Today is the 200th birthday of Abraham Lincoln. Still a figure that generates great controversy, I deeply admire Lincoln - his thought, his words, his deep reflections on the nature of republican government - though, too, I worry often that he helped usher in, or gave great aid, to the modern project of consolidation and centralization. It is a difficult set of reactions to reconcile, so I let them wrestle with each other without seeking easy conclusion. Still, his great cautions to avoid hubris and pride in matters of politics is worthy of recollection at any time, and perhaps especially in our times.
In my book Democratic Faith I wrote a conclusion in which I reflected on the meaning of Lincoln's justly famous and admired Second Inaugural Address. I offer it today here on this site (warning - it's quite long) as my gift to Mr. Lincoln, in admiration and gratitude in his defense of human equality.
A Model of Democratic Charity
--“Pride is perverted imitation of God.
For pride hates a fellowship of equality under God,
and seeks to impose its own domination on fellow men….”
Augustine, City of God
Many interpreters of Lincoln’s political thought read his earliest work forward, finding in such early speeches as the “Address to the Young Man’s Lyceum” of 1838 or 1842’s “Address to the Washington Temperance Society” the blossoming seeds of Lincoln’s full-blown mature thought. These treatments stress Lincoln’s rationalism, and particularly his strong Lockeanism that presumes government is based purely upon consent, that consent is derived through the agreement of rationally self-interested parties. Such interpreters argue that Lincoln’s understanding of equality is fundamentally liberal – that is, that we are all equally free in the State of Nature, and that by means of our mutual agreement to bind ourselves under a legitimate government, our equality is retained in the form of equal treatment under law and through equal opportunity in the sphere of economics.
The Calvinism, even Augustinianism of the Second Inaugural is, by contrast, thought to be the culmination of a series of reflections late in Lincoln’s life that were prompted by the awful carnage and unexpected duration of the Civil War. An unpublished fragment entitled “A Meditation on the Divine Will,” as well as several religious-themed letters to his occasional Quaker correspondent Eliza P. Gurney, point to Lincoln’s growing sense of providential and divine meaning lying behind the discrete actions of the war (II.359, 627).
Of course, there is considerable overlap between social contract theory and Protestantism, particularly Calvinism; in last chapter’s discussion of Niebuhr, it was Niebuhr’s Protestantism that attracted him to the Calvinist “realism” of Madison in the first instance, and in part Madison’s training at the hands of the Princeton’s Calvinist President John Witherspoon that laid the groundwork for his understanding of the ineradicability of human self-interest and hence the need for institutional controls of depravity. Nevertheless, there is also profound tension and even outright disagreement between the liberalism of Locke and Madison, on the one hand, and Augustinianism in its various forms, on the other. Liberals begin by assuming that government, and politics generally, is an unnatural condition; Calvin, by contrast, does not. Liberals advance the ideal of our equal natural liberty; Augustinians and Calvinists instead stress our equal subordination, our status as brothers and sisters under a common Father. Liberals posit that self-interest can be channeled productively for the greater good of society and thus need not be restrained; Augustinians seek not only to “abridge” self-interest and reprimand the inclination to concentrate upon the “self” in general, but reject individualism and individual autonomy as an ideal of human life. Liberals regard justice as the highest and an achievable political ideal; Augustinians regard love – caritas, or “charity” – as the highest yet likely unachievable ideal, and justice as an imperfect and second-best approximation of love. Liberals believe that religion is a source of strife and division and is therefore best left to the individual conscience in the private sphere; Augustinians regard both the public and private spheres as ultimately subordinate to divine law, and therefore eschew a simple division between religion and State, although, at the same time, resist the notion that theocracy or a full mixing of the sacred and profane would be in any way desirable (mostly because this would draw religion too fully within the sphere of the political and too deeply immerse it in inessential considerations that are best left to temporal powers). If, according to one approach, Lincoln begins his career as a secular liberal but ends on a note of somber Augustinianism, might we conclude that there is a fundamental break in his thought and a contradiction between his early and late articulations?
