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Review of Allen Guelzo's Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President
by Kurt Keefner

Date: 2000-08-27
Copyright: Kurt Keefner

Hardcover - 516 pages 1 edition (September 1, 1999) Wm. b. Eerdmans Pub. Co.; ISBN: 0802838723

This new work by Allen Guelzo, a professor of American history, is a detailed intellectual biography of our 16th president, tracing the influences and thoughts that made him what he was.

Many people assume that people in the West or even Americans as a whole at the time were an unthinking bunch of farmers, woodsmen and merchants. Not so, according to Guelzo, who documents the mass of intellectual journals, lectures and debates which average Americans subscribed to. Even barely literate people like Lincoln's father make their own decisions about religion and politics.

As it happens Thomas Lincoln was a "hard-shell" Baptist, meaning he believed in predestination and therefore determinism. His only son quickly discarded the religion but retained the belief in determinism his whole life.

Abraham Lincoln was, it turns out, every bit as much a reader as the legends say. But he didn't just read grammar books and Shakespeare. He read, and was much influenced by, people like Tom Paine and Jeremy Bentham. As a result he became an atheist - or at least a deist - and something of a utilitarian. Now today we tend to see the collectivist implications of utilitarianism, but in its time it would probably have stood out more for its secularism. Besides, Lincoln was a psychological egoist, and believed it proper (because necessary) for people to pursue their self-interest.

Lincoln was not a happy little farm boy. He detested physical labor, although he was very good at it. Even more he detested the tyranny of his father, the largely failed yeoman farmer. According to Guelzo, Lincoln first came to despise slavery because of the subjugation he experienced at the hands of his father.

These factors seem to have been responsible for driving him into the Whig Party from the very moment of his entry into politics in his 20s. (It certainly wasn't lust for easy spoils or power that attracted him: in Illinois the Whigs were never anything but the minority party.) The Whigs are now long forgotten and came to be regarded as the party of old fogies and elitists even in their day, but they form an important bridge between the Federalists and the Republicans.

What distinguished the Whigs was their Hamiltonian belief in government support for industrial capitalism (free labor, tariffs, internal improvements, free land for the states and pioneers) on the one hand and their Protestant belief that religion and morals should exert an influence on the political sphere. Although Lincoln was not an active Protestant he very much believed in a moral foundation for politics - one of the doctrines he most loathed in his career was Stephen A. Douglas' idea of Popular Sovereignty which "cared not" whether slavery was voted up or down by a given political unit.

But it was the Hamiltonian element that most attracted Lincoln to Whiggery. He correctly recognized that an agrarian society would necessarily be backward and oppressive and that progress, enlightenment and real freedom came from an urban, industrialized society. For him scientists, inventors, manufacturers, merchants and lawyers were the heroes of the story - not a bunch of illiterate hard-scrabble farmers and their plantation-owning overlords. (Lincoln even held a patent himself and gave two lectures in the 1850s on inventions.)

Thus, despite admiring Jefferson's soaring rhetoric in the Declaration, Lincoln thought very little of Jefferson or Jackson or John Calhoun or Stephen Douglas. (His hero was Henry Clay, who supported manufactures and opposed slavery even though he was a slave-owning farmer himself.) Guelzo doesn't go quite this far, but my guess is that Lincoln thought of all these men as horrible hypocrites. They preached laissez-faire but what they wanted is slaves and benighted red-clay peons for neighbors.

Worse, as time went on the Democrats started to drift away from the moral foundations Jefferson laid for the republic and toward a kind of racist majoritarianism where the Rousseauan General Will of the (white) voter is all that counted. (See James McPherson's _Is Blood Thicker than Water_, which I reviewed here a few months ago, for details on the proto-fascist fantasies that were emerging in the antebellum South.)

Lincoln had pretty much given up on politics by 1850 when he had reached his seeming zenith as a one-term Congressman, but when Douglas used his doctrine of Popular Sovereignty to break the Kansas-Nebraska logjam, Lincoln re-entered politics with renewed vigor and for the rest of his life this formerly canal-obsessed man stayed focussed on just two issues: slavery and union.

He had toned down his atheism by this time, settling, as some middle-aged people do, into a belief in "providence." Providence was an interesting term. For Lincoln the deist it seems to have meant a minimalist, possibly personal God. For Lincoln the determinist it meant the sum of the forces that cause us to act as we do. For Lincoln the political thinker and Lincoln the Man of Sorrows it meant the Explanation of It All, perhaps of kind historical/philosophical process like the Dialectic (It's unclear whether Lincoln knew about the Dialectic - Herndon, his law partner, read many things to him including Kant and Darwin, so he might have known about Hegel.)

As the Civil War became more prolonged and bloody and Lincoln saw a second son die and his wife slide into madness, he turned more towards Providence as a way of making sense of it all. The climax of this quest is the Second Inaugeral Address in which Lincoln states that while slavery may have been an evil that had to be, Woe unto him who brought it into the world. And the meaning of the bloodbath? If every bit of wealth piled up by 250 years of unpaid slave-labor should be squandered and "if every drop of blood drawn by the lash shall be repaid by another drawn by the sword" who could doubt that the Lord [Providence] was just?

It is very unfortunate that on this one point, which should have been the climax of his argument, Guelzo drops the ball. He does not realize that Lincoln is not Jonathan Edwards. Lincoln does not use the horrors of the war as an excuse to say God is inscrutable and unreachable. For Lincoln, there is order and justice in the world, even if isn't always what we expect. America - all of America, not just the South - sinned terribly against the African race, and as a result we were condemned to slaughter each other by the hundreds of thousands.

Guelzo recovers nicely from this gaffe in his account of Lincoln's death and long "moody, tearful night" that followed, a terrible, grisly funeral and the entombment in my home town, Springfield, Illinois.

If Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President makes anything clear, it is the divided nature of American culture in the first half of the nineteenth century. On the one hand we had a political subculture that believed in laissez-faire - and slavery - in the name of an antediluvian social order. Guelzo aptly sums up Lincoln's feelings about the Democratic Party by saying that while politicos like Jackson and Douglas seemed to pit the have-nots against the haves, it was such politicos who were the real haves and they intended to maintain their power by pitting the have-nots against the have-somes.

The other major political subculture believed in free labor and material progress - but couldn't keep its hands off the economy. Theirs was the place where the evangelical Christians sought refuge when Connecticut disestablished to the Congregationalist Church and when the Democratic-Republicans insisted on delivering the mail on Sundays. It was also a refuge for the anti-immigrant (largely anti-Catholic) faction, but Lincoln and other early Republican leaders neutralized them.

Although I believe Abraham Lincoln unequivocally to be a great man, and I am 100% in support of his suppession of the illegal and evil rebellion by the South, I do recognize that Lincoln and the Republican Party were not an unmixed blessing. Both American subcultures were partly bad, partly good.

Unfortunately Jefferson's party, the faction of laissez-faire, had become far more bad than good. If they'd had their way they would have broken up the United States and tried to enslave millions more human beings by reopening the African slave trade and conquering Latin America. Harry Jaffa in _Crisis of the House Divided_ makes a convincing case that the Confederacy (or a Douglasized U.S.) could have been the world's first fascist state.

Fortunately, a representative of progress and order, flawed though he was, stood up and said No. Slavery starts its decline from this point and nothing will break up this union. And he had principles and will strong enough to make it stick. Allen Guelzo goes a long way in telling us just how Providence gifted us with this great genius.