This semester my Civil War class is reading Allen Guelzo’s Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President. It is, without peer, the best book on Lincoln’s intellectual and religious life. Others seem to agree. In 2000, Guelzo’s biography received the prestigious Lincoln Prize for the best film or book about the Civil War era. Last night we discussed chapter 8: “Voice Out of the Whirlwind.”
Guelzo argues that Abraham Lincoln, at least in his adult life, was never a Christian, but he did spend a lot of time reflecting on big questions about free will and determinism and their relationship to a force or supreme being that governed the world. Lincoln, in his pre-presidential years, believed in what he called the “Doctrine of Necessity.” He wrote: “I was inclined to believe in what I understand is called the “Doctrine of Necessity”–that is, that the human mind is impelled to action, or held in rest by some power, over which the mind itself has no control…” Guelzo compares Lincoln’s view here to the philosopher John Stuart Mill’s “philosophical necessity,” a believe “that human beings possess neither free will nor the moral responsibility for the right or wrong actions that is supposed to follow the exercise of free choices.” (p.117).
During his presidency, Lincoln’s “Doctrine of Necessity” took on a more religious flavor. He began to use the word “providence” to describe this “power, over which the mind has not control.” He came to embrace a “divine personality” that intervened in human affairs. (p.328).
Guelzo argues, and quite convincingly I might add, that the Civil War led Lincoln to apply his view of “providence” to the political decisions he made as POTUS. This was particularly the case in his decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. The Proclamation was issued days after the Union victory at the Battle of Antietam. In a cabinet meeting following the battle, Lincoln uttered what Guelzo calls “the most astounding remarks any of [the members of his cabinet] had ever heard him make.” Lincoln told the cabinet that he had become convinced that if the Union won at Antietam he would consider it an indication of the “divine will and that it was his duty to move forward in the cause of emancipation.” (p.341). He added, “God had decided this question in favor of the slaves.” Indeed, the Emancipation Proclamation changed the course of the war. The Proclamation made it a war that was less about preserving the Union and more about freeing the slaves. It could be argued that it was the turning point of the Civil War. And Lincoln made his decision by somehow interpreting (with much certainty) the providence of God.
After class, a student asked me if I thought a United States President could get away with this kind of presidential leadership today. What if George W. Bush, Barack Obama, or Donald Trump made a republic-altering decision and said that it was based upon his reading of God’s providence? (Bush came close on numerous occasions). There would be many evangelicals who might love such a claim. But most Americans, including many evangelicals who believe in the providence of God but do believe we can know God’s will in every matter on this side of eternity, would think that such a decision-making process might be the height of presidential incompetence.