House Divided

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June 25, 2017

I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother . . . and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.

Something akin to that prophecy’s fulfillment happened all across our country with the civil war—even to the family of the president. Mary Todd Lincoln’s sister’s husband was a southern general. When he was killed at Chickamauga, Emilie his wife was let through union lines to stay with her sister at the White House. Union General Daniel Sickles, who at Gettysburg had lost a leg, complained to the president: “You should not have that rebel in your house.” “General Sickles,” Lincoln said, “my wife and I are in the habit of choosing our own guests. We do not need from our friends either advice or assistance in the matter.”

Lincoln died nine hours after he was shot that night at Ford’s Theater, with most of his cabinet members gathered at his bed. When the president stopped breathing, Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War, saluted his dead leader and said “Now he belongs to the ages.”

That was true, and now it is our turn to claim him. Every year I have a reading topic. Last year my topic was race. This year: Lincoln. He is a comfort to me as a contrast to the present. Typically today, with hands over ears we vomit words at our opponents. Lincoln was opposite to that. For him, reason was sacred. He measured his words and listened.

In Gettysburg the night before the big speech, Lincoln was serenaded by the band of the Fifth New York Artillery Brigade. After the music, the small crowd hoped to hear a little speech by honest Abe. Politely, he declined because as president he had learned to be careful about casual remarks. “In my position it is somewhat important that I should not say any foolish things.” Someone from the crowd interrupted: “If you can help it.” Lincoln replied: “It very often happens that the only way to help it is to say nothing at all.”

Reading Lincoln reminds me of the beauty of our country, politics included, when we live up to our potential.  

He was a red-blooded politician. He knew that game and played it hard within the rules. He cajoled and bargained. He was interested in power and not ashamed to claim and use it lawfully. But he wasn’t mastered by personal ambition. He believed in higher purposes and they guided his steps at crucial moments. At one point an advisor urged him to take a deal from opponents in his party who could kill his chance for re-election. Lincoln saw the problem. “I do not doubt that they can do harm, they have never been friendly to me,” he said. But no, he wouldn’t take the deal, because. “At all events, I must keep some consciousness of being somewhere near right. I must keep some standard of principle fixed within myself.”

The Bible’s word for that resolve is righteousness.  Along with care with words, we get that with Lincoln. He suffered for it willingly. In that, he was not alone by any means. One day Lincoln was riding in his carriage. A long line of ambulances went by. “Look yonder at those poor fellows. I cannot bear it. This suffering, this loss of life is dreadful.”

There are four kinds of suffering we may face in life. Natural suffering from accident and illness is one. Mischievous suffering that others inflict on us is two. Sinful or foolish suffering we cause for ourselves is three. Lincoln believed the civil war was suffering of this sort, arising from a moral defect in our constitution. But it also gave rise to a fourth kind of suffering, which is sacrifice in service to a higher purpose. Soldiers up and down the battle lines, both sides, died bravely. They were not mastered by their own self-interest.

As fortunes of war turned in favor of the north, the president and public debated terms on which peace should be offered to the south. Stricter terms meant longer war. Slavery was still the issue. Lincoln had always considered slavery wrong. “Their thinking it right and our thinking it wrong” was the basic north-south disagreement, he explained in a speech before he was elected president. But as he took office Lincoln would have tolerated slavery in states where it had long existed to preserve the union. He did oppose its expansion and it was that opposition that brought north and south to war. In wartime, Lincoln emancipated 200,000 slaves in rebel states to weaken southern armies. Once the war was won what would happen to their freedom?

David Herbert Donald, an esteemed biographer of Lincoln, tells us that for Lincoln this was finally a moral question. Many freed slaves had fought bravely in the Union army. Politics aside, it would be wrong to send them back to slavery.

How could anybody propose “to return to slavery the black warriors of Port Hudson and Olustee to their masters to conciliate the South? I should be damned in time and eternity for so doing.”

Lincoln would not trade their freedom for the country’s peace. His decision was at issue in the 1864 election, because Lincoln’s opponent, General George McClellan, was ready to be a more flexible negotiator. On election day Union soldiers, whose were the lives most at stake in the result, turned out in strength and voted overwhelmingly for Lincoln. He won every state except Kentucky, Delaware, and New Jersey. The voters had decided the war should go on until it brought an end to slavery.

