Abraham Lincoln understood the value of a well-judged disclaimer, so it may be as well to begin by stating what this book does not purport to be. It is not a personal biography of the sixteenth president of the United States. Rather, it is a study of Lincoln’s political career, one which explores the sources and characteristics of his political authority, both before and after he won national recognition.
To study Lincoln involves peering through a veil of myth and iconography. Any president who successfully steers a nation through a civil war can expect to be decked with the victor’s laurels, but in Lincoln’s case garlands for the Union’s Savior and Great Emancipator have been interwoven with
wreaths for its First Martyr. The nature and timing of Lincoln’s death, personal and public tragedy though it was, proved perfect for his historical canonization. Legions of Lincoln scholars have recognized this, of course, and have tussled to reveal the enigmatic human being and unvarnished politician encased within the marble figure of national memory. After all, the Union’s war president was scarcely a revered national hero at the time: even the loyal press–impatient, anxious, and occasionally despairing–often questioned his wisdom and suitability for the job. Yet Lincoln still emerges, in so much that is written about him and the wartime Union, as a wholly–even unaccountably–exceptional figure. The remedy does not lie in gratuitous debunking: Lincoln was indeed a talented politician who rose beyond expectation to the supreme challenge of his office. But the key to understanding his rise to power and his achievement as president is to place him firmly into the setting in which he operated and to recognize the external sources of his authority, as much as his own endowments. In mid-nineteenth-century America, the world’s first mass participatory democracy, political success derived from the effective interplay of three elements: personal drive, the force of public opinion, and the organizing machinery of the political party and other networks of communication. During Lincoln’s career as a peacetime politician and then as the only United States president to face the challenge of a civil war, his great achievement was to set ambitious but realizable political goals; to fathom the thinking of ordinary citizens and to reach out to them with uncommon assurance; and to hone his impressive skills as a manager of the often unstable and fractious elements that made up the political parties to which he belonged. In what follows I have given particular emphasis to each of these elements, but within a largely narrative framework which recognizes that Lincoln’s words and actions, and those for whom they were intended, need to be understood within specific and changing contexts.
It seemed to many who watched Lincoln at first hand in Illinois and Washington that his special talent lay in his feel for opinion and in establishing rapport with the public at large. One young Springfield lawyer,
convinced that Lincoln was privately “a radical–fanatically so,” deemed that his strength lay in his never going “beyond the People.” For George Baker, a clerk in the State Department, the president’s success “consisted very much in the confidence and respect he won from the people. Other wiser, greater and as good men might not have won this and then all would have been lost in some of our great crises.” But public opinion in Illinois and the wider Union comprised many ideological and cultural strands.
Understanding “the people” meant comprehending pluralism. A common theme in what historians have written about Lincoln is the skill with which he made himself attractive, or at least indispensable, to a broad range of conservative, moderate, and radical elements within–successively–the Whig party, the antebellum Republican coalition, and the wartime Union. Less well appreciated is his remarkable success in reaching out to what was the most powerful of all the era’s subcultures, evangelical Protestantism. Mainstream evangelicals did much to shape the style, substance, and rhetoric of the mass participatory politics that reached their maturity in America at about the same time that Lincoln arrived at his. In antebellum Illinois, as elsewhere, the political fault lines commonly coincided with
religious and ethnic ones. Alert to the power of religious opinion, Lincoln used appeals to Protestant millennialism and Enlightenment rationalism. The orthodox Protestantism which underpinned the ethical stance of Republicans and much of the wartime Union coalition, and which flourished in New England and its “Yankee” diaspora, was not Lincoln’s religious faith. But he shrewdly harnessed the power of the most politically influential and energetic members of that constituency, both to win the presidency and to rally support behind his national vision and the war’s purposes.
Half of this study addresses Lincoln’s pre-presidential career. The first chapter explores the roots of Lincoln’s political ambition, examining his early life, the sources of his ideas, his alienation from the land, his seizing of the opportunities offered by the emerging market economy, and his evolution by 1840 into a leading Illinois Whig. His effectiveness in state politics and his election to the United States Congress, where he served from 1847 to 1849, signaled his political ability, but only hinted at the more serious and morally engaged figure that reentered politics in 1854 after the repeal of the Missouri Compromise opened the door to slavery’s westward expansion into Kansas-Nebraska. Establishing the philosophical sources of that moral engagement demands a discussion of Lincoln’s evolving religious views.
