The Anguish of Abraham Lincoln: A Conversation with Historian Eric Foner

Interview with Eric Foner

The Fiery Trial:  Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery

October 25, 2010

(This is a rush transcript.  This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated)

This is “Thinking in Public”, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about front line

theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them.  I’m Albert Mohler, your

host, and President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

For the last several decades, professional historians have moved away from what is often called the great man theory of history.  That was the understanding that history is best understood through individuals-their lives, their characters, and the decisive events of their day.  Now, no doubt there are significant individuals who have shaped the course of history and when we look at individuals such as Abraham Lincoln, we come face to face with the fact that they have grown in proportion to our imagination to such an extent that we cannot understand who we are, who Americans are, and what it means to struggle with so many of these vital issues of our day without coming to terms with Abraham Lincoln.  There is a legion of books about Abraham Lincoln.  A library of works interpreting Abraham Lincoln and his times, but few books I think will rival a new one.

Professor Eric Foner has written The Fiery Trial:  Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery. Rarely does a book take us into the most important questions about biography, morality, history and our times.

Mohler: Eric Foner is DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University.  He’s one of the nation’s most recognized and influential historians.  He is one of the few persons to have held the positions as president of the Organization of American Historians, the American Historical Association, and the Society of American Historians.  He’s the author of the new book The Fiery Trial:  Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery.  Professor Foner, welcome to Thinking in Public.

Foner: Very nice to be talking to you.

Mohler: In an article you wrote in the Nation Magazine last year you said this, “Abraham Lincoln has always provided a lens through which Americans examine themselves.  He has been described as a consummate moralist and a shrewd political operator.,a lifelong foe of slavery and an inveterate racist.  Politicians from conservatives to communists, civil rights activists to segregationists have claimed him as their own.”  How in the world do we come to understand who exactly Abraham Lincoln was?

Foner: Well, you know as I said in that quote, everybody seems to want to have Lincoln on their side you know.  So, and like the Bible perhaps, people find selective quotations which they can pull out to support their current particular point of view.  But I think what I try to do in this book is to really show the evolution of Lincoln’s thought.   In other words, one of the things is that Lincoln changed significantly over the course of his life.  So, if you want to show Lincoln as a racist, you can do that by pulling out quotations from the 1850’s where he says, “I’m not in favor of black people voting or having citizenship” and yet, if you just do that you miss the fact that by the end of his life he was advocating black voting at least of a limited kind and had moved very far along the way toward a greater acceptance of racial equality.  And so you can do that on his views about slavery also.  So in a sense the very fact that Lincoln evolves and grows over the course of his life, is what enables people to pick out one moment that they happen to like and say, well that is the real essential Lincoln.

Mohler: In your preface to the book “Our Lincoln” you edited just two years ago, you begin with a citation from Frederick Douglas who said in 1876, “no man can say anything that is new of Abraham Lincoln.”  You point out that Frederick Douglas went on to contradict his own statement even his following words.  But then you say this, “more words have been written about Lincoln than any historical personage except Jesus Christ.”  Why is there such a fascination with Lincoln?  Beyond even the confusion and even debate about who he was, what is there about Lincoln and his times that just necessarily draws us in?

Foner: Well that is exactly right.  Somebody told me there were maybe 8-10,000 books about Abraham Lincoln.  I think the thing is that of course first of all is as we know, Lincoln was president during the greatest crises in our history, the Civil War, and therefore, anyone who is interested in American history has to think about that period in some way or another.  But I think also, Lincoln seems to represent or exemplify things that we think are quintessential about America,  things that are central to our own sense of ourselves as a nation.  Lincoln is the self made man.  He started in very humble circumstances and became not only economically successful but of course prominent as a great leader.  And he seems to show therefore the opportunities that exist in America for people who start in humble backgrounds.  Lincoln is a frontiersman.  We often think about the west, the frontier, as kind of the seedbed of American democracy.  Lincoln is a politician and yet he’s a politician who acts in a moral manner.  The liberation of the slaves which is a complicated process, but nonetheless he’s not just acting as someone interested in immediate political gain.  I think it’s because of these larger values that people see in Lincoln that we constantly are recurring back to him, trying to find inspiration in Lincoln’s life.

Mohler: Now your answer to the fact that there are so many books on Abraham Lincoln is to have written yet another one.

