McClay on Lincoln: The Burden of Leadership — The City Online - Houston Baptist University

McClay on Lincoln: The Burden of Leadership

by Wilfred McClay on May 5, 2009

Starting this month, Houston Baptist University is hosting a unique traveling museum exhibit, Lee and Grant, on our campus. Organized by the Virginia Historical Society and made possible with the generous support of the National Endowment for the Humanities, the exhibition provides a comprehensive reassessment of the lives, careers, and historical impact of Civil War generals Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant, all held in the year we mark the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. Considering this, the Spring 2009 issue of The City features a forum concerning Faith and War, focused on the American Civil War but extending to the modern day. We’re proud to feature Wilfred McClay‘s essay on Lincoln among them.

We sometimes think of the past as nothing more than antique curiosities on a shelf, statuettes of marble and amber whose moment of living reality has passed. But that is not necessarily so. Sometimes the past can be far more vital and lifegiving than the present, precisely because it frees us from the prison of the proximate and the familiar, a world cluttered with too many human fingerprints, and brings us closer to the beginnings of things. The word “archaic” is generally used as a pejorative in our speech. But it comes from the Greek arche, which refers not only to the antiquity of things but to their foundational character. They are first not only in time, but in principle. En arche en ho logos, begins St. John’s Gospel: In the beginning was the Word. There is endless novelty buried in these ancient terms, for an arche is the deep spring from which all else emanates. And there is endless mystery, for the arche is a cause, not an effect.

Our initial encounter with first things can be startling, precisely because the very means by which we are nourished become unfamiliar with the passage of time. Consider our reaction to another of the oldest artifacts of our civilization, the Homeric epics. We often fail to grasp their power. The great journalist Rebecca West and her husband described their encounter in the 1930s with remote Yugoslav tribesmen who still sang and recited oral epics in the Homeric fashion. These bards recounted actions that “must have been made a million million million times since the world began,” but in each new telling seemed “absolutely fresh.” Thus, when one reads in the Iliad of a man drawing a bow or raising a sword, “it is,” West wrote, “as if the dew of the world’s morning lay undisturbed on what he did.” Far from being old and dead, the past draws life from its closeness to the origins of things.

Such is the case with Abraham Lincoln, the great American leader of humble origins whose story and example are rich testimony to the promise of American life, and whose bicentennial we are celebrating for the entire year of 2009. Lincoln, too, is close to the origins. It is not for nothing that we speak of the American Civil War as an American Iliad, or project redemptive images of “Father Abraham” onto the leader who saved the Union. We sense that, in thinking about the Civil War or Lincoln, or writing about them, we are drawing closer to the very marrow of American national identity, a vein of powerful meanings and buried feelings that run beneath the surface of everyday American life. That is why these subjects always command our attention. We cannot help but go back to them, pick them up in our hands, and turn them round and round, searching their many facets for confirmation, or for a hint of something fresh and new – for they are large subjects and contain multitudes.

And yet Lincoln remains a puzzle in many ways. We think we know him. But as we draw closer to him, we find him a mystery that eludes our grasp. It was much the same for his contemporaries. His law partner William Herndon declared that “Lincoln never poured out his soul to any mortal creature at anytime and on no subject.” Judge David Davis, who knew Lincoln well from the judicial circuit and as an Illinois political advisor, said he was “the most reticent—secretive—man I ever saw, or expect to see.” He could be extraordinarily gregarious, even the life of the party, as a younger man, and seemed to relish the flesh-pressing of politics. But he also could be awkward and taciturn, particularly when struggling with one of his periodical bouts of deep and disabling depression. This greatest of American presidents remains, in many ways, an inscrutable mystery. His appearing to be a common man was just one mark of how uncommon he actually was.

Of course, we do not only see him as a common man. Many of our popular perceptions of him are as exalted and outsized as the gigantic marble likeness of him inside the Lincoln Memorial, or the mythic-sized Father Abraham. But these images of Lincoln as a demigod are deceptive. They do not jibe easily with the more human Lincoln that we know, or think we know: that awkward, melancholic, compulsively joke-telling, conniving, unhappily married, vulgar, fiercely ambitious, and superlatively eloquent uncommon-common man.