Without being able to answer this question at the length and with the detail it deserves, I propose that we best understand Lincoln not by reading his early “rationalist” and apparently liberal speeches forward – as obvious and correct as that might seem – but rather by reading the import of his last words backward. In particular, we do best to understand his life-long critique of slavery and his conception of human equality, his endorsement of “charity” as a fitting response to his belief in human equality, and finally his defense of government as natural and democracy as superior because of this understanding of human equality, in essence foreshadowed throughout his written record and finding its culmination in the Second Inaugural. I conclude with a brief reflection on this alternative understanding of, and justification for, democracy.
In the Second Inaugural, Lincoln describes in brief the causes of the war, attributing it foremost to the one cause – slavery – that even he at times studiously avoided naming as the source of the Southern secession and the Northern efforts to maintain the Union. After all, he states, “Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding” (II.686). The resulting war was longer and more brutal than either side expected, yet throughout its prosecution each side appealed to the ultimate source in justifying its cause: “Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other.” Yet, Lincoln expresses his (apparently mild) disapproval of the South’s attempt to harness God on the side of slavery in the subsequent line: “It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not lest we be judged” (II.687). One might think Lincoln was entitled here to a tone of far greater and more seering denunciation. Nevertheless, in spite of the apparent mildness of this one criticism of the South that finds expression at the end of a harrowing war, Lincoln is in fact articulating a profound critique of the South and is further engaged in a form of theological education of the South – and all Americans.
The Bible is a constant resource for Lincoln in his speeches and writings. While many scholars and amateurs alike have long debated Lincoln’s piety, there is no contending that he was not only knowledgeable about the Bible, but of much Christian and particularly Calvinist theology as well. For all of Lincoln’s apparent impiety, he nevertheless gave testament to the central truth of the Bible’s teachings. Upon being presented with a Bible in 1864 by the “Loyal Colored People of Baltimore,” Lincoln responded that the Bible “the best gift God has given to man” and further asserted that “but for it we could not know right from wrong” (II.628).
Nevertheless, the Bible is equally a work that he could seemingly dismiss for its elusive meaning. One sees this in particular in Lincoln’s response to what was termed the “pro-slavery theology,” namely the Biblically-grounded attempt to justify slavery. Responding to the view of some that slavery was in accordance with the will of God in a fragment entitled “On Pro-slavery Theology” tentatively dated in 1858, Lincoln averred that “certainly there is no contending with the Will of God; but there is some difficulty in ascertaining, and applying it, to particular cases…. For instance …, [if] the question is ‘Is it the Will of God that Sambo shall remain a slave, or be set free?’ The Almighty gives no audible answer to the question, and his revelation – the Bible – gives none, or at most, none but such that as admits of a squabble, as to it’s [sic.] meaning” (I.685). At first glance, this statement appears to be nothing other than a cheeky dismissal of any actual applicable “wisdom” in the Bible – a work that, six years later, he locates as the source of human morality. Can one square these sentiments?
In fact, there is good reason to believe that the sentiments of these two statements are in perfect accord. Lincoln acknowledges that “there is no contending with the Will of God,” yet simultaneously recognizes that the will of God can only be imperfectly discerned in that very text where the infallibility of his will is revealed. The imperatives of God’s will are conveyed in a written work who’s meaning imperfect humans inevitably contest. By this understanding, God wills at once that we know His will to be incontestable yet that we are not equipped with sufficient knowledge or discernment to know with certainty all the particulars of His will. This recognition forces upon the devout an acknowledgement of the need for interpretive humility.
Interpretive humility, as it was articulated by Augustine, insisted at once upon the truth of Scripture and, because of the implications of that acknowledgement of God’s perfection and attendant human frailty, simultaneously insisted that we recognize the manifold ways in which the Bible can be read and understood. As understood and developed by Lincoln, this situation of interpretive humility necessitates as well an acknowledgement of subordinated equality. Because no one among us has a privileged or definitive understanding of Scripture, a practical implication is that no one among us is endowed with superior knowledge that can serve as the basis of a claim to rule. As Lincoln contends again and again, theocracy and slavery are both equally ruled out. Those who would enslave another on the basis of a reading of the Bible engage in a heretical activity of claiming an unavailable superiority. Lincoln does not hesitate to frame the debate with defenders of slavery in the starkest political and theological terms: “It is the eternal struggle between these two principles – right and wrong – throughout the world. They are the two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time; and will ever continue to struggle. The one is the common right of humanity and the other the divine right of kings. It is the same principle in whatever shape it develops itself. It is the same spirit that says, ‘You work and toil and earn bread, and I’ll eat it’” (I.810-11; “Lincoln-Douglas Debate at Alton”).