Foner: I know.  Well you might say it hasn’t stopped anyone else why should it stop me.  I wrote this book for two reasons I guess.  One is I’m a scholar of 19th century history, I hadn’t really written that much about Lincoln, but I’ve written about that era, I wrote about the pre-Civil War period, the reconstruction era after the Civil War.  So Lincoln’s been on my mind for a long time.  But also I became, how shall I put this, dissatisfied with much of the literature that’s out there right now about Lincoln.  Unfortunately lately there is a tendency in a lot of the books on Lincoln to sort of remove him from historical context.  To just to study Lincoln without the pressures upon him, the different connections he had, it’s also self-referential.  If you want to understand Lincoln’s actions about slavery, you look at his career as a lawyer.  In other words, to study Lincoln all you have to do is know Lincoln.  And my feeling is no, Lincoln must be placed in the context of his era and that’s one of the things I try to do in this book is to show how his views fit or doesenn’t fit with other people’s thinking about slavery.  How the changes in his view sort of reflect changes in American society altogether.   So I felt there was room for another approach to Lincoln even though there is all that literature out there.

Mohler: Well your book is a fascinating read for many reasons.  First of all, it’s filled with such a compelling narrative.

Foner: Well thank you.

Mohler: It’s also so rigorously honest in terms of I think your own struggle to understand Lincoln and of our common struggle to understand him.  As you begin the book you talk about two unhelpful ways to look at Lincoln and on the issue of slavery you mention one that’s kind of idealized that Lincoln was always driven by ideas of racial equality and emancipation and abolitionism.  And then on the other extreme you talk about those who basically now want to reduce Lincoln to being nothing more than a shrewd political operator.  And you suggest there’s another way to look at him and that’s through the metaphor of growth.

Foner: Yes and I do think that seeing the process of growth is really the key to Lincoln.  But even that is a little complicated.  Some people have argued well you know Lincoln really had no strong views of his own.  He’s kind of buffeted around by events, people pressure him.  I don’t think that’s quite right.  I think really, Lincoln had a strong moral compass all the way through his life.  But that doesn’t necessarily translate into specific action.  Lincoln said in the war, I have always hated slavery.  And I don’t think there’s any reason to doubt that.  And yet hating slavery doesn’t tell you what is viable to do about slavery.  And much of his life Lincoln was kind of casting around for a way to deal with a system that was protected by the Constitution, protected by the laws of all the southern states.  You couldn’t just say, we’re going to get up, and Congress will abolish slavery.  There was no possible way Congress could have done that.  So he came up with various plans for gradual emancipation and for compensation paying slave owners for their slaves in order to get their consent.  And so, but later of course during the Civil War, he moves toward completely different positions.  I think this question of growth is really the way to see how Lincoln in a sense evolves into greatness.  It’s not that he just began he wasn’t born with a pen in his hand ready to emancipate all the slaves.  He had to sort of develop into that position under the pressure of events and under the pressure of political changes, and war, and all the things that are going on in his life.

Mohler: One of the things you left off that list is something that you’ve given considerable attention and that is that Lincoln, throughout most of his life, is at least willing to entertain the idea of colonization.

Foner: Oh absolutely.  He was more than willing.  I was quite surprised when I found, and no one had actually mentioned this before, that he was a member of the board of directors of the Illinois Colonization Society so that’s not a casual thing.  He’s an official of this organization.  Colonization at that time meant encouraging or maybe forcing, although Lincoln always said it had to be voluntary, encouraging African Americans when free to leave the United States to go to Africa, to go to Haiti, to go to Central America.  For much of his life Lincoln could not quite conceive of the United States as a bi-racial society.  He thought black people could not really exist as free people in the United States and enjoy their rights.  He thought they were entitled to the basic rights of mankind as outlined in the Declaration of Independence.  But not in the United States and again you see this evolution by the end of the Civil War he accepts the notion of course, they’re going to be here, they’re going to be a new laboring class. In the United States once free, he thinks they deserve basic rights in the United States.  So that’s another shift in his view from seeing blacks as not really fully American to coming to see them as an intrinsic part of this society.

Mohler: The honest lens you put on Lincoln, and again, putting in the context of his times and that as a historical act of integrity is just absolutely necessary and yet difficult to achieve.  I have to tell you, when I arrived at page 224 of your book, The Fiery Trial:  Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, and I read about the meeting he had on August 14, 1862 with a delegation of black Americans who came to see him.  And I read what he said.  I felt like almost didn’t know the man.

