'The Writings of Abraham Lincoln': How the 16th president used language to change history

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In Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address, given after four years of war, he offers two passages from the Gospels that seem at odds with each other.

The first is from Matthew 7:1: "Let us judge not that we be not judged." Whatever violence Southern people do by "wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces," Lincoln says, they are just what we would be in their situation.

Edited and with an introduction by Steven B. Smith
Yale University Press ($18).

The second sounds a different note. Quoting from Matthew 18:7, Lincoln suggests that circumstances like geography and culture do not absolve the actor of his guilt: "Woe unto the world because of offences! For it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh."

Lincoln's tricky theological problem -- how to understand guilt and responsibility in relation to the web of circumstances that partly confine an action -- is the subject of Yale political science professor Steven B. Smith's essay at the close of "The Writings of Abraham Lincoln," a selection that Mr. Smith also edited.

Mr. Smith's essay, like the three others that accompany this finely organized collection, is about language -- how Lincoln used language to change history and how Lincoln shaped America's political tongue itself. With equal attention to the political and philosophical forces pressing on the president, the book offers a penetrating account of how Lincoln, in laying the groundwork for a new public opinion, insisted on truths his opponents had put in peril: that ideas breathed, and words mattered.

• • •

In the book's most poetic essay, University of Chicago professor Ralph Lerner documents Lincoln's efforts to "reconceive American nationality" by giving a prominence to the universal ideals of the Declaration of Independence that they had never known.

In another essay, Danilo Petranovich of Yale agrees, but asks that we not allow Lincoln's political poetry to obscure "the more radical vision of American national identity" -- one where the Union as then constituted was not worth saving -- that Lincoln preached.

Finally, Michigan State University professor Benjamin Kleinerman makes a difficult argument that a close reading of Lincoln's writings shows that he believed more deeply in the constraints on executive power than the average observer has been led to assume.

But it is Mr. Smith's essay that takes on the collection's trickiest, and most consequential, question: The meaning of the speech Mr. Smith calls "the single greatest expression of American civil theology," Lincoln's "modern Sermon on the Mount."

Mr. Smith shows how Lincoln goes beyond the language of natural law to make an argument primarily religious in nature: that the purposes of the Almighty are perfect and unknowable and war is the justice due to the South for endorsing and the North for acquiescing to the national sin of slavery.

But on the question of how Lincoln reconciles moral responsibility, on the one hand, with the role of circumstance, on the other, Mr. Smith is evasive. He correctly denies those who would understand Lincoln to be abdicating his own historical role by emphasizing circumstance and necessity. But Mr. Smith then frames Lincoln's juggling act as a political calculation: though Lincoln must have believed in personal responsibility, Mr. Smith suggests, it was better for him to frame the momentous war as an act of necessity rather than an act of choice.

Lincoln's speech holds a deeper truth about self-memory. In an 1863 letter, Lincoln tries to persuade Unionists that they should fight alongside Negroes to save their country: "There will be some black men who can remember that, with silent tongue, and clenched teeth, and steady eye, and well-poised bayonet, they have helped mankind on to this great consummation; while, I fear, there will be some white ones, unable to forget that, with malignant heart, and deceitful speech, they have strove to hinder it."

• • •

Lincoln suggests in his second inaugural that necessity and circumstance can guide the tide of history. But for our lives to have meaning, we must tell ourselves that we did what we could do when the forces of necessity allowed it. Americans, Lincoln says, must act today in order to tell a coherent story about themselves tomorrow.

Lincoln writes in a later letter to Thurlow Weed that this theological understanding "is a truth which I thought needed to be told; and as whatever of humiliation there is in it, falls most directly on myself, I thought others might afford for me to tell it."

What humiliation did Lincoln have in mind? Mr. Smith calls the letter an acknowledgment of the tragic price of war, of the "old nostrum that all politics entails 'dirty hands.' " But it is possible Lincoln was thinking rather of his own once-permissive stance toward slavery.

Lincoln knew that history was moving inevitably toward the eradication of slavery. Yet for years, acting in opposition to that necessity, he supported the Fugitive Slave Law and the rights of Southern slaveholders. Lincoln felt the burden of this acquiescence as deeply as those he had warned would be "unable to forget" that "they have strove to hinder" the coming of freedom.

Lincoln was America's theological storyteller. But he was not only the author of that story. Lincoln owes part of his lasting significance to the fact that he was also a character in it -- capable of explaining with uncommon human sympathy the moral standard for which we must strive.


Benjamin Mueller was a Post-Gazette summer intern (bmueller@post-gazette.com). First Published August 19, 2012 4:00 AM


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