Abraham Lincoln’s Search for Meaning
Richard J. Behn, Research Director of the Lincoln Institute
After the Union carnage at the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862 President Lincoln paced back and forth in the White House, asking repeatedly, “What has God put me in this place for?”
It was a search for meaning that Mr. Lincoln pursued throughout his life – often at the times of his most poignant defeats and terrible tragedies. Indeed, the search for meaning was a pursuit Mr. Lincoln began as a child: “I can remember going to my little bedroom, after hearing the neighbors talk, of an evening, with my father, and spending no small part of the night walking up and down, and trying to make out what was the exact meaning of some of their, to me, dark sayings. I could not sleep, though I often tried to, when I got on such a hunt after an idea, until I had caught it, and when I thought I had got it, I was not satisfied until I had repeated it over and over, until I had put it in language plain enough, as I thought, for any boy I knew to comprehend. This was a kind of passion with me, and it has struck by me, for I am never easy now, when I am handling a thought, til I have bounded it north and bounded it south, and bounded it east, and bounded it west.”
Mr. Lincoln’s life had not been easy. His grandfather had been killed by Indians while tilling his field; his father had nearly been kidnapped in the same attack. Lincoln himself was born in a rustic Kentucky log cabin – surely substandard housing by anyone’s definition.
Lincoln’s father invested the proceeds from the sale of his Kentucky farm in whiskey, moving the Lincoln family to a three-sided lean-to in Indiana. Later on, Abraham’s mother died of the “milk sickness” and his sister died in childbirth. Lincoln’s education background was deficient – lacking as he did tenured teachers, contemporary classrooms and trendy textbooks. There was no compensatory education and no tuition assistance to provide entry into a publicly-funded university. His education came from the college of hard knocks and the university of literature – reading the Bible as a youth, legal scholars as a young man, and Shakespeare’s plays on his nocturnal visits to the War Department as President.
Young Lincoln worked as a virtual indentured servant, hired out by his father to work on neighbors’ farms. When he did get out from under his father’s custody, he hired himself out as a rail splitter. Eventually, he became a store clerk and then a co-owner of a general store. His partner ran up liabilities so large before he died that Lincoln referred to them as the ‘National Debt.” But for Mr. Lincoln, there was no government bail out – just a long, slow process of paying off his financial obligations.
Mr. Lincoln was so poor that when he was elected to the Illinois State Legislature, he had to ask his friend Coleman Smoot for a $60 loan. “Smoot,” asked Mr. Lincoln, “did you vote for me? Admitted Smoot, “I did that very thing.” Then, Mr. Lincoln responded, “that makes you responsible. You must lend me the money to buy suitable clothing, for I want to make a decent appearance in the Legislature.”
In the legislature and the law, Mr. Lincoln sought to find his purpose. Mr. Lincoln’s law partner, William Herndon, quoted Lincoln telling him in 1851: “How hard – Oh how hard it is to die and leave one’s Country no better than if one had never lived for it.” Mr. Lincoln pursued his destiny; Herndon called his ambition the ‘little engine that knew no rest.” Mr. Lincoln had a strong respect for those who followed a similar path.
Mr. Lincoln wanted to succeed and he wanted others to succeed as well – whether fellow Whigs, fellow attorneys, Union generals, or former black slaves. He was not, by nature a jealous or petty person – although the success and prominence of Stephen Douglass undoubtedly irritated both his ego and his sense of justice. President Lincoln appointed attorney Edwin Stanton as Secretary of War and tolerated his occasional insubordination – despite Stanton’s role in the most profound humiliation of Lincoln’s legal career. Such magnanimity was not necessarily natural. As a younger man, his barbed with and rapier-like sarcasm earned him both a tough political reputation and a challenge to a duel.
Lincoln mastered what he needed to master – whether it was disciplining his own anger, splitting rails, surveying farms, preparing land titles, or understanding military tactics. He moved from a strong reliance on the rational in his youth to a strong reliance on the supra-rational as President. In his speech before the Lyceum in 1838, Mr. Lincoln said: “Reason, cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason, must furnish all the materials for our future support and defence.”