Foner: Yeah.  You’re referring of course to this meeting where he meets with a small delegation of African American leaders from Washington, D.C.  And that is where he most publicly puts forward this idea of colonization.  In fact he says to them look your presence here is the cause of the Civil War.  He says your people are suffering, I don’t have the words right in front of me, the greatest injustice any people ever suffered.  Well that’s a pretty strong condemnation of slavery, and yet he then goes on.  There is a prejudice here that will prevent you from ever enjoying your rights whether it is right or wrong I will not say, so he’s willing to condemn slavery but he’s not willing to condemn the racial prejudice that he says is powerful in the United States.  He said it’s best for us to be separated.  Now the thing is this is part of this plan Lincoln had in 1862 for, as I said, gradual compensated emancipation that is paying the owners for the loss of their slaves plus colonization.  The problem is it didn’t work because the slave owners were not willing to give up their slaves even when you paid them for them.  And the blacks were not willing to leave the country.  So both groups that he is appealing to said no I’m sorry Lincoln, we don’t accept your plan.  And then he begins to say well I need another plan.  This plan is not working, and I think it’s in that summer of 1862 that Lincoln really begins to rethink what policy toward slavery ought to be and sort of moves down the road toward abolition without colonization.  Because after he issues the Emancipation Proclamation, he never mentions colonization again.  That sort of now puts it aside.  So, yeah, that meeting is certainly one of the more shocking events of his career.  And there’s no reason to deny it or to mitigate it.  Some of the people around Lincoln don’t even mention it because it doesn’t fit with their image of Lincoln. But nonetheless, he moves away from that as the Civil War goes along.

Mohler: Now when you look at Lincoln in the presidency and just consider those brief years but most crucial years of our nation’s history.  How does he get in the presidency, in the White House, from where he was on the question of slavery in say 1860 to where he ends up with the Emancipation Proclamation?  In historical perspective, that’s an incredibly short amount of time for such a massive shift.

Foner: Well it is absolutely.  Really the Civil War begins in April 1861 and within a year and a half he has issues with the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation warning the south that if they don’t come back he’s going to free their slaves.  And of course they don’t, and so January 1, 1863 he decrees emancipation.  But Lincoln once said, “I do not claim to have controlled events.  Events have controlled me”   that maybe not a 100% accurate because Lincoln did have the strong anti-slavery sentiment.  But I think what he’s saying is look the crisis develops, and there are all these things that are pressuring him.  There is the failure of the military.  By the middle of 1862 the north is not winning the war fighting the war while trying to protect slavery doesn’t seem like a very viable option anymore.  Slavery is beginning to disintegrate.  Black people are running away from the plantations to union lines wherever the union army comes, the slaves start running to them and that puts this question on the national agenda.  The need for soldiers that at the beginning of the war they don’t allow black men into the army, but increasingly there’s the need for more and more soldiers and Lincoln in the Emancipation Proclamation for the first time they invite African American men to join the Union army which is a major shift.  So there’s all these pressures working upon him in the war itself to move toward this much more dramatic attack on slavery.

Mohler: Abraham Lincoln himself spoke of the mystic chords of memory.  Looking back in time, looking back through the decades, it’s difficult to come to terms with a man who is so remote to us and yet so immediately in front of our eyes as Abraham Lincoln.  Professor Foner has done us a service in this conversation.  He’s help us to understand also in the book that he has written that what we’re looking at here is a man who has been misunderstood.  A man who is contested territory.  A man who is decisive in terms of the events of his day and yet a man who is also in motion and that includes intellectual motion.  When we think about how to understand an individual in his times we need to come to terms with the fact that biography is never simply an account of a man or a woman, the times, their course of study, their intellectual development, and their decisions, their life, and birth, and death and all the particulars that are listed in a biographical article.  What we’re looking at here is an individual whose brain, whose soul, is in motion.  Rarely do we have such deep questions about that progression as we have in the case of Abraham Lincoln.  When we come back I want to talk to Professor Foner about Abraham Lincoln in a theological perspective.