Nor does one tend to think, when standing before the Lincoln Memorial, about the depth and breadth of Lincoln’s unpopularity during most of his time in office. Few great leaders have been more widely disdained or loathed or underestimated. Few of his contemporaries could have imagined that he would someday be so lavishly honored. The low Southern view of him was to be expected, of course, but it was widely shared north of the Mason-Dixon line as well. Lincoln’s own associates dismissed him as “a simple Susan, a baboon, an aimless punster, a smutty joker”; he was, in the view of the abolitionist Wendell Phillips, a “huckster in politics,” and “a first-rate second-rate man.”

On the day he delivered the Gettysburg Address, he was preceded by the famed orator Edward Everett. The contrast could not have been more stark. Lincoln was the gangly, awkward country boy who had risen in the world by sheer determination, with little formal schooling and no social advantages. Everett was an educator from a distinguished New England family, a graduate of Harvard (and later its president), a Congressman, Senator, Governor of Massachusetts, and the first American to receive a Ph.D. Everett gave a two-hour-long speech, a tour de force full of florid language and learned allusion. Lincoln gave a two-minute speech, that, he predicted, the world would “little note nor long remember.” Many of the journalists who covered the event agreed, and dismissed Lincoln’s speech as a trifle. Yet today all the world remembers those few perfectly wrought words of the self-educated frontiersman President, not those of the supremely well-pedigreed former president of Harvard. The stone that was rejected became the cornerstone.

The Gospel teaches us that God’s economy is full of such unexpected reversals. But in our hyped and hypermediated world, we need to remember that this is how history actually happens. The background music does not swell at the crucial moment, helping us distinguish the substantial from the merely splashy. Trumpets do not sound. There is no helpful identifying label for the arche. It does not matter how many advanced degrees one has. There is no voice-over narrator to tell the orator or the soldier whether he is acting in vain, whether the criticisms of others are in fact warranted, whether time will vindicate him or judge him harshly. There are no spin doctors or pollsters to create “public opinion” out of thin air. To be “the man in the arena,” as Theodore Roosevelt would later put it, is a lonely and uncertain position, with neither guideposts nor guarantees. Few great men have felt this lonely burden of leadership more fully than Lincoln. “I claim not to have controlled events,” Lincoln mused during the course of his presidency, “but confess plainly that events have controlled me.”
We also need to remember how likely it seemed to Lincoln and others in the White House that he would lose the 1864 election, and thereby see the abject defeat of the Union cause as he had fought for it. Had it not been for Sherman’s capture of Atlanta just before the presidential election, such a defeat at the polls seemed inevitable, as the American people had grown weary of this frustrating struggle.

We should remember too that Lincoln had to do things as president that he was not really well equipped to do, either by experience or temperament. He had not only opposed the aggression of the Mexican War but was something of an antimilitarist who abhorred violence. How then to account for the fact that he became such a remarkably effective war leader, indeed the quintessential war president—the only president in our history—whose entire term of office was defined by the conditions of war, a self-taught master strategist, and the employer and enabler of such legendarily destructive warriors as Grant and Sherman? Add that too to the long list of mysteries.
And then there is the question of Lincoln’s halfway measures on slavery, whose fuller context we also need to remember. He rose to prominence as a politician who was antislavery but also anti-abolitionist. The strategy he preferred would have contained the spread of slavery, then gradually eliminated it–as opposed to overturning the institution in one grand liberatory gesture. Such a position perhaps seems incoherent to us now, and it failed in the end, since the South concluded that it could not trust President Lincoln, who received not a single electoral vote from the South, to protect its “peculiar institution.” But it was a position based on Lincoln’s belief that the maintenance of the Union was the most important thing, the necessary condition of all other goods.

Less easily accepted are Lincoln’s frank disbelief in racial equality and his longstanding support for African colonization schemes. That such positions were common in his day does not count for much with us now, rightly or wrongly. But what should count for us is the fact that, in the maelstrom of war, Lincoln changed his mind. He came to understand that the Union could only be preserved if it sought to achieve something greater than its own preservation.

Statesmanship is not an abstract skill, but a contextual one, whose chemistry is highly specific to the conditions in which it finds itself—time, place, circumstances, events, all of which can change dramatically without notice. What kind of leader might Lincoln have been under different circumstances? What if there been had there been no secession attempt after his election? Or what if he had he lived long enough to be a postwar president? The questions are worth asking, but they are impossible to answer, and in the end, they are beside the point.