In September 30, 1862, President Lincoln wrote a brief reflection ‘on the divine will.’ He observed: “The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be, wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party; and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect his purpose. I am almost ready to say that this is probably true; that God wills this contest and wills that it shall not end yet. By his mere great power on the minds of the now contestants, he could have either saved or destroyed the Union without human contest. Yet the contest began. And, having begun, he could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds.”
Still, Mr. Lincoln maintained his own moral compass, telling an acquaintance on September 30, 1863: “It is my ambition and desire to so administer the affairs of the government while I remain president that if at the end I shall have lost every other friend on earth I shall at least have one friend remaining and that one shall be down inside me.”
It was not always easy. Words like baboon, tyrant, buffoon, lunatic, and charlatan were common terms used by newspapers for the nation’s chief executive. Whether Mr. Lincoln made jokes or made appointments, his every move was criticized. Even his commentary on Shakespeare was ridiculed by the New York Herald.
Much as such criticism must have wounded him and would have led a lesser man to anger or self-pity, President Lincoln did not let it poison his spirit. He tolerated abuse from his own subordinates like Stanton and General George B. McClellan as well as from nettlesome antagonists inside and outside his party. Rather than alienating his enemies, Mr. Lincoln tended to embrace them – turning Republican adversaries like Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and Secretary of State William H. Seward into staunch admirers.
However, had all of Mr. Lincoln’s writings and comments become public, the media would have had a field day. Fortunately for Mr. Lincoln, many of them did not – sometimes, because he had the good sense simply to write letters but never because he had the good sense simply to write letters but never to send them. Lincoln knew better than to play the victim; it was as self-indulgence that neither the Presidency nor the Republic could afford.
As President, Mr. Lincoln advised Secretary of War Stanton to write a vicious reply to an impertinent general. Then, once Stanton wrote the letter, President Lincoln told him: ‘Put it in the stove. That’s what I do when I have written a letter while I am angry. It’s a good letter, and you’ve had a good time writing it and feel better.” Mr. Lincoln had learned that meaning came neither from what others said about him or from what he said about them. He had learned that getting ahead didn’t require getting even.
Mr. Lincoln found meaning in rising above adversity. He himself said: “I want it said of me by those who know me best, that I have always plucked a thistle and planted a flower when I thought a flower would grow.”
Mr. Lincoln was way ahead of the political curve on term limits – having convinced his two competitors for the Whig nomination to Congress in 1842 to limit themselves to one term in office so he eventually could serve his. Indeed, even as President, Mr. Lincoln was ambivalent toward a second term and prepared himself and his Administration for a loss that never came. Whatever happened at the polls or the battlefield, Mr. Lincoln knew the Constitution must be preserved.
In the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, Mr. Lincoln found meaning. In his prophetic speech before the Young Men’s Lyceum, Mr. Lincoln said: “As the patriots of seventy-six did to the support of the Declaration of Independence, so to the support the Constitution and Laws, let every American pledge his life, his property and his sacred honor.” In his First Inaugural Address, President Lincoln vowed to preserve the Union, saying that ‘the Constitution itself expressly enjoins upon me, that the laws of the Union be faithfully executed in all the States.”
Mr. Lincoln had a sense of man’s mortal insignificance – as reflected in his oft-repeated fascination with the William Knox poem that began “Oh why should the spirit of moral be proud!” But, Mr. Lincoln was ambivalent towards institutions like colleges and churches which made he feel the inadequacy of his own social and educational preparation. The Methodist preacher who ran against Mr. Lincoln fro Congress in 1846 tried to make an issue of his lack of formal religion. Mr. Lincoln dismissed the allegations of anti-Christian bias with a broad statement of his respect for Christianity.
But President Lincoln’s assassination on Good Friday, 1865, started a long debate about his religious convictions. His martyrdom prompted a spate of Easter sermons throughout the North that attempted to draw parallels between the murder of the President and the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Although many preachers disapproved of President Lincoln’s attendance at the theater, they acknowledged his moral character. One Lutheran pastor in Philadelphia, for example, sermonized: “Thought not, so far as I am informed, a professed Christian, at least not in all particulars, he was a man of decided religious turn of mind, who lived and acted in the light and influence of a practical faith. It was from religious persuasions that all his ideas were shaped, and according to which he honestly sought to settle his judgement and direct his cause, whether in matters of private life or public policy.”