Mohler: The Quaker theological Elton Trueblood once described Abraham Lincoln as the theologian of American anguish.  Professor Foner when you think of Abraham Lincoln and we try to understand the man, where did he come up with his worldview?  You mentioned that he was very unorthodox theologically.  His own religious beliefs are very difficult to come to understand but he was driven by this intense moralism.  How do you put all that together?

Foner: The problem, one of the problems with understanding Lincoln is that he doesn’t reveal himself very directly.  You know Lincoln did not keep a diary for example.  We all wish he had.  What are his real inner beliefs?  He didn’t write very many personal letters.  Most of these works of Lincoln that are published, there’s the collective works of Lincoln, but it’s all speeches and military orders.  There’s a few letters, but you know, so you don’t have, you know what he said, but you don’t have his inner beliefs very often so there’s a lot of speculation.  And the other thing is Lincoln is totally self educated.  He had one year of formal schooling in his entire life.  I mean isn’t that amazing?  A guy who develops such a brilliant command of the language and eloquence power of his statements…

Mohler: Absolutely

Foner: And yet it’s totally self-educated and so how did he educate himself?  He read widely.  Of course he read the bible as everyone did.  He knew the bible up and down.  He quoted the bible.  Biblical kind of language and cadences are obviously present in his speeches.  But he also read the works of the founders of that generation.  And his Christianity was I think of that late 18th century time.  It was kind of deism, in other words, that God had created the universe and yet didn’t really intervene directly in it.  So Lincoln didn’t believe a prayer leading to direct divine action or miracles.  He once said to a group of clergymen I think the age of miracles is over.  So his god was a remote one, it wasn’t a personal Jesus immediately directed to him.  But as the war went on he became more religious.  I think in trying to fathom the meaning of this terrible conflict, he began to think of God directly intervening.  And of course at the very end at his second inaugural he says, you know, this war is God’s punishment on our nation for the sin of slavery.  And yet even there he resists the temptation, which must have been very great, to just blame the south.  You know it’s very easy to blame the other side.  The south has slavery, they’re the evil ones, but no he doesn’t say that.  It’s American slavery, not Southern slavery.  The whole nation is complicit in this sin he says.  A lot of people didn’t like his second inaugural for that reason.  Northerners didn’t want to be told that they were guilty as well as the south.  But so Lincoln has this humility and this way of thinking beyond the easy  judgments that so many people at that time, especially in war time, is very easy to just blame the other side as the incarnation of evil.  Where that comes from, you know, is very hard to say because Lincoln doesn’t reveal himself very much to others.

Mohler: When I read that second inaugural address I go back to it time and again.  I always find something I had not seen there before.  As a theologian, I myself am drawn into that text.  Trying to understand the man who could speak these words because involved in that language, and then it’s our universe of meaning that he brings out at least so unexpectedly in that particular context, there are some very deep thoughts of the most basic questions of existence.  And the kind of things politicians generally don’t talk about.

Foner: No absolutely .   It is much more like a sermon than a political speech.  In my book I quote George Templeton Strong the diarist who said this is unlike any other state paper I have ever read.  It just comes out of nowhere.  It is deeply philosophical, it’s deeply religious, it’s profound, and he’s kind of mulling over before the nation the ultimate meaning of this terrible experience they’ve all gone through.  But he weighs it against the evil of slavery.  That’s what’s so amazing in that speech.  He reminds people, it’s not just the terrible bloodshed of the war, it’s the 250 years of slavery that lie behind it.  And so it’s a deeply philosophical speech and it puts on the agenda the question of what is the ultimate responsibility of the nation for slavery?  We can abolish it but do we have any further obligations to try to re-dress the evil that has existed in this country.  So yeah, it is a very, very remarkable speech.

Mohler: Lincoln draws from scriptural references, biblical illusions, but he argues even within his address, that both the north and the south have the bible.  And they come to very different conclusions.  Both think they have God on their side.  But Lincoln has clearly come in this address to understand that slavery is the great evil that a just God must end and will punish.  And he sees that divine retribution.

