrote out a note, possibly intended for use during the debates the two began, in which he reminded himself that “the abolition of the Slave trade by Great Brittain, was agitated a hundred years before it was a final success,” and that the opponents of William Wilberforce “blazed, like tallow candles for a century, at last they flickered in the socket, died out, stank in the dark for a brief season, and were remembered no more, even by the smell.” There was an engine within the idea of abolition which would drive it to a “glorious consummation,” even if “my own poor eyes may not last to see.”
Whether this is an intellectual holdover of his ancestors’ Calvinism or a product of Enlightenment mechanism, it certainly owes but little to Byronic Romanticism. Lincoln’s tutor in new Salem, mentor Graham, recalled that “After the Canvass of 1832 Mr Lincoln turned his attention Exclusively to the law—surveying—History—Biography & general newspaper reading.” Other New Salemites who remembered Lincoln “never knew of his reading a novel. History and poetry & the newspapers constituted the most of his reading. Burns seemed to be his favorite.” Another remembered Lincoln studying “Kirkhams Grammar and the Arithmetic, then Natural philosophy, Astronomy & Chemistry, then Surveying, and Law…history & other books, the news papers of the day, in fact any and books from which he could derive information or knowledge.” His life-long friend, Joshua Speed recollected that Lincoln “read law History, [Thomas] Browns Philosophy or [William] Paley—Burns Byron Milton or Shakespeare—The news papers of the day.” In these reckonings, Byron is a face in the crowd.
Let us not be too eager to make Lincoln a philosopher or an intellectual. He was a deceptively intelligent man beneath that backwoods appearance, and better read than most of his contemporaries. But he was a man who went to books for solace and direction, not for analysis or footnotes. Everything he read, much as he loved the reading of it, was in service to the larger goals of self-transformation and political advancement.
Morel: Guelzo cites Leonard Swett’s observation that “Lincoln’s whole life was a calculation of the law of forces, and ultimate results,” which certainly jibes with Lincoln’s rousing conclusion of his 1860 Cooper Institute address: “Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.” More than simply an exhortation to Republicans to be hopeful that a second go at the presidency would prove successful, Lincoln reminds his audience that self-government must be based on principles of right: “the laws of nature and of nature’s God,” as the Declaration of Independence puts it. Without a transcendent standard of political action, all government would simply be, as The Federalist proclaimed, a product of “accident and force.”
There’s no contending with Guelzo’s felicitous rendering of Lincoln’s reading as “sluiced toward the larger goals of self-transformation and political advancement,” but surely Lincoln’s reading went farther than that. Indeed, because self-government is so open to what is high (and alas low) about man’s understanding of himself and his world, Lincoln made sure that if he had anything to do with it, he would put his heart and soul into the political world in a manner driven by his deepest reflections upon the nature of the city and man. This was informed by profound reading that went well beyond personal “solace and direction.” It also happens to be the case that our sainted Harry Jaffa believed that Lincoln deserved a chapter in the esteemed History of Political Philosophy, edited by Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey (so much so that it may explain why Jaffa’s chapter on Aristotle was replaced by that of Carnes Lord when the third edition was published).
Regarding Brookhiser’s assessment of Lincoln’s “inhumane judgment” in the critical third paragraph of the Second Inaugural Address, it would be “inhumane” if rendered by mere mortals claiming to act as God’s instrument upon mere private revelation. But Lincoln always conjoined such a posture with his earth-bound responsibility to his fellow citizens, whose permission must be gained in order to promote their political good. Witness his brief speech to the New Jersey Senate en route to his first inauguration, where he declares: “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.” (Cf. his distancing himself and his party from the likes of John Brown in the 1860 election year: “An enthusiast broods over the oppression of a people till he fancies himself commissioned by Heaven to liberate them.”) Back in 1854, Lincoln called this principle of consent “the sheet anchor of American republicanism.” No doubt this was the source of Jaffa’s observation that consent was simply the flip side of the coin of human equality: to wit, “No man is the natural-born ruler of any man but himself.”
This synopsis of American self-government set Lincoln apart from Stephen Douglas, whose bowdlerization of “popular sovereignty” enshrined consent to the detriment of the equality of human rights because it applied only to whites. The so-called inferior races only possessed those rights and privileges that the white majority thought were consistent with their safety and happiness, making Douglas a forerunner of legal positivists. Lincoln’s commitment to these two key principles of the Declaration of Independence also distinguished him from abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison, who championed human equality at the expense of consent: “Fiat justitia, ruat coelum” (“Let justice be done, though the heavens fall.”)
If I were a better student of Byron, I would do better to contest this claim of Brookhiser’s regarding the lens through which Lincoln read the Bible. For now, I still see more of the Bard than Byron in Lincoln’s assessments of the Bible’s claims to be God’s revelation to man. As Brookhiser notes, “Shakespeare and the Bible are full of people and their stories,” and so I read Lincoln as more impressed by Shakespeare’s Bible, if you will, than Byron’s romantic account of human nature. Still, I thank Brookhiser for leading me to do some exploring of Byron and thus turn up a passage that must be the source of Lincoln’s ode to Henry Clay as “our gallant Harry of the West”:
Where may the wearied eye repose
When gazing on the Great;
Where neither guilty glory glows,
Nor despicable state?
Yes—one—the first—the last—the best—The Cincinnatus of the West,
Whom envy dared not hate,
Bequeath’d the name of Washington,
To make man blush there was but one!
—“Ode to Napoleon Bonaparte” (1814), concluding stanza
Like much of Lincoln’s 1852 eulogy to Clay, this gloss on Byron’s praise of Washington in Lincoln’s homage to Clay bears a striking resemblance to Lincoln’s own hopes for himself as a statesman in the making. To wit,
Mr. Clay’s predominant sentiment, from first to last, was a deep devotion to the cause of human liberty—a strong sympathy with the oppressed every where, and an ardent wish for their elevation. With him, this was a primary and all controlling passion. Subsidiary to this was the conduct of his whole life. He loved his country partly because it was his own country, but mostly because it was a free country; and he burned with a zeal for its advancement, prosperity and glory, because he saw in such, the advancement, prosperity and glory, of human liberty, human right and human nature. He desired the prosperity of his countrymen partly because they were his countrymen, but chiefly to show to the world that freemen could be prosperous.
Substitute “Lincoln” for “Clay,” and one reads herein a fitting eulogy to our 16th president. Moreover, Lincoln closed his eulogy to Clay with an apt statement of his own political aspirations, and where I will leave our discourse on our greatest president: “Such a man the times have demanded, and such, in the providence of God was given us. But he is gone. Let us strive to deserve, as far as mortals may, the continued care of Divine Providence, trusting that, in future national emergencies, He will not fail to provide us the instruments of safety and security.”