Abraham Lincoln and the Destruction of Place


In case you missed it, 2009 is the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. Earlier this week I participated in a roundtable discussion on Lincoln’s legacy sponsored by Messiah College and the Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.. In the five minutes I had to speak I said a few words about Lincoln’s nationalism and the theology of his second inaugural address. But the more I think about it, the more it seems that Lincoln’s real legacy was the promotion of an American nationalism that has resulted in the slow erosion of local places and an agrarian way of life. Let me explain.

Abraham Lincoln had a clear vision for America that was embodied in the beliefs of the early nineteenth-century political party called the Whigs. Whigs advocated an economy that was national (at the expense of local economies), industrial (as opposed to a country of yeoman farmers), and sustained through the construction of turnpikes, canals, and railroads for the purposes of uniting people and providing them with opportunities to physically transcend their locales. Whigs believed that such an economy should be presided over by a strong federal government that would support industrialization (largely through tariffs to protect American industry against foreign competitors), help fund construction of the national infrastructure, and keep the sovereignty of the individual states in check. During his tenure in office, Lincoln would become a Commander in Chief, a statesman, even a public theologian, but his primary ideological commitments and sense of personal identity were tied to Whig economic and political thought.

Whigs were the party of progress. Lincoln and many of his fellow partisans understood slavery as anything that limited one’s opportunity to pursue the American dream to move forward with their lives. Liberty was closely linked to economic opportunity and improvement. The Whig party defined itself against the yeoman, decentralized, small-scale republican perspective of Thomas Jefferson (which still had much influence in the antebellum Democratic Party of Andrew Jackson) because such agrarianism kept white people imprisoned by place and black people imprisoned by chattel slavery. While most Whigs abhorred African slavery, they did so for the same reasons that they abhorred the effects of a local agrarian economy upon the ambitions and opportunities of young people.

Whigs also championed the cause of moral reform—anti-slavery advocates, temperance reformers, middle-class Victorians, and religious revivalists were all part of their ranks—in an attempt to bring a sense of Protestant civilization to America. Lincoln was skeptical about the Christian agenda of his party, but he nevertheless believed that the goal of any enlightened society was reform, progress, and the advancement of civilization. He could thus agree with the moral commitments of the party without embracing its Protestantism. If Christianity contributed to the improvement of society, then Lincoln was all for it. But he also believed that Americans, like all human beings, needed to break down the limits imposed by tradition and overcome the backwardness that prevented the pursuit of liberty and freedom. In this regard, one had to look no further than the way Lincoln attempted to transcend his humble agrarian roots in Kentucky through self-education, social mobility, and the rejection of his parent’s Calvinist faith.

Lincoln’s Whig beliefs about America informed the most important decisions and public proclamations of his presidency. His stated purpose for fighting the Civil War was to bring the rebellious states of the Confederacy back into the Union and force them to submit to the progressive direction in which the country was moving. For example, the Emancipation Proclamation, while certainly one of the most important humanitarian gestures of any American president, was primarily designed to address the political, military, and diplomatic barriers that stood in the way of the South’s defeat and the ultimate preservation of the Union. The Proclamation did not free all the slaves (slaves in those states that supported the Union were not set free) and did absolutely nothing to address the question of race once the slaves were emancipated.

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