Monday, March 13, 2006


Guelzo on Lincoln

Well, the dissertation has been out of my hands for about a week now, and while waiting for D-Day I've been enjoying some time to read non-dissertation books, including the latest gem in John Mortimer's crown. Last week I also finally had a chance to read Allen Guelzo's Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President, which has been on my to-do list for a long while. It did not disappoint.

Although it presents itself primarily as an "intellectual biography" or even a religious life of Lincoln, Redeemer President is also a serviceable one-volume biography that rivals David Donald's Lincoln for its scope and readability. Unfortunately, Guelzo's book sacrifices bibliographic notes for the sake of readability (a trade-off that is becoming increasingly and lamentably common in the publishing world). But the book's luminous and captivating prose (aside from a noticeable overuse of the word "quondam"; Google counts three instances but I'm willing to swear there were more) is not something to be lightly overlooked.

Three more specific things struck me about the book. The first was Guelzo's artful defense of the Very Idea of an "intellectual" biography of a man who was, above all, an antebellum politician. In making that defense, Guelzo also implicitly argues that intellectual histories of the antebellum period can be written--that it was not, as traditionally assumed, merely an era of ideology or practical politics, but also an era in which extremely abstract questions of theology and philosophy mattered to ordinary people:
We are too numbed [says Guelzo] by fanfares for the Common Man, by Ralph Waldo Emerson's sniffling laments about the absence of American scholars, by Hollywood glorifications of sharp-shooting hillbillies in coonskin caps, to hear the frantic solemnity with which the most isolated patriarch on the most godforsaken acre of wiregrass would sit up all the night alongside a wandering evangelist to discuss the intricacies of predestination and free will ... (p. 21).
I'm sympathetic to this recuperation of the vibrant intellectual lives of antebellum Americans who are traditionally seen as non-intellectuals or (notoriously) as anti-intellectual. That view often stems from an ahistorical equation of intellectualism with secularism, so that the arcane debates between traveling evangelists and isolated patriarchs are simply dismissed as unworthy of exposition. I've noted before how often radical abolitionists like Garrison are dismissed as anti-political, and in the same way, Garrisonians are often seen as nothing more than propagandists whose ideas were the products of a tangled mysticism or were simply tossed about like chaff in the winds of popular opinion, or whose intellectual lives--such as they were--merely served as projections of their own tortured personalities. As Guelzo notes, the cult of personality surrounding Lincoln often obscures the complexity of his thought, and similar complexities are often missed in the thinking of antebellum reformers. Orderly, systematic, consistent thinkers, the abolitionists were not. But thinkers--serious ones--they were. Their "minds" are therefore worthy of subtle description, even if or especially because they lacked consistency, which, to quote another of Emerson's "sniffling laments," is the hobgoblin of small minds.

The second thing that struck me about the book was Guelzo's convincing depiction of Lincoln's worldview as a kind of "Calvinized deism" (p. 447). If that phrase seems oxymoronic, one of the virtues of Guelzo's book is to show how such a position was intelligible for Victorian skeptics like Lincoln. (Without using that phrase, James Turner has also sensitively portrayed the tenacity of Calivinist modes of thinking even in the minds of nineteenth-century non-believers.) Thanks to the arguments of Paine-ite skeptics, Lincoln early in his life lost any abiding belief in organized religion or the God of the Old School Presbyterian churches that Lincoln's family attended. Instead, he adopted a view of the Divine Being as a distant designer, revealed in the world only through the mechanical and deterministic operations of natural law. The loss of his faith, as Guelzo shows, was never an easy pill for Lincoln to swallow. And from the Calvinism of his youth he also retained a latent belief in the inscrutability of divine providence--a belief that deepened and rose to the surface during the Civil War--and a prominent sense of his own worthlessness and humiliating insignificance. When Lincoln did vacillate in his skepticism and turn towards a belief in God, it was always a chastened belief in an impersonal and impassive God the Father. Lincoln never seemed able to believe in a redemptive personal Savior.

