Review: Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President
Nothing less than a tour-de-force. I’m tempted to say that only a religious person—particularly a Christian—could understand this almost certainly unbelieving politician and thinker. Guelzo finds a theme in Lincoln’s theology that he, successfully in my opinion, traces throughout his life, namely a predestinarianism shorn of belief in God’s personal goodness to Lincoln himself. This fatalistic theology guided Lincoln into making the most difficult decisions of the war. This is the key insight from the book, in my judgment:
Lincoln’s own peculiar providentialism, his Calvinized deism, in fact played a controlling role in the outcome of the Civil War. In the most general sense, his appeal to the mysteries of providence in the fall of 1862 gave him permission to ignore the manifest signs on all hands that the Union was playing the war to no better than a draw, and that any resort to emancipation was folly. But in the most specific instance, providence was what allowed him to overrule the moral limitations of liberalism. To do liberalism’s greatest deed—the emancipation of the slaves—Lincoln had to step outside liberalism and surrender himself to the direction of an overruling divine providence whose conclusions he had by no means prejudged. (447)
What does Guelzo mean? He explains a little more early on in the book:
[Lincoln] would come at the end … to see that liberalism could never achieve its highest goal of liberation and mobility without appealing to a set of ethical, even theological, principles that seemed wholly beyond the expectations and allowances of liberalism itself. While he would hold organized religion at arm’s length, he would come to see liberalism’s preoccupation with rights needing to be confined within some public framework of virtue, a framework he would find in a mystical rehabilitation of his ancestral Calvinism and an understanding of the operations of divine providence. (20-21)
Liberalism, as Stanley Fish never tires of observing (and I never tire of observing him observe), has no transcendent norms to appeal to. (And here I’m not taking a potshot at Democrats; Guelzo and Fish and I mean here “classical liberalism,” the kind which encompasses nearly all significant American politicians on any side of any aisle.) Liberalism is supposed to maintain procedural neutrality among competing visions of the good. But what that means in the end is that might often makes right. And in 1861, as Lincoln took the helm of a divided nation, mighty interests on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line preferred that the slaves not be freed. Lincoln himself saw clearly that praise and blame could not be apportioned neatly to North and South, respectively. It took an appeal to the Declaration of Independence’s Creator—who created all men equal—to free the slaves. Serious voices in 1860 argued that the Declaration was not law, but thankfully it remained a moral polestar.
I have never dug this deep into Lincoln before, encountering him mainly through his most famous speeches, the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural, both of which Guelzo analyzes with great insight—and in both of which he easily finds Lincoln’s predestinarian deism. One thing that really impressed me was how accidental Lincoln’s role as sage and Great Emancipator really was. I mean that as no slight against him; when the time came, he worked with great skill and dedication. But the time was long in coming. He wasn’t born with a desire to free the slaves. The conviction came on him slowly, and even very close to the last he was considering various political deals which fell short of full, lasting emancipation. If the war hadn’t been so fierce, the slaves may have remained in bondage. But Southern victories forced Lincoln’s hand. It was fascinating to watch what I, too, see as the hand behind that hand in freeing America’s oppressed legions.
I was also surprised to be taught a fact that I should have known: it was not at all obvious to anyone at the close of the Civil War what the future of the nation would be. We view Lincoln’s acts through a prism of national success and even national unity under multiple trials, especially two world wars. But the prospect that legal challenges to emancipation would negate all the blood spilled in the Civil War was all to real as Lincoln lay in a deathbed “fate” chose for him. It speaks to his wisdom that I moved from South Carolina to Washington last year with no trouble.
It was also fascinating to me to hear Guelzo’s expert summations of previous Lincoln biographies, going back to the very first. Americans have long molded their view of Lincoln to their liking. No doubt Guelzo has done this in some way, too. But it does appear to take the passing of many decades before party loyalties and political issues fade enough to give historians a fair crack at someone like Lincoln. I’m late to the praise and should have read this years ago, but Guelzo has written a triumph.