Winter Books
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Issue Date:  October 7, 2005

By Michael Lind
Doubleday, 368 pages, $27.95
Seeing Lincoln for who he was

Reviewed by WAYNE A. HOLST

We live in times when American “freedom” and “democracy” have been simplistically lifted from the legends about Abraham Lincoln and misrepresented. Some of Lincoln’s extraordinary contributions have been misinterpreted by his followers to accommodate their own prejudices.

A careful examination of Lincoln’s thinking -- critically assessing how he himself treated “freedom” and “democracy” in most trying circumstances -- could help to separate fiction from fact. In this new and welcome biography of the great president, Michael Lind, Whitehead Senior Fellow at the New American Foundation in Washington, does just that.

Mr. Lind believes that we have made a saint out of a politician and a symbol out of a man. His portrait in What Lincoln Believed: The Values and Convictions of America’s Greatest President is revisionist history at its best.

The author wants to change the way many have come to view Lincoln and America. Mr. Lind presents a flawed yet winsome character drawn from the context of his own times. The author tells a story no less heroic for being authentic and accessible. His focus on the historical context in which Lincoln operated, minus the accretions that have grown up around it, can lead to a more realistic understanding of our own situation today.

The popular portrayals of Lincoln as the Great Emancipator, the Great Commoner and the Savior of the Union are not lies, says Mr. Lind. But they are myths. Each of these conceptions of his greatness is based in part on fact. But around every kernel of fact has grown a crust of falsehood. While the resulting image may inspire us, it can also mislead us.

There are few existing studies of Lincoln’s public philosophy and even fewer of his private faith. This book’s subject matter is unique because it shines a purifying light upon the president’s foundational values and convictions.

Lincoln lived by Enlightenment standards and subscribed to a civil religion. He did not adhere to a revealed theology based on church or Bible. He claimed, rather, an optimistic philosophy based on human reason and democratic responsibility. Lincoln’s civil religion was an amalgam of scientific rationalism, republicanism and deism fashioned from voracious reading and a conservative, pragmatic bent.

Lincoln was a religious paradox. He was neither atheist nor Christian. He reasoned that a moral citizen could benefit from believing in God but also held that church membership was unnecessary. He respected those who practiced their religion authentically and would himself attend worship services with his family, yet he never joined a local congregation.

He read the Bible regularly, not as a devotional routine but because he loved its literary style. His oratory was filled with biblical imagery. He appreciated its “pertinent allusions.”

He considered moral living to be enlightened self-interest. It made sense for individuals and societies to function according to ethical standards because it was the right thing to do.

Lincoln was the Great Emancipator of the black slaves but not the civil libertarian whom many 20th-century interpreters make him out to be. He distinguished between the abstract natural rights of all humans and the practical civil rights of the American situation.

He did not share our modern understanding of those rights. For him, liberating black slaves was not the same thing as declaring them equal to whites. He was a segregationist, even though his government passed the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves in 1863. He envisioned the formal abolition of slavery in America. This did not occur until after his death, when in 1865 Congress approved the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution.

French writer Alexis de Tocqueville wrote accurately in 1835: “In the United States people abolish slavery for the sake not of the Negroes but of the white men.”

Lincoln as the Great Commoner -- the wood-splitter born in a log cabin -- is another image that does not square with reality. In truth, he was neither populist nor patrician. He was, rather, a democrat in the Whig tradition of Henry Clay, who similarly mistrusted mobs and dictators. Mr. Clay borrowed ideas from the conflicting philosophies of both Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. Lincoln accepted many of these, affirming that anyone in America should be free to prosper as a “self-made man.”

Lincoln became the Savior of the Union only indirectly. He considered the preservation of American democracy to be of primary importance. To save democracy, Lincoln believed that the insurrection of the South had to be stopped, so he led his country into a civil war. In the process, he freed the slaves so that they would join his side. The upshot was that he won the war and preserved the union.

At a time when much of the world lived under oppressive political regimes, Lincoln was determined to demonstrate that democracy was a viable form of government. Nevertheless, Lincoln rejected the idea that the United States had the right to export and impose its democracy upon others. “Our business is to persuade and lead mankind,” he said, “not to coerce them.”

Ultimately, Lincoln was the Great Democrat because he respected the principles of equality in the Declaration of Independence (1776) and the Constitution of the United States (1789). He celebrated the fact that “the sentiment embodied in” the Declaration had made the American Revolution a source “of hope to the world for all future time.”

A century and a half after Lincoln, the American experiment with freedom and democracy remains a sign of hope for humanity. But, like Lincoln, Americans might remember that the world’s peoples need to struggle in their own ways with these principles.

Wayne A. Holst is an adult educator at St. David’s United Church, Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He has taught religion and culture at the University of Calgary.

National Catholic Reporter, October 7, 2005

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