In a brilliant argument that unfolds gradually--sometimes too gradually--over the course of the book, Guelzo argues that Lincoln's finest political virtues, best expressed in his famous promise of "malice toward none" and "charity for all," stemmed from his Calvinized deism. The rationale for charity, in Lincoln's mind, was not the evangelical sentimentalism of so many of his contemporaries, but rather his belief in an overweening determinism that made malice toward any as foolish as kicking a rock for stubbing your toe. I'm oversimplifying Guelzo's argument and Lincoln's philosophy here, but this insight opens up an avenue for thinking about another cultural and intellectual strain in antebellum America--besides evangelicalism--that amplified the growth of philanthropic sentiment. Traditionally, the rise of such philanthropy is credited almost wholly to the rejection of Old School Calvinism by the revivalists of the Second Great Awakening, and to the evangelical doctrine that individual people were perfectible and could shape their own destinies. But Guelzo shows convincingly how, in Lincoln's case, the conviction that people could not shape their own destinies could also support the Whiggish moralism and humanitarianism that underwrote much of the Republican Party's rhetoric. (Working farther backwards in time, it's worth noting that for a Calvinist like Jonathan Edwards, a view of human beings as hopelessly depraved was wholly compatible with a belief that universal benevolence was required of every believer and that self-interest was a base motive for behavior. Although it's heuristically useful to contrast Edwards' "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" with the revivalism of Charles Finney, it risks erecting a schematic distinction between the two that makes Edwards into a spokesperson for malice toward all and charity for none, which he was not.)

To be sure, the Second Great Awakening's vindication of "free will" had much more to do with the explosion of philanthropic organizations and moralizing politics in the early nineteenth century than maverick positions like Lincoln's "Calivinized deism." But for just that reason, historians tend to overlook how nineteenth-century philosophies of determinism, born either of skepticism, Calivinism, or some hybrid of both, could also motivate philanthropic action. Aside from Lincoln, a good example of this is the "necessitarianism" that drove Owenite socialists into utopian communities in Britain and America during the early 1800s. Gregory Claeys has argued that Robert Owen's belief that individual character was formed wholly by "circumstances," rather than choice, was a critical component of the Owenites' movement culture, and helped communities survive internal differences and personality conflicts. If circumstances made the man, why feel malice toward any man? The unfortunate were to be pitied and uplifed more than blamed--but Owenites could reach that conclusion in common with an evangelical Christian without also adopting the latter's view of free will. (Guelzo, by the way, gives tantalizing notice on pp. 35-36 that before Lincoln's family to Illinois, they lived in close proximity to the short-lived New Harmony community in Indiana, which was founded by Owen the "quondam industrialist." He quotes a contemporary who remembered the adolescent Lincoln reading copies of Owenite newspapers.)

The final thing that struck me about Guelzo's book is connected with the second. Given the fact that Lincoln's selective appropriation of Calvinism and deism was so complicated, and given the fact that his own personal faith was far from conventionally Christian, Guelzo's book serves as another warning against the distressingly common practice of trying to prove that the United States is a Christian nation by appealing to the appearance of words like "God" and "providence" in the speeches of Great Americans like Lincoln. Those words do not always mean what you think they mean, whether in the writings of Jefferson or Lincoln. Still, Guelzo's book also shows, through a densely layered account of American Whiggish thought, the origins of this compulsion to claim Christianity as the nation's founding religion and to wrap the nation's heroes in the mantle of faith. Lincoln's assassinated body had not grown cold before Easter sermons across the country were trying to convert him in death into the Bible-believing born-again Christian that he never was in life. And there's an implicit lesson there, Guelzo seems to be saying, to similar attempts today. According to him, the very virtues that the believers in a "Christian nation" would want to praise in Lincoln--his humility, his moral uprightness, his honesty, his perseverance under trial, his submission to an inscrutable Divine will--were the products not of a conventional Christian faith but of a peculiarly nineteenth-century amalgam of unorthodox skepticism and Calvinistic sensibilities.

Of course, the practical fruits of Lincoln's Calvinized deism are not arguments in favor of its truth, anymore than proving that Lincoln was a closet evangelical Christian would, by itself, be an argument in favor of the truth of Christianity. What Guelzo's book teaches us is the peril of trying to settle debates about religion in the public sphere by appeal to iconic figures in the past, while also showing us the rich historical rewards to be had by situating nineteenth-century thinkers like Lincoln squarely within their historical context. But if appeals to Lincoln's faith do not settle debates about religion and public life in the present, Guelzo's portrayal of Lincoln does perhaps show that vibrant public discussions of abstract theological and philosophical ideas do not necessarily impoverish public life or evince an anti-intellectual posture. This may not be a Christian nation, but it is a nation in which debates about Christianity and religion have been central to public life. That doesn't appear to be changing anytime soon.

Collective Improvisation:
Oi! Your disseration is finished. Hurrah! Nice to see you back posting. I'm looking forward to a regular stretching of my intellect.

Posted by Anonymous Marcia on 3/16/2006 12:01:00 PM : Permalink  

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