Chapter 2 examines how during the mid-1850s Lincoln became a chief beneficiary of the swirling public opinion that, acting as the arbiter of political power, destabilized the old parties and opened the door to realignment. Through several seasons of public speaking Lincoln’s steady advocacy of an antislavery argument did much to shape public sentiment and to effect the displacement of the Whigs by a broader-based Republican party that aspired to national power. Within the mix of ideological, ethnic, and religious loyalties amongst Illinois voters, Yankee influence came to preponderate through the decade. In his debates in 1858 with his great rival, United States Senator Stephen A. Douglas, Lincoln earnestly sought to harness antislavery religious sensibilities not only in the Yankeedominated settlements but as widely as possible across the state, and showed his grasp of the dynamics of the emergent mass democracy that made America politically unique.
Two years after Lincoln’s narrow defeat at Douglas’s hands, the power of a crusading party unlocked the door of the presidency. In the interplay of the elements shaping Lincoln’s antebellum career, it was the operations of party which did most to bring about his remarkable political ascent in 1860. Chapter 3 shows how his winning the presidential nomination demanded the confidence of a Republican organization whose national leadership had several other names from which to choose. Once Lincoln had been selected, his reaching office was almost completely dependent upon his party’s exertions. Party organizations were essential to effective campaign- ing, their controls over patronage providing the necessary levers of discipline and unity. The chapter examines the posture of a party that was an institutional and philosophical amalgam. Economic interest and bitter anti-southern feeling were important elements of the Republican mix. Equally important, the party was an expression of the reform-minded, optimistic Protestant evangelicalism unleashed by the religious movement known as the Second Great Awakening. Lincoln’s candidacy served its purposes well, for in his blend of constitutional conservativism and highminded, even Yankee-style moralism, they had a champion behind whom both pragmatic coalition-builders and high-minded crusaders could enthusiastically rally.
The fourth chapter examines Lincoln’s response to the challenge of exercising influence and power during the year or so between his election and early 1862. During the three phases of this period–as president-elect, as president during the uneasy peace before Sumter, and as a war leader– Lincoln showed those signs of anxiety and uncertainty only to be expected in someone lacking executive experience and facing a uniquely daunting challenge. Still, what gave coherence and continuity to his political course throughout this momentous year were three elements essential to the Union’s victory and his own political survival. First, he kept an undeviating focus on the permanence of the Union. Second, he instinctively understood the strategic essentials: limiting secession and maximizing support in the border region; blockading the South; and preventing the internationalizing of the conflict. Third, he engaged with and nourished a cross-party, broad-based popular patriotism.
Chapter 5 concerns Lincoln’s political purposes and their evolution from restoring the prewar Union to embracing emancipation. Lincoln’s assault on slavery was born of pragmatism and sustained by his evolving ideas of divine as well as human purposes. He defended emancipation as an essential means of preserving the Union and mortally wounding the Confederacy. But it became an end in itself, something without which the Union was scarcely worth saving and toward which God’s own plan
appeared to be driving him. Emancipation raised unavoidable questions about the place of the ex-slave and African-American in the nation’s life, issues on which Lincoln and the more radical Republicans found themselves at odds as they fashioned their policies on the reconstruction of the Union. By the end of his life Lincoln was contemplating votes for educated freedmen; he had traveled a long way from the defense of the racial status quo that he had mounted as an antebellum aspirant for political office.
The instruments of Lincoln’s presidential power provide the focus of chapter 6.Much of that authority derived from a strong-arm use of the law and the military: charges of coercion and dictatorship were not without some foundation in fact. But Lincoln’s achievement in holding the Union together and in enjoying the unique experience of being reelected president during a bloody civil war derived less from coercion than from his ability to harness the surges of Union patriotism that flowed through three essentially “voluntary” organizations: his party, the Union army, and the religious-philanthropic bodies of the North. Republican/Union party leaders, most notably the state governors and the editorial corps, mobilized
massive and sustained support for the war; the army, whatever loyalty it had once felt for General-in-Chief George McClellan, evinced even more for “Father Abraham”; organized Protestantism provided the president with a ready-made and devoted network of speakers and fund-raisers. The
outcome of the 1864 presidential election plainly revealed Lincoln’s success in nurturing and sustaining Unionism in each of these domains.
