Belief  /  Book Review

In Jon Meacham’s Biography, Lincoln Is a Guiding Light For Our Times

The famous historian makes the claim that the demigods of American historical mythology can help us carve paths through our forbidding 21st-century wilderness.

Meacham’s lucid account nicely captures the religious framework with which Lincoln approached the most difficult decisions of his presidency. Deciding on emancipation in the summer of 1862, Lincoln resolved that he would do “whatever shall appear to be God’s will.” But how to discern the will of God? “These are not … the days of miracles,” he told two pastors from Chicago. Religious leaders, he pointed out, urged him down divergent paths. Some insisted that Christianity’s ethic of love required the immediate abolition of slavery. Others cited the Bible’s story of original sin and observed that Christianity had coexisted with slavery for 2,000 years. Ultimately, Lincoln found worldly evidence of God’s plan on the battlefield at Antietam in Maryland. The president, recalled Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, “made a vow — a covenant — that if God gave us the victory in the approaching battle, he would consider it an indication of Divine will.” When Union forces repelled Robert E. Lee’s invasion of the North, in a battle that killed or wounded 23,000 men in a single day, Lincoln read the grim victory as a sign. His Emancipation Proclamation, issued five days later, decisively turned the war for the Union into a war against slavery.

But Meacham is not content to rest at a description of Lincoln’s psychology. He takes the point a step further. “To Lincoln,” he writes, “God whispered His will through conscience, calling humankind to live in accord with the laws of love.” There is no endnote for this, no bibliographical support, because how could there be? Meacham offers us a Lincoln who is a modern Moses, a prophet carrying out in mysterious ways the inscrutable will of God and leading a New Testament Israel through the wilderness to rescue an “experiment in liberty under law.” Meacham is a man of faith as much as his subject.

The belief that God has chosen a nation to carry forward the plan of history has been a dangerous tenet for millennia. The Old Testament’s genocides illustrate the point, as do those of the New World (in which Lincoln himself played a modest part), not to mention the many religiously inflected crises of violence around the world today. The conceit of “manifest destiny” helped produce an American empire whose structure remains today at odds with basic ideals of liberty and equality. Meacham’s contention nonetheless is that in the right dose, and with the appropriately humble human agents, faith supplies a moral framework adequate to our gravest moments. At the very least, faith offered Lincoln a language for communicating seriousness of purpose. It’s fair to say that it offers Meacham the same.