Every Lincoln scholar is familiar with the perhaps apocryphal story told by Henry Champion Deming, a member of the Connecticut Congress, about the president's understanding of Christianity. Asked whether he would ever join a particular church, Lincoln replied that he would become a member of any church which inscribed "over its altar as its sole qualification for membership the Saviour's condensed statement of the substance of both the law and Gospel, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind and thy neighbour as thyself-that church will I join with all my heart and soul."
This ethic of Christian charity is the cornerstone of Abraham Lincoln's attack on slavery. Lincoln also believed that all human beings, regardless of their identity, are capable of both understanding and practicing this ethic. Most importantly, the president insisted that a true democracy must practice charity, and is best equipped to do so, given its formal commitment to liberty and equality for all. In short, the political version of charity was identical to the philosophy of natural rights. If one believes in liberty for oneself, one must, in the spirit of charity, recognize that all other human beings possess it as well.
While Lincoln was not the first president to invoke the authority of charity, he was the first to make it into a political credo, or the foundation of a new political faith that would bind the American people into one nation devoted to natural rights for all. Not a single American founder wrote extensively on charity's relation to natural rights. While Thomas Jefferson praised charity as the highest ethic known to all human beings, he expressed these thoughts in his private correspondence, and refrained from insisting that charity be a founding credo of the republic.
Lincoln was original for another reason. He was also the first American (and modern) leader to associate charity with the practice of democracy. Nothing of this sort had ever been attempted in American history. When John Winthrop established his Puritan commonwealth in Massachusetts in 1630, he had in mind a theocratic regime whose citizens would practice charity. Winthrop's puritan theology centralized authority in the hands of a religious elite who would monitor the sinful behavior of the flock. A crime against charity-against all biblical morality-was a crime against God. A protest against theocracy was no different from an uncharitable act, in his view.
Lincoln grew up in the Second Great Awakening (1800-1830), a period of evangelical fervor as influential as the founding period. To the surprise and chagrin of founders like Jefferson, America was becoming a religious culture, not a secular one. Debates over the Bible, which barely received any attention during the Founding period, dramatically entered the political bloodstream of the American people, North and South. Around this time, the myth of a "chosen people" in America became entrenched in the popular consciousness. As Alexis de Tocqueville noted in his famous travels during the early 1830s, most Americans were fervent believers in liberty and the morality of revelation. Indeed, they saw no such tension between these beliefs.
By the antebellum period, preachers from both the North and South were invoking the power of charity to justify their cause. Political debates had become indistinguishable from theological ones. In this world, a rising politician by the name of Abraham Lincoln recognized the power of biblical agape, and declared that a nation of liberty must also be a nation of charity, not mere self-interest. It was self-interest that encouraged the perpetuation of slavery, after all. "But, say you, it is a question of interest; and, if you can make it your interest, you have the right to enslave another. Very well. And if he can make it his interest, he has the right to enslave you." Contrary to modern defenses of democracy today, charity in Lincoln's view is far more important than mere self-interest, which can justify hideous practices like slavery.
In invoking the power of charity, Lincoln knew that Americans were fiercely divided on what all this meant. As he later observed in his Second Inaugural address, both sides in the Civil War "prayed to the same God" and read the same Bible. Both sides also claimed to be Christian. Both sides demanded their liberty under God. And both sides claimed to know Providence itself. The only way to unite the nation was to appeal to a religious morality by which all sides could be judged. If nobody wanted to be a slave, nobody could legitimately enslave another.
Lincoln was well aware that Southern slave-owners not only claimed that slavery was compatible with charity, but that the Bible actually sanctioned slavery. Additionally, slave-owners claimed that it was their natural right to own other human beings as property. Once again, Lincoln challenged any defender of slavery to admit that he would not mind being a slave himself. It was also difficult to defend slavery on biblical grounds in light of the Exodus narrative, which had always been a source of inspiration throughout American history. Finally, the Bible had never countenanced a slavery based on race: if one people could enslave another, then the other could enslave that people.