Those who would claim the food produced by the sweat of another man’s brow are effectively succumbing to the same temptation by Satan to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden: “This argument of the Judge [Douglas] is the same old serpent that says you work and I eat, you toil and I will enjoy the fruits of your labor” (I.457, “Speech at Chicago,” 1858). Slavery, in effect, is a commission of the yet another version of original sin.
Returning to the Second Inaugural, in light of the theological understanding of the basis of subordinate human equality, one is forced to reassess the initial suspicion that Lincoln appears to offer only a bland statement to differentiate the two sides that have otherwise fought in a prolonged and savage war: “It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not lest we be judged.” Instead, particularly by reference to the first of two Biblical passages Lincoln cites in this sentence, one sees that he is engaged in a radical and far more sweeping critique of the South. If one can have sufficient ground to assert the wrongness of American slavery (given the various legitimate interpretations that can be drawn from the Biblical source), it is surely on account of the outrageousness of asking “God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces.” Here, by means of a reference to the expulsion of mankind from Eden (Genesis 3:19), Lincoln points out that the slaveholding South – by attempting to overcome the burden that God places upon humanity in punishment for the commission of Original Sin – is in the first instance engaged in an attempt to resist humanity’s fallen condition in direct contradiction to God’s will. Further, resistance to God’s will in the name of God is a re-enactment of the original sin inasmuch as it is the claim by fallible humanity to the infallible knowledge that is at once based upon, and used to justify, the claim of human superiority over some other humans. The effort to enslave an inferior humanity based upon a superior reading of Scripture denies our common and equal “enslavement,” in the words of John Calvin in his interpretation of the third chapter of Genesis. The effort to resist God’s burden points more broadly to the attempt to deny man’s fallen nature. If the North can claim “superiority” in its cause against the South, it is not because of its greater “righteousness,” but rather because the North’s denial of the rightness of slavery reflects a greater humility in abiding by the will of God and through a greater acceptance of the condition of human fallenness.
Lincoln’s seering condemnation of the South appears superficially all the more bland due to the second Biblical passage: “but let us judge not lest we be judged.” Lincoln appears to retreat from a condemnatory judgment against the South, and even the ability to render any judgment, at precisely the moment when it appears most justified. Again, the Biblical context is revealing: drawn from Matthew 7, Jesus is not rejecting the capacity of judgment in favor of relativist uncertainty, but rather insisting that any judge must first judge himself by the same standard which he intends to use in the judgment of others: “And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considereth not the beam that is in thine own eye?” (Matthew 7: ). Lincoln’s passive tone disguises not only his strong condemnation of the heretical assumptions underlying the South’s justification of slavery, but partially obscures a strong suggestion that even the righteous judge is tempted to avoid probing self-scrutiny of his own inevitable failings through an exclusive effort to cast blame upon the failings of others. Here Lincoln echoes one of his earliest statements against a condemnatory stance precisely because such a stance can obfuscate recognition of our own imperfections. He recommended instead that one seeks to reveal to another man his wayward actions “in the accents of entreaty and persuasion, diffidently addressed by erring man to an erring brother…” (I.82). The attempt to escape the discernment of one’s own sinfulness – the very assertion of superiority even in the name of one’s greater humility – is no less subject to “judgment.” By means of this one sentence, Lincoln at once condemns the South’s justification of slavery yet places the North firmly within the scrutiny of God’s judgment.
Slavery was particularly heinous – indeed, likely among the worst sins that humanity could commit – because it was motivated by the temptation to the self-deceptive belief in our thorough independence. Traditional Augustinian doctrine held that God had differently endowed humanity with a multiplicity of talents so that humans would readily perceive the extent to which they were, by themselves, insufficient. An effort to escape from the necessity of work – the burden placed upon humanity for their transgression against God – could be understood as nothing less than an effort to “declare independence,” now from the necessary interdependence of all humans for each other, and of all humans upon the ultimate beneficence of God.