For Lincoln was above all a war president. Like it or not, that condition of history almost completely defined him. He was not elected to be such a president. Nor had he wanted to be one. And neither he nor anyone else ever expected this war to be so lengthy, so bloody, so wrenching. But it was what history had in store for him, and the awful responsibilities of history were not to be denied.
It is a lesson many Presidents have been forced to learn, when events transform the very ground beneath them and assign them different tasks than the ones they had wanted to undertake.

For not a few of these leaders, the sustaining power of religious faith has taken on new meaning in times of extreme adversity. So it was with Lincoln. It is clear that the relentlessly soul-wrenching responsibilities of this war threw him back on the resources of the Christian faith, a faith that he had managed to hold at an arm’s length for most of his previous life. He had rejected his father’s revivalistic Baptist faith, just as he had rejected his father’s humble acceptance of simple frontier life, in favor of a life of striving and social mobility. Lincoln was something of a freethinker and a rationalist earlier in his career, without any church membership; and to the extent that he believed in God, it was not belief in Jehovah or Christ, but belief in a kind of vague principle of Necessity undergirding the whole of existence. Lincoln knew well the fine prose of his King James Bible and drew upon it for imagery and oratorical style—but not for theological ideas.

The war changed all that. In the beginning, he derided it as a “needless” war and sought the Lord’s favor merely in granting a speedy Union victory. But as the war dragged on, opening out into a furious and horrifying bloodletting on a scale far more vast than anyone had anticipated, Lincoln began to look more and more deeply and urgently for meaning in it all. This ultimately meant a search for signs that God had a purpose in permitting this cataclysm.

As the war proceeded, he came to believe that God’s greater intentions must involve something greater than the victory of either side. In his Second Inaugural Speech, Lincoln speculated that the purpose might be a kind of general punishment and atonement for the national sin of slavery, and, in a way that is all too rare in the annals of the victorious, he began to redescribe the war, not as a rebellion or a crime, but as a national tragedy, in which neither party was entirely to blame or entirely innocent, and in which the binding up of wounds, rather than the exacting of vengeance, should be the next item of business.

Lincoln’s burgeoning faith connected with his longstanding sense of America’s special role in human history: “the last best hope of earth,” he called it. But his faith was also a brake on that sense, serving to remind him, and all Americans, that their civil religion assigned them responsibilities, not entitlements. Lincoln’s great speech was notable for its unwillingness to demonize or diminish the soon-to-be-defeated enemy, and for its tempering of moral resoluteness by a broadly religious sense of a larger, imponderable dimension to the struggle. “Both sides,” Lincoln famously declared, “read the same Bible, and pray to the same God … The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.” The vantage point of a God who loves all His creatures was vastly greater than that envisioned by commitment to any partial and fallible human cause. That vantage point too, to the extent one could comprehend it, was a brake on civil religion.

Nothing in Lincoln’s words suggested even a hint of faltering in the ultimate goal of destroying the Confederacy and reuniting the nation. He could not stop being a war president; that luxury was not permitted to him. And yet, the speech suggests not only Lincoln’s charity for the enemy, but also his keen awareness of the arrogance, blindness, or triumphalism to which his own side might be susceptible. That Lincoln himself may not have been entirely innocent of such flaws, and that his conduct of the war necessarily involved him in inflicting wounds that he knew would be painfully slow to heal, only underscores the remarkable wisdom of his words. There was no morally pure path open to him. There never is, for a war leader.

It was perhaps that very awareness that led him to give increasing weight not only to God’s judgment, but also to God’s forgiveness, without which no leader possessed of Lincoln’s level of moral awareness could possibly endure. In any event, events had brought him a very long way, from belief in a pallid God of Necessity, toward belief in the living God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In this journey, as in his journey toward an America that more fully embodied its founding commitments, Lincoln is and remains for us a guide and an arche, one of those deep springs from which all else flows. He remains a man on whose life and deeds the dew of our democracy’s morning still lays undisturbed.

Wilfred McClay is the SunTrust Bank Chair of Excellence in Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, where he is also Professor of History.

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