Lincoln’s own pastor, Phineas D. Gurley of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., eulogized Lincoln’s abiding confidence in God, and in the final triumph of truth and righteousness, through him, and for his sake.” In truth, Mr. Lincoln’s religion was never conventional. He was as impious as a child as his parents were pious. As a young man, he thought reason would solve everything. As a President, he grew to believe that only Providence could or would.
While he accepted the anti-slavery dogma of the Pigeon Creek Baptist Church in which he grew up in Indiana, he never adopted the fatalism of Calvinist predestination. He worshiped at the altar of reason and law. Reason was a refuge in an unreasonable world. Man’s power was limited, but God was omnipotent. Effects had causes – either human or divine. Mr. Lincoln’s religion was unorthodox. About that there is little controversy. Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, interviewed the President prior to writing a profile for a Boston religious magazine. Mrs. Stowe, herself the sister of a famous New York abolitionist preacher, wrote:
In our times of trouble Abraham Lincoln has turn of being the best abused man of our nation. Like Moses leading his Israel through the wilderness, he has seen the day when every man seemed ready to stone him, and yet, with simple, wiry, steady perseverance, he has held on, conscious of honest intentions, and looking to God for help. All the nation have felt, in the increasing solemnity of his proclamations and papers, how deep an education was being wrought in his mind by this simple faith in God, the rule of nations, and this humble willingness to learn the awful lessons of his providence.”
Mrs. Stowe recognized that President Lincoln was not a conventional Christian, but ‘we see evidence in passing through this dreadful national crisis that he has been forced by the very anguish of the struggle to look upward, where any rational creature must look for support.” The evidence of Mr. Lincoln’s faith is clearest in his writings and speeches:
- In his First Inaugural Address, he urged “a firm reliance on Him who has never yet forsaken this favored land.”
- In his First Annual Message to Congress in 1862, Mr. Lincoln wrote: “With a reliance on Providence all the more firm and earnest, let us proceed in the great task which events have devolved upon us.”
- In his Gettysburg Address in 1863, Mr. Lincoln prophesied that “this Nation shall under God have a new birth of freedom.”
- In his Second Inaugural Address, Mr. Lincoln noted that the “Judgements of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
President Lincoln’s religion was reflected in more than words. According to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, the Emancipation Proclamation stemmed from a promise the President made that ‘if God gave us the victory in the approaching battle, he would consider it an indication of Divine will, and that it was his duty to move forward in the cause of emancipation.” Moreover, Mr. Lincoln found solace in the Bible and comfort in prayer. He believed that his own powers were limited just as divine might was not. He was fond of Hamlet’s soliloquy:
“There is a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will.”
Mr. Lincoln’s churchgoing was as problematic than his rhetorical professions of faith. After the death of their son Edward in 1850, Mary Todd Lincoln started to attend the First Presbyterian Church where Dr. James Smith was the pastor. He was one of the few Springfield ministers with whom Mr. Lincoln was good terms. Apparently, according to Lincoln secretary John Hay, the local clergymen took offense to Mr. Lincoln’s characterization of one of them as “unfit to construe the statues of Illinois…much less the laws of God.”
In Washington, Mr. Lincoln generally attended the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, where Dr. Gurley was the minister. But the President never joined the Presbyterian Church or any other. Artist Francis Carpenter quoted Mr. Lincoln as saying that he did not because “I have found difficulty, without mental reservation, in giving my assent to their long and complicated confessions of faith. When any church will inscribe over its altar the Saviour’s condensed statement of law and Gospel ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul and will all thy mind, and love thy neighbor as thyself,’ that church will I join with all my heart.”
Mr. Lincoln’s God was a personal God – not an abstract deity to which some of the Nation’s Founders subscribed. Mr. Lincoln’s faith grew with adversity – increasing with his search for meaning in the tragic death of his treasured son Willie in February 1862.
That faith was paralleled by a public commitment to seek divine guidance for the nation. No President was more firmly committed to the spirit and letter of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. And no President, perhaps, placed his country more squarely “under God.”