This understanding of the role that work is intended to play in fostering our understanding of each person’s insufficiency is captured with particular force in John Winthrop’s famous address aboard the ship “Arabella,” sometimes called “A Model of Christian Charity.” Indeed, there are such strong structural and thematic similarities between Winthrop’s Arabella speech and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural that it is likely that Lincoln based his later speech, if not directly upon Winthrop’s address, then almost certainly upon the same theological vision.
Counterintuitively, Winthrop begins his address with an apparent statement of human inequality: “God Almighty in His most holy and wise providence hath so disposed the condition of mankind as in all times some must be rich, some poor; some high and eminent in power and dignity, others mean and in subjection.” If one read no further, one could perhaps rightly conclude that Winthrop endorses hierarchy and the permanent control of some by others as facts of life. Yet, Winthrop continues by attempting to understand such diversity in light of God’s purposes: the fact of pluralism, in current parlance, exists “that every man might have need of other, and from hence they might be all knit more nearly together in the bond of brotherly affection.” Our differences are not an indictment against others whom we might regard as comparatively deficient from a terrestrial standard, but rather evidence of every person’s radical insufficiency. Nor can we claim our position on earth as a result of our own agency: “From hence it appears plainly that no man is made more honorable than another or more wealthy, etc., out of any particular and singular respect to himself, but for the glory of his creator and the common good of the creature, man.” Augustinian and Calvinist doctrine did not permit the impious claim of ultimate human responsibility for a person’s respective position and accomplishments: all outcomes are the result of Divine Providence. The fact of radical human imperfection, fallenness, even depravity, does not permit claims of superiority over any element of society – since, in the eyes of God, all humans are equal in their insufficiency and sinfulness – nor, of course, does it permit the claim of ultimate human agency in the world, given the fact of thoroughgoing human dependence on divine beneficence and grace.
For Winthrop, the recognition of our shared insufficiency demands, above all, the Christian virtue of charity. God intends us to understand our diversity as evidence of a whole of which we are necessarily a part, and which must actively work to build: “we must be knit together in this work as one man. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection; we must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities; we must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality.” In light of our insufficiency and imperfection, and the resulting humility that results from that recognition, individuals are called upon to discern and accept their dependency upon others, to eschew viewing their positions as the result of their own efforts or as entitling them to exclusive enjoyment of the benefits accruing from that position.
Our equality is not necessarily evident to the senses in the most obvious way – some will still enjoy positions of higher rank and greater wealth – but it is instead evinced in the very fact of our difference. Rather than the existence of difference leading to a stress upon individual autonomy – pluralism as evidence of the priority of our right to the individual pursuit in fulfillment of our individual capacities – Winthrop insists that those very differences exist as a chastening reminder of the insufficiency and ultimate dependence of all humans, and as a call to view one’s position as a contingent blessing that demands of us strenuous efforts on behalf of those who are not so well-positioned. At the same time, it is a reminder to those who are less-well positioned that they are neither at fault for their station, nor ought their first instinct be toward resentment of others (though they are given good grounds for critique of those elites who give any hint of self-congratulation).
Winthrop’s is a strenuous reminder of what Timothy P. Jackson has called “an ethic of care.” Belief in personal independence, in this view, is severely moderated inasmuch as such individuality can only arise meaningfully as the result of the cultivation that takes place in light of a recognition of prior dependence: “relatively ‘independent’ persons do not just happen; they require cultivation and protection, especially when very young. Any society that cannot attend to this dependency will treat autonomous persons like ‘manna from heaven’ and thereby fail to support the necessary conditions for the emergence of its own citizenry.” Gratitude and charity, not a belief in our self-creation, are the appropriate responses to this recognition of our frailty.