Active in life, Lincoln passively exerted further power in death, as his transformation into a Christ-like martyr, slain on Good Friday, gave a new layer of sanctification to American nationalism. As they mourned his assassination, Americans read into their bereavement a millennial promise that fused the sacred all the more powerfully with the secular. The book’s conclusion notes how the nationhood preserved by Unionists through the Civil War now yielded an enhanced and ambitious patriotism quite unlike any that the country had known before.
Many elements of the inner Lincoln, including his personal faith and key questions about his motivation and evolving political ambitions, necessarily remain a puzzle. Lincoln wrote with arresting precision and clarity, but he kept no diary or private journal. Only reluctantly did he proffer a few, spare autobiographical sketches. Though he was an indefatigable conversationalist, could be excellent company, and dominated gatherings through his storytelling, even his near friends encountered reticence and secrecy, and most judged that he “never told all he felt.” Discretion in politically sensitive matters, including racial issues, marked his handling of men and measures. Norman Judd, one of his closest associates, stated bluntly, “Lincoln never told mortal man his purposes– Never.” We are left reflecting that the Great Emancipator’s enduring hold over the historical imagination may owe almost as much to his enigmatic features as to the reality of his achievements and to his tragic end.
Even so, questions about Lincoln’s private political reflections, moral convictions, and religious understanding must be addressed, particularly if it is true–as some scholars have convincingly argued–that he took ideas seriously: Lincoln had a pragmatic streak but he by no means lacked philosophical moorings. Some answers to hard questions can be gleaned from the galaxy of firsthand recollections left by family, friends, professional associates, and acquaintances. In recent years reprinted memoirs–variable in reliability and usefulness, and including at least one grotesque fabrication– have cascaded from the presses. A cluster of works marked by superb editorial scholarship deserve particular note: Douglas L.Wilson and Rodney O. Davis’s fine edition of the reminiscences accumulated by Lincoln’s
law partner, William Herndon; Michael Burlingame’s several volumes of materials written or prompted by the president’s personal secretaries; and Don and Virginia Fehrenbacher’s comprehensive collection of Lincoln’s attributed remarks. These works, together with the magnificent electronic edition of the Lincoln Papers in progress at the Library of Congress and the equally impressive documentary collection of the Lincoln Legal Papers, show that however much historical writing remains an individual effort it inevitably depends on the assembled efforts of many others.
I am grateful to the University of Illinois Press and the editor of the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association for granting permission to reprint material from “Lincoln, Evangelical Religion, and American Political Culture in the Era of the Civil War” (vol. 18: Winter 1997). I am pleased to acknowledge the invaluable assistance of grants from the University of Sheffield Research Fund and of a research leave award from the Humanities Research Board of the British Academy. I also extend my sincere thanks to those whose personal kindness and scholarly assistance have helped bring this book to completion. Thomas F. Schwartz, as secretary of the Abraham Lincoln Association and as state historian of Illinois, did much at a critical stage to boost the confidence of a fledgling Lincolnian. I am grateful to him and Cathy Schwartz for their generosity. William E. Gienapp’s superlative work on the early Republican party and long years offriendship have been an inspiration. Kim Bauer, Cheryl Pence, and Cheryl Schnirring at the Illinois State Historical Library archives, David Himrod at the Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary Library in Evanston, and the staff of the Chicago Historical Society could not have been more helpful. Mark A.Noll,Constance Rajala, Hope and Bill Rajala, and William R. Sutton in various important respects eased my visits to Illinois. Nigel Williamson assisted in all sorts of ways with information technology. Sally Wiseman was an impeccable research assistant. I owe special thanks to Robert Cook, Patrick Renshaw, Adam Smith, and Linda Kirk for giving the text a close reading and for their thoughtful suggestions and criticisms. Peter Parish, friend and guide, would have read it, too, had not his untimely death removed him from the cluster of British nineteenth- century American historians which he led with such distinction. The book is dedicated to his memory, and to that of two historians from whom I first learned that there could be life in the past. Finally, I must thank Keith Robbins, not only for asking me to write this book, but for waiting so longand so uncomplainingly for me to complete it.
From the Hardcover edition.