Foner: Yeah, but again he’s challenging the evil, not the evil, the simple way of thinking about it which is sad to say, many ministers both north and south were prone to at that time.  I mean in the north the sermons in the north were exactly what Lincoln is not doing.  The south is evil, the south has brought this on the country.  Slavery is the south’s sin.  That’s easy when you’re fighting a war to just put all sin on the other side.  And in the south of course, slavery was ordained by God, and had divine sanction according to their outlook.  So Lincoln says yeah, both sides read the same bible, pray to the same God.  Now he does then have to sort of say, I can’t understand a religion that sees it as moral taking the bread from another man’s hand, that’s how he sees slavery, as the theft of labor.  But I’m not going to judge them, if that’s their religion, fine.  But it’s more than that.  Man to not fathom the will of God, that’s basically what he’s saying.  God has his own purposes in this war, and you know a lot of people like to think that they are directly, they know exactly what the will of God is.  And Lincoln is saying no, let’s wait a minute here, we’re not so knowledgeable about what the will of God is.

Mohler: One other issue in your book I just have to investigate with you a bit.  Going back to Lincoln’s early years in an address he gave to the Young Men…of Springfield, he made a statement about how the issue of slavery might be resolved.  And how the union might have to confront the issue.  He spoke of the stage being set for the emergence of an ambitious tyrant, a towering genius who would basically be the great emancipator.  Did he come to see himself in that role?

Foner: That is a remarkable speech isn’t it for a guy in his twenties basically.  He was just a member of the state legislature of Illinois, that no one would look at Lincoln at that point and say, this is going to be the man who is going to lead the nation.  But Lincoln was a very ambitious person, and there are those who think Lincoln is referring to himself.  On the other hand there are those who say no, he’s referring to his great rival Stephen A Douglas who was already ahead of him politically and warning against a towering genius who would kind of usurp the power of democracy.  But I think yes, eventually Lincoln comes to see himself as the great emancipator.  He doesn’t begin that way.  You know in a lot of these books which think he’s ready to abolish slavery all through his life.  No.  But once he comes to that view, that is how he sees his role in history.  And you know as an ambitious man he understands that this is going to make his name in history.  As I mentioned in the book after the Emancipation Proclamation he allowed this artist Carpenter to live in the White House for about four months, painting this painting of Lincoln presenting the Emancipation Proclamation to the cabinet.  In other words he wants this recorded, he wants the proclamation recorded, he wants him recorded in this painting, himself as the emancipator.  So yeah, he in a sense, he takes on that role once it happens.  And he’s unwilling to go back on it.  He will never rescind the Emancipation Proclamation even though there are people demanding that he do so.

Mohler: When Lincoln assumes the presidency under the most incredibly prominent circumstances imaginable.  No president has ever been elected under these circumstances and he walks in already with succession having been declared and with the confederacy in revolt.  He does take unto himself extra constitutional powers and obviously saw this as a necessity, almost declaring a military government.

Foner: Right.

Mohler: One of the things that I think you’re very honest about when you come to the end of the book is that we do not know what Lincoln would have done in this second term.

Foner: Well, no of course.  He’s assassinated a month or so, a month and a half after his inauguration.  And of course it’s right on the eve of another great crisis.  The crises of reconstruction and the question of how to bring the country back together and what is going to be the status of these four million slaves who are now free.  There’s a lot of speculation about what Lincoln might have done, but we don’t know.  And given the fact that he did change dramatically during the war we can assume he would continue to change in significant ways.  But on the first point yes, Lincoln said I have gone beyond the Constitution.  He didn’t say I violated the Constitution.  He said in a sense, the Constitution did not envision the situation the Lincoln faced when he came into office.  The Constitution did not envision at that point, seven states succeeding from the Union.  It did not envision some states waging war against the federal government.  So the Constitution he said didn’t really provide very good direction on how the president ought to respond to that.  And he took action that he frankly said was not necessarily warranted by the Constitution but was necessary to preserve the Constitution.  He said shall we let the whole government go to pieces then violate one law?  I think he’s talking there about the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus which he does right at the beginning of the war for certain areas.  And you know, it’s very unclear is that’s really authorized in the Constitution.  The President suspending the writ of habeas corpus it seems the Constitution says congress has the right to do that. But Lincoln says look, this was necessity.  I could not let the government fall apart.  So he shows you how war exalts the power of the president which we have seen many times in our own lifetime.

Mohler: You’ve spent an incredible amount of your time, invested a great deal of your life in writing this book.  Now having accomplished this project, what do you hope the impact of this book will be?  Not just looking back at the 19th century but trying to figure out America in the 21st century.