Lincoln echoes these very sentiments articulated by Winthrop, albeit now in light of the American national community, and in the shadow of the existence of the Civil War and the persistence of slavery and its legacy in American history. Like Winthrop, Lincoln begins with a chastening of American pretensions to independence – Southern and Northern alike. He insists that human efforts take place in light of God’s purposes, not vice-versa. Alluding to his earlier reference to the now-abandoned shared belief in an “easier triumph,” Lincoln broods – as he did throughout the course of the war – upon the significance of the war’s duration and carnage:
"The Almighty has His own purposes. 'Woe unto the world because of offenses! for it must needs be that offenses come; but woe to the man from whom the offence cometh!' If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope – fervently do we pray – that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, 'the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.' [II.687]
In spite of the justness of the North’s cause against the willful resistance to original sin committed by the South, the war had continued for so long, and with such enormous suffering on both sides, that Lincoln increasingly concluded that even the North – and he personally – could not be certain of God’s intentions in allowing a righteous war to continue. Without casting into doubt his belief that the North should continue to prosecute the war “with firmness in the right,” he did open space between his belief in that rightness – born of itself of humble acknowledgement of human limits and imperfect equality of perception – and God’s understanding of those like actions. Thus, he qualified his call for “firmness” with an acknowledgment, “as God gives us to see the right.”
In a series of reflections, including his “Meditation on the Divine Will” and his correspondence with Eliza P. Gurney, Lincoln, increasingly came to view the war as itself a glass through which the will of God could be discerned only darkly. He strongly acknowledged his belief in the righteous Providence of God in 1864 to Eliza Gurney, “the purposes of the Almighty are perfect, and must prevail, though we erring mortals may fail to accurately perceive them in advance” (II.627). These latter sentiments echo his 1862 words in his “Meditation on the Divine Will” that God’s and man’s intentions were likely distinct: “In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party – and yet, human instrumentalities, working as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect His purpose” (II.359).
Lincoln’s sense of a divide between God and man throws into stark relief human insufficiency: even so awesome an undertaking as the American Civil War, resulting in the death of over 600,000 men and untold destruction, may not mean quite what its actors believe it does. At the same time, Lincoln tentatively concludes that God may once again – as he did after the original sin in the Garden of Eden – be placing a terrible burden upon American, even all humanity, because of the sin of American slavery. After having briefly (and seemingly mildly) chastised the South’s attempt to justify slavery on Biblical grounds, Lincoln thereafter insists that slavery was a national sin, one that will be repaid by the whole country, perhaps for as long as it exists.
Too often Lincoln’s acknowledgment that God had laid a terrible burden upon the North and South alike is understood to be a reflection of Lincoln’s belief in a vengeful God. Such a view was the very opposite, however, of that held by Calvinists. As by Calvin’s in his interpretation of God’s curse of Adam and Adam’s sons, the burdens placed upon humanity are not the result of God’s vindictive will to punish, but rather a harsh but necessary kind of teaching to an obdurate and recalcitrant sinful humanity. As Calvin writes of Genesis 3,
"They who meekly submit to their sufferings, present to God an acceptable obedience ... that knowledge of sin which may teach them to be humble.... But they who imagined that punishments are required as compensations, have been preposterous interpreters of the judgments of God. For God does not consider, in chastising the faithful, what they deserve; but what will be useful to them in future; and fulfils the office of a physician rather than of a judge.... If we duly consider how great is the torpor of the human mind, then, how great its lasciviousness, how great its contumacy, how great its levity, and how quick its forgetfulness, we shall not wonder at God's severity in subduing it. If he admonishes in words he is not heard; if he adds stripes, it avails but little; when it happens that he is heard, the flesh nevertheless spurns the admonition. That obstinate hardness which, with all its power opposes itself to God, is worse than lasciviousness."
Harsh as it sounds, Lincoln came to accept the view that the Civil War was a horrible re-enactment of God’s curse on Adam as a constant and necessary reminder to sinful humans – ones inclined to repeat original sin in their effort to escape from the burden of work, in denying their dependence, and in claiming false self-sufficiency, through the enslavement of other human beings. It was a lesson being meted out to North and South alike, since both had benefited from the sin of slavery, and both were equally inclined to view their position as in thorough accordance with the will of God.