When Lincoln proclaimed a "new birth of freedom" on the still bloodied soil of Gettysburg in 1863, the last impression he wanted to make was that he was a revolutionary set on creating a whole new regime. Lincoln had no sympathy for the Jacobin concept of equality as the forcible reduction of all human beings to the same plane of mediocrity. What this phrase implied was that there was already a promise of freedom established in the Revolutionary era, but it had not been universally fulfilled. This new nation, conceived in liberty, had always been dedicated to the proposition that "all men are created equal." However, this proposition in defence of natural rights had not been actualized. The Founders had tolerated slavery as the price of Union, even though they detested the institution. True freedom could enjoy a "new birth" only when freedom had displaced slavery. In a different context, Lincoln had referred to Americans as an "almost chosen people." If God had truly chosen them, they had to be charitable. Otherwise, they would be chosen for a different purpose-to be destroyed for tolerating injustice. As Lincoln puts it in his Second Inaugural Address, God gave 'to both North and South.this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offense came." Sadly, chosen peoples do not have a stellar record of extending charity to non-chosen peoples.
Chosenness could not be a pretext for practicing any kind of injustice, whether it rationalized slavery or vengeance against the defeated Confederacy. When he declared in his Second Inaugural that the victorious Union must act "with malice towards none" and "with charity for all," he meant that true freedom has to mean charity for both ex-slave master as well as ex-slave. The cycle of violence had to stop; ex-slaves could not simply replace their former masters as the new oppressors. Otherwise, this would not be a new birth of freedom. Unfortunately, during the Reconstruction period, Lincoln's worst fears were realized when white Southerners became victimized by corrupt and tyrannical regimes of occupation.
Lincoln's political philosophy has predictably inspired a wide variety of interpretations across the political spectrum, all of which invoke the president's name in order to advance their cause. As the historian David Donald once astutely remarked, Lincoln is "everybody's grandfather." In our own time, neoconservatives on the Right as well as liberal democrats on the Left have reinvented Lincoln as a pioneering defender of global democracy-building. George W. Bush and Barack Obama are almost indistinguishable in understanding Lincoln as a defender of democracy for all human beings around the world. This historical revisionism has largely ignored Lincoln's emphasis on Christian charity as well as his
of triumphalist versions of "chosenness."
The students of the political philosopher Leo Strauss have been particularly successful in pushing this neoconservative image of Lincoln. More than any other intellectual in the post-WW2 era, Strauss taught that America stood for ideals that are universal, shared and desired by all human beings rather than just Americans. Harry Jaffa, one of Strauss's most famous followers, whose book Crisis of the House Divided (1959) accordingly reinvented Lincoln as a global democrat, can take much credit (or blame) for transforming the debate over Lincoln. Jaffa, whose study the distinguished Lincoln biographer Allen Guelzo dubbed "the greatest Lincoln book of the century," persuaded many liberals and conservatives alike that Lincoln insisted that America , as a "chosen nation," must export her ideals to the entire world for the sake of her own survival as a free nation. It is very rare today to find a major writer on Lincoln's legacy today who does not draw a straight line between his presidency and the policy of democracy-building in our time.
Lincoln's demand that Americans act as a charitable people has become gradually detached from its particular Christian moorings and replaced with recurrent demands for the "chosen" to go out into the world and force people to be free. Moreover, friends and foes of Lincoln's legacy now widely understand his legacy to be one which is at once secularist and globalist. It seems that a Lincoln who comes across as too parochially Protestant is not an attractive candidate who would inspire millions of peoples to understand the republic's values as their own. The preferred image of Lincoln is that of a leader who was a democratic universalist (although, admittedly, a leader who also made use of Christian ideas for political purposes).
Beyond these heated debates over the president's legacy, what can Lincoln still teach us? If he was correct to argue that a truly democratic citizenry must be charitable, then the standard of democratic excellence is indeed a high one. It may be difficult to export democracy to lands that historically lack an understanding of morality as Christian charity. It is far from obvious that Lincoln, as a Protestant, thought that all human beings could develop democracy in the Christian sense that he articulated. Even his own nation, steeped in the Christian faith, tore itself apart over slavery. Few leaders of our time grasp as well as Lincoln did just how difficult this process of democracy-building truly is. In an age where many Americans fervently believe in America as the "chosen nation" that is destined to bring democratic ideals to the world, by force if necessary, Lincoln's warnings about the perils of chosenness and the humbling nature of charity are as relevant today as they were in his age.