Foner: Well you know maybe, I don’t want to put too much weight on what the book might accomplish, I do hope it inspires people to think in new ways about the Civil War.  But the thing is as we said a while ago, the issues of that era are still in our society today.  The issue of race relations, you know, all the complications of that.  The issue of the president’s power in wartime you know that’s a current issue right now.  The question of the connection between how political leaders and social movements, there’s an abolitionist movement out there.  It’s not politicians, but it’s having an effect on politics and Lincoln is having to respond to them.  So you know, I hope that when people read this book it will enable them to think in more creative ways about some of the corrupt problems that our society faces today.  Not that we can transpose the answers from 150 years ago directly onto the society today.  But I mean I think some of the values that are reflected in Lincoln and that era are still values we ought to try to live up to in this society.

Mohler: One final question Professor, if you were speaking to an audience as you are now, predominantly comprised of American evangelicals, trying to figure out how to understand these things, is there a particular word you would have for this audience on that question?

Foner: Well, you know, I would have in that sense say, I’m not as familiar as perhaps I should be with all the beliefs of American evangelicals although of course I respect them and their long term commitment in many cases to social justice in this country.  I think the key here is to think about what our obligations are as citizens to each other.  And Lincoln is thinking that and who is an American.  You know he grows and he comes to accept African Americans . We previously haven’t really thought of as being genuinely American as you know full members of the society who deserve the full protection of the society.  And you know, I think it’s that openness and broad view of what the society is that I would hope that anybody, whatever their religious beliefs are, can continue to hold, is what makes this society a very special place.

Mohler: The publication of Eric Foner’s book, The Fiery Trial:  Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery , affords American evangelicals an opportunity to think through some of the big questions about the meaning of our lives, about how to understand biography.  How to put an individual in a historical context and how to use the available data and later different levels of interpretation to come to an understanding not only of what that life meant but what our lives mean.

Mohler: When people ask me what I like to read most.  When they know how much I love books I often tell them that if I’m reaching for a book just when I have a few moments or a few hours I’m most likely going to grab a historical biography.  I’m not sure why it is so but I tell you the biography has always had an enormous tug on the human psyche.  There is a desire in us to try to understand ourselves as we come to terms with the lives of others.  Now in the course of my reading biographies I have read some that I thought were deeply worthwhile and others that were trivial and unhelpful.  Rarely have I read a biography that has stretched me quite as much as this one.  Eric Foner’s book , The Fiery Trial getting at Abraham Lincoln and the ordeal of slavery requires us to get inside the mind of an individual in so far as it’s possible.  And the point here is that with Abraham Lincoln as Professor Foner has so well articulated is difficult to get into that mind because he conceals himself.   But we can’t understand America and as Americans trying to think about our own times.  We can’t get past Abraham Lincoln and that’s why we’re drawn to him again and again and without apology why we should give attention to a book like this and the issues that it raises.

It was in that second part of the conversation with Professor Foner that I got at some of the issues that I thought were most important.  I want to know how it is that Abraham Lincoln, this rail splitter, this man born into a very rural setting  in Kentucky, a man who was shaped by his own ability to teach himself without the benefit of any formal education.  I want to know how he came to struggle with the greatest moral crisis this nation has ever endured.  How is it that this man, when you draw a line from Kentucky to Washington, D.C., how can this man in the 19th century stand and give that oration we know as the second inaugural address.  As I told Professor Foner I go back to that address time and again.  I go back because I’m drawn into a mind of an individual who can articulate with such profound moral insight, this incredibly, almost unspeakable tragedy of slavery.  But not just of slavery of racism.  One of the achievements of Professor Foner in this book is to demonstrate that in the mind of Abraham Lincoln and the issue of slavery and racism were not one issue.  The question of slavery and the question of race-these were divisible in Abraham Lincoln’s mind in ways that frankly are morally excruciating to us.  Now I was raised in the south and as I came to learn about Abraham Lincoln, as I read about him, and was taught about him, as I picked up the lore and the language about Abraham Lincoln from my grandparents and extended family and all the rest, I discovered that there was an awkwardness among many southerners in talking about Lincoln.  And then when I would talk to people from the north it was clear that they identified themselves with Lincoln in a way that I found artificial and often ill-founded.  Reality is that Abraham Lincoln is still an enigma to us.  As a theologian I want to know how a man who was so unorthodox, to say the least as Professor Foner in his book, this was not a man who was an orthodox Christian at all.  There is absolutely no evidence that Abraham Lincoln was in any way recognizably a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ.  The data that we have would indicate that Abraham Lincoln, if we’re going to place him in a theological context, would have to be identified as a deist.  Now there is also good evidence as we follow the progression of Abraham Lincoln’s mind that his deism grew into a deeper moralism.  A moralistic deism by the time he ended his life in that tragic assassination.