That the North, by the end of the war, had come to believe that God was on its side and that God’s favor upon America was evident in the North’s victory, was itself a further reminder of human inclination to sinful overestimation of its own powers. The belief that God smiled upon the North – widely held by America’s leading theologians at the Civil War’s culmination – has been characterized by Mark Noll as “a morally juvenile view,” and contrasted to Lincoln’s more mature and subtle injection of doubt whether Americans should understand themselves as God’s chosen people and whether such belief doesn’t in fact re-enact the first sin of humankind.
Horace Bushnell, for instance, celebrated the Northern victory by declaring that “the sense of nationality becomes even a kind of religion.” Noll differentiates most theologians from Lincoln on two grounds: “Almost universally they maintained the long-treasured axiom that the United States had enjoyed, and would continue to enjoy, a unique destiny as a divinely chosen people. The war, they held, had decisively reconfirmed this calling. Second, the theologians continued to speak as if the ways of providence were transparent, as if it were a relatively easy matter to say what God was doing in the disposition of contemporary events. Moreover, what was clearly seen could also be controlled.... On these points, the chorus of theologians sang with one voice.” Using the platform of the Presidential inaugural podium, Lincoln gently but firmly reprimanded not only the South’s sinful hubris, but the North’s growing and disturbing sense of triumphalism.
Having leveled human belief in its thorough agency and ability to control events – much as Winthrop razes human pretensions and self-deception of its own accomplishments – Lincoln, like Winthrop, begins his peroration with a call for charity:
"With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan – to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations." [II.687]
Lincoln’s is more than a statesmanlike call to move beyond the bitterness of the war – though it is certainly that. Rather, it retraces the movement, followed in Winthrop’s speech as well, from the bitter fruit of humanity’s fall and the accompanying situation of insufficiency and depravity, to the possibility of redemption through love. The call for charity, in Lincoln’s theological understanding, follows intimately and necessarily upon the recognition of our universally shared insufficiency. Our primary condition is one of need. The weakest and most forlorn – widows and orphans – are clearly most in need, and charity is our fitting response. But, in Lincoln’s more encompassing theological understanding, we are all roughly in the same position as widows and children – we are all equally bereft of the ability to fend for ourselves, equally deprived of any true form of self-sufficiency. We are all, like children, created and frail; and, like widows, ultimately bereft of those we love most.
From a God’s eye view – to which the Second Inaugural at times aspires, even while recognizing such a perspective is unattainable by any human – humans are radically equal in their insufficiency. To attain the conditions of life, to make possible a decent society and the flourishing of human beings individually and collectively, to make peace and even the aspirations for justice a reality, in the first instance society must be suffused with a spirit of charity. It is through the very chastening of the allurement of belief in our thorough agency, our ability to transform ourselves, our insistence that humanity individually or collectively controls its own destiny, even that redemption is possible through politics if it can only be arranged in a manner compatible with human potential for perfection, that the priority of sacrificial love can take its rightful place. On those grounds true human equality, and democratic endurance are rendered possible.
In a fragment tentatively dated in 1858, Lincoln stated his “idea” of democracy: “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy.” (I.484). While apparently a hidden syllogism, and clearly stating a principle of reciprocity, politically it is far from obviously true. The first impulse of one who would not be a slave is not necessarily that he would instead refuse to be a master, but rather, it might well be concluded that mastery would be the best protection against enslavement. While it is possible that an Hobbesian calculus lies in the background of this statement – that it might be in the ultimate interest of all parties to eschew slavery, lest one be so unfortunate as to be enslaved by a stronger party – in light of the preceding discussion, it is revealing that Lincoln’s assessment is undertaken purely in reference to himself alone. It does not reflect, in the first instance Lincoln’s ultimate fear of potentially a stronger human capable of mastering him, but rather a refusal to become a master in light of his unwillingness to be a slave. Master and slave are brought here closely into alignment: to be a slave is to be subject to powers that one cannot control.