Reading news of Lincoln’s victory, a prominent New York gentlemen named George Templeton Strong wrote this in his diary: “Laus Deo! [Praise God!] The crisis has been past, and the most momentous popular election ever held since ballots were invented has decided against treason and disunion . . . The American people can be trusted to take care of the national honor.”

As a generality, that judgment is debatable, but it was certainly true in 1864. It is one among several facts surrounding Lincoln that resist a cynical interpretation of the American experiment. In him, we see the beauty in it.

David Herbert Donald was Charles Warren Professor of American History at Harvard.  For me, he looms in memory as an important figure at a key juncture in my life. I was a first-year graduate student in his program.  One afternoon in seminar I questioned his approach to teaching history. He took offense and suggested that given my views I might want to consider an alternative vocation. I did. When I left for the priesthood he was glad to be rid of me, I think, and I didn’t miss him either, but I appreciate his book.

A weakness in it is his way of reckoning with Lincoln’s faith. Professor Donald suggests that faith became Lincoln’s way of coping with the moral burden of the war, by shifting the weight of responsibility from his own decisions to the just purposes of God. Lincoln deserves a lot more credit than that for the integrity of his convictions.

Donald also reminds us that Lincoln was not “a member of any Christian Church, for he was put off by their forms and dogmas, and consequently he remained, as Mary Lincoln later said, ‘not a technical Christian.”  

True, but I’ve known many technical Christians who were far less interested in Christian faith than Lincoln. As president, he attended services, usually Presbyterian, regularly on Sundays. I’d call him a devout seeker. As president, he knocked and doors were opened. He came to love the Bible. He found comfort there and reassurance—according to Professor Donald:

One evening during the dreadful summer of 1864, his old friend Joshua Speed found him intently reading the Bible. ‘I am glad to see you so profitably engaged,’ said Speed. ‘Yes,’ replied the president,’ I am profitably engaged.’ ‘Well, commended the visitor,’ if you have recovered from your skepticism, I am sorry to say that I have not.’ Looking at his old comrade in the face, Lincoln said, ‘You are wrong, Speed, take all of this book upon reason that you can, and the balance on faith, and you will live and die a happier and better man.

Lincoln loved Shakespeare too, and would entertain White House guests by reading out loud long sections of the plays. This year in sermons you have heard me quoting Portia in theThe Merchant of Venice, where she speaks of mercy that “becomes the throned monarch better than his crown.” Here I go again.

His scepter shows the force of temporal power,

The attribute to awe and majesty,

Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;

But mercy is above this sceptered sway;

It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,

It is an attribute to God himself;

And earthly power doth then show likest God's

When mercy seasons justice.

As before, in Lincoln we see something akin to that passage’s fulfillment. The war won and slavery ended, he was magnanimous in victory. Rather than retribution, he offered clemency. Disappointing radicals of his own party, he decided against trials and punishments for rebel leaders. Instead, he called on northerners to help him bind up the nation’s wounds, firm in the right as God had given them to see the right, “with malice toward none, with charity for all.” This Cathedral building in a southern state, built not long after the war and in great part paid for by northern Episcopalians, stands witness to that spirit. It also stands, with Lincoln, witness to the truth that religious seeking isn’t aimless. It has a source and goal.

By spring in 1865 the war was almost over. On a Friday afternoon, Lincoln presided over a meeting of his cabinet. General Grant was also there to report on the recent events at Appomattox. According to Professor Donald, it went like this:

Asking what terms had been extended to the common soldiers in the rebel army, Lincoln beamed when Grant said, ‘I told them to go back to their homes and families, and they would not be molested if they did nothing more. Cabinet members wanted to know whether there was any news from Sherman in North Carolina. Grant replied hat he was expecting word momentarily. Lincoln remarked that he was confident that there soon would be good news, since the previous night he had had the recurrence of a dream[he had had before Gettysburg and Vicksburg and several other union victories].He was on the water, and ‘he seemed to be in some singular, indescribable vessel, and. . . he was moving with great rapidity towards an indefinite shore.

When the cabinet adjourned, the president enjoyed a carriage ride with Mrs. Lincoln. They returned to the White House to get dressed to see a play, Our American Cousin, at Ford’s Theatre. It was April 14, 1865. Until last week when I put down Professor Donald’s book, I had not known it was Good Friday.