What we come to understand is that Lincoln began to see that there was a God of justice and righteousness whose ways were inscrutable.  They were not accessible to the human imagination.  Human pride would lead both sides in the Civil War to claim that God was on their side.  But Abraham Lincoln was convinced that in the end God was on the side of what was right.  And by the time he came to the middle of the Civil War he was certain that the awful tragedy of slavery was the reason for the war.  The reason for the sectional dispute.  The reason for this great tearing asunder of the nation that he loved.  I have to wonder as a Christian theologian what kind of man Abraham Lincoln would have been.  What kind of moral vision he would have brought to his office had he looked at the world through the Christian biblical worldview.  But I do want to say that as I come to understand Abraham Lincoln I also have to go back to the understanding that I understand the world to be held in the power of a sovereign God.  I believe unlike Abraham Lincoln in a God who rules over his creation.  Abraham Lincoln did not have to find deep meaning in every event, in every struggle, in every occurrence.  It’s presumptuous for us to believe that we as Christians can come to an immediate understanding of what God is doing in every event and every occurrence, in every crisis.

But we do know this, God is working his purposes in ways that are far more direct than Abraham Lincoln was willing to understand far more judgmental than even Abraham Lincoln in the second inaugural address was able to articulate.  We look back to Abraham Lincoln and we are left with a host of questions.  What about this man who in the name of preserving liberty took upon himself extra constitutional authority?  What about this man who seemed to be…at so many points.  He could shape himself into whatever was necessary by the times.  But a man who was also driven by an inflexible conviction a man who could grown, that’s the metaphor that Professor Foner uses to grow not only in office as so often the case in our description now but throughout his lifetime.  A man who was clearly, by his own words, an opponent and enemy of slavery from the beginning, the one who only gradually moved into a position of making slavering the issue of the war.  This was a man who at many points even during the war wanted a gradual emancipation, was looking at working emancipation through voluntary efforts in the border states, was seeking to colonize African Americans back to Africa or even to the Caribbean, a man who was seeking in his own way to find out how the nation might compensate slave holders for the loss of their property.  But then you come to the realization that Abraham Lincoln by the time he was re-elected to office, having signed the Emancipation Declaration was absolutely, absolutely not only proclaiming the end of slavery but a new way of being an American.

Now one of the issues that comes in the honesty of Professor Foner’s book is the fact that even though Abraham Lincoln became the avowed enemy of slavery he was a racist to the end.  Now why do I say that?  It’s not to heap scorn upon Abraham Lincoln from the distance of well over a century.  It was indeed last year that we celebrated in March the bicentennial of his birth.  Now I mention that to remind those of us who are Christians that we understand that we live in a Genesis 3 world.  And every single human being, every single man or woman, no matter as judged by history, as great or small, is a man or a woman who is caught in a web of self deception, a web of lies, and a web of rebellion against a holy and righteous God.  Reality is that Abraham Lincoln deserves an understanding and affirmation of his greatness not only in American history but in the history of the world insofar as we come to understand it.  We cannot come to terms with our times without coming to terms with Abraham Lincoln.  When it comes to a sin like racism, we come to understand that Abraham Lincoln was stuck in his times, stuck in his prejudices, and stuck in his worldview.  The only rescue is the gospel of Jesus Christ.  And that’s why we have to come to understand that racism is not something that can be solved in purely secular terms.  The anecdote to racism is not political or ideological.  It’s the understanding that every single human being is equally made in the image of God.  You can only wonder what would have happened if Abraham Lincoln had survived and served his second term.  There are a host of political, historical, and constitutional questions about how he would have presided over the process of reconstruction.  We do know this, we can understand ourselves, we can understand our times, without coming to terms with the rail splitter-with Abraham Lincoln.

Thanks for listening to Thinking in Public.  For more information about The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary go to  I hope you’ll go to my website at for a host of resources there available to you.  I also hope you’ll listen to my other podcast, The Briefing available Monday through Friday.  It’s an analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.  Keep thinking.  Until next time this is Albert Mohler.