In classical and Christian conceptions, to be a slave is not merely to be subject to the domination of another human; internally, it is possible to be subject of one’s instinctual appetites, such as pleasure, sloth, the will to tyranny. To seek to be a master is to be a slave to one’s will to mastery; to assert one’s unwillingness to be a slave to one’s worst appetites is to refuse the possibility of mastery: it is to master the will to master, and to thereby reject the inclination to enslave others. Democracy, by this understanding, is not justified as a contractual arrangement in which we avoid mastery out of fear of our own enslavement – yet internally remain attracted to mastery in theory, if not in fact – but, rather, consists more fundamentally of a mastery of our internal propensity to believe ourselves to be unequal and the rejection of our will to mastery. Lincoln’s “idea” of democracy is a belief in the “proposition” of “the capability of the people to govern themselves” that is itself ultimately premised upon the capability of each individual to govern the ineradicable human inclination to inequality based upon a false belief in our individual self-sufficiency (I.34).
Lincoln’s culminating speech seeks to temper the impious belief in personal or national superiority, and thereby chasten the human temptation toward individual or national self-glorification. While Lincoln called the United States “the last, best hope on earth,” it was in light of his recognition that Americans were an “almost chosen people.” His high estimation of America – one held throughout his life – was not because, in his view, America was “superior” to other nations because of its greater approximation to God’s will, but because, as a democracy, it was organized politically in recognition of the fact that man was not, nor could become, God. Even at his most patriotic and triumphal moments, Lincoln was cognizant that the “superiority” of democracy rested most fundamentally upon the humble recognition of human imperfection. Thus, even in his earliest address – “Address to the Young Man’s Lyceum” – Lincoln proclaims America’s greatness in the context of acknowledging the division between God and man: “Let the proud fabric of freedom rest, as the rock of its basis; and as truly has been said of the only greater institution, “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (I.36, Lincoln’s italics). Citing Matthew 16:18, in which Jesus “establishes” his Church on earth, Lincoln acknowledges that America is subordinate to “the only greater institution,” the rule of God. American democracy is superior to the world’s monarchies and tyrannies because of its basis in equality, and that basis in equality is based upon a shared understanding of our common subordination and the concomitant call for charity born of a humble acknowledgement of our shared lack of self-sufficiency.
Following his second inauguration, Lincoln wrote to an admirer that “men are not flattered by being shown that there has been a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them. To deny it, however, is to deny that there is a God governing the world. It is a truth that needed to be told, and as whatever humiliation there is in it, falls most directly on myself, I thought others might afford for me to tell it” (II.689). His “humiliation” is a result of his recognition of a divide between humanity and God: that acknowledgement is the source of his own humility, a reminder of his own human, all-too-human inclination to believe himself to be in control of human destiny. From the starting point of that acknowledgment arises the source of humility that animates and justifies democracy. The rejection of that recognition, at its most extreme, underlie the Southern practice of enslaving “inferiors”: shorn of an appropriately “humiliating” understanding of their own frailty, slave-holding America denied the well-spring of democratic belief.
Lincoln indicates that the necessary source of this “humiliation” is an acknowledgment that “God governs the world.” By this, Lincoln strongly suggests that the acceptance of the revealed existence of God is the fundamental premise upon which democracy rests. This understanding of democracy – while sometimes advanced by some among the more vociferous religious and even secular figures in today’s culture wars – will, for many, be as unwelcome coming from the modest and reasonable Lincoln as from self-righteous Bible-thumping preachers. And rightfully so – I would not like to think that democracy rests upon an orthodox religious belief. Yet, those who resist the ground premise of Lincoln’s assumption, as expressed in this late letter, at the very least should feel compelled ask themselves if, in the absence of a shared religious understanding as that expressed by Lincoln, whether they share implicitly or explicitly a different faith in its place – a “democratic faith” that implicitly raises humanity to the position of God and understands democracy as a vessel of salvation and redemption. Further, does the “democratic faith” have the resources of chastening self-introspection, the rejection of personal and national self-aggrandizement, and the strong endorsement of charity that are articulated in Lincoln’s understanding of democracy? Today’s democrats of all stripes, of all sects and all churches, of all creeds and all faiths, must subject themselves equally to the same question asked by Lincoln: do we harbor a sense of democratic self-satisfaction that is closely aligned to a belief in the possibility of mastery and dominion – whether of other humans, nature, or even ourselves – and does not such a belief ultimately threaten to undermine democracy? If we ask that of ourselves, then the chastening words of friendly critics of democratic faith such as Lincoln will have been enough, without demanding the last full measure of devotion.