When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom'd
And the great star droop'd in the western sky in the night
I mourn'd, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.
- From Walt Whitman's "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd"
One hundred and 32 years ago this April 14, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. Since then, he has been immortalized in poetry, prose, history text-books, and myth. As our own leaders strive to find their place in history, it's instructive to look back at the things that influenced this great president and how he tried to find an answer to the most perplexing and divisive question of his day - what to do about slavery. The portrait that emerges is one of a man deeply influenced by his religious convictions, his understanding of equality, and a faith in the overarching providence of God to work His will through tragic circumstances.
Lincoln was consistent in his belief that slavery was a moral wrong and that the Negro was an equal to the white man. Both these beliefs were rooted in his religious convictions. Slavery, he had written as early as 1837, was "founded both on injustice and bad policy." In a letter dated May 30, 1864, to a Committee from the American Baptist Home Mission Society, Lincoln quoted the Bible: "In the sweat of thy face thou shall eat bread." Because slavery was a shifting of the burden of labor, he reasoned, it was wrong.
More complex, however, was his belief in the idea that divine Providence worked His will through human tragedy. In 1862, he wrote: "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 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 a human contest. Yet the contest began. And, having begun, he could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds."
Both sides read the Bible
In his second inaugural address in March of 1865, he expanded on this notion of divine will by speaking of both Confederate and Union partisans: "Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes his aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces; but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered - that of neither has been answered fully."
Yet despite these eloquent and complicated beliefs, Lincoln was a "politician of the possible" rather than the radical reformer he is so often portrayed to have been. Although he believed slavery was morally wrong, he once envisioned a program of gradual, compensated emancipation with the consent of slave owners. This would have stretched over a generation or more, with provision for the colonization abroad of emancipated slaves to minimize the potential for racial conflict and social disorder. In 1861, he hosted members of the American Colonization Society at the White House and declared support for the society's position, declaring that African-Americans should be sent back to their ancestral homeland.
After becoming president, in fact, Lincoln promised not to interfere with slavery in established Southern states. When the fighting commenced, he seemed to move with indecisive steps toward emancipation. His only war aim, he claimed well into the spring of 1862, was to save the Union. When Gen. John C. Fremont, then heading federal military operations in Missouri, declared an end to slavery in that state in August 1861, Lincoln not only rescinded the proclamation but removed Fremont from command.
Lincoln held back in resolving the emancipation question for many reasons. First, he did not want to drive slave-holding border states into the Confederacy.
Second, he worried about pervasive racism; white Northerners had willingly taken up arms to save the Union, but he wondered whether they would keep fighting to liberate the black population.
Third, if he moved too fast, he reasoned, he might lose everything - including the Union itself - should Northern peace advocates seize upon popular fears of emancipation and create an overwhelming demand to stop the fighting in favor of Southern independence.
Fourth, he had personal doubts as to whether blacks and whites could ever live together in freedom.
By the summer of 1862, Lincoln finally had made up his mind. The death toll, he reasoned, had become too great. All the maiming and killing had to have some larger purpose, transcending the primary war aim of preserving the Union. For Lincoln, the military contest had become a test to see whether the republic had the capacity to live up to the ideals of the American Revolution.
Nevertheless, Lincoln knew he was gambling with Northern morale at a time when Union victories were all but nonexistent, when enlistments were in decline, and when war weariness had set in. He was aware that racists would spread their poison. So the president waited for the right moment, such as after an important battlefield triumph, to quiet his critics who would surely say that emancipation was a desperate measure designed to cover up presidential mismanagement of the war.
As a shrewd politician, Lincoln began to prepare white Northerners for what was coming. He explained to readers of Horace Greeley's New York Tribune: "If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that."
A critical battlefield victory
On Sept. 22, 1862, five days after the Battle of Antietam, Lincoln announced his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which called upon Southerners to lay down their arms and return to the Union by year's end or to accept the abolition of slavery. Getting no formal response, on Jan. 1, 1863, he declared all slaves in the Confederacy "forever free." The final document called emancipation "an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution upon military necessity." Out of necessity too, slavery could continue to exist in the four Union border states - to assure a united front against the rebels.
In private, Lincoln referred to the horrible carnage at Antietam as "an indication of Divine will" that had forever "decided the question" of emancipation "in favor of the slaves."
Although Lincoln's personal position regarding slavery was always consistent, it was the unfolding events of the war and his interpretation of those events based largely on his religious faith that led to greater and wider action to eliminate what was to him a great moral evil in the life of the Republic.
* Donald E. Harpster is an associate professor of history and political science at the College of St. Joseph in Rutland, Vt.