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.

Similarly, Lincoln’s “Second Inaugural Address”—perhaps the greatest religious statement ever made by an American president—was also deeply rooted in Lincoln’s Whig nationalism. The war, according to Lincoln, was a divine punishment for which the entire nation, both the North and South, must suffer. In casting blame for the sin of slavery on both of the War’s participants and challenging both sides (but particularly Northern pundits) to have “malice toward none and charity towards all,” Lincoln avoided the rhetoric, popular among many of the nation’s leading theologians, that God was on the side of the victorious North. His message was seasoned with humility and avoided the temptation to exalt America as an exceptional or chosen nation. But in the process, he made it clear that the spiritual discipline of repentance would not be assigned to a specific region of the country, but rather to all of the United States.

One cannot deny that Abraham Lincoln was a great president, a prophet, if not a martyred redeemer, of American nationalism. The Northern victory was a triumph of Lincoln’s Whig vision for the country. Economically, the South would need to reject their “backward” agrarianism and rebuild their economy by mirroring Northern industrial capitalism. On the constitutional and political front, the war decided the question of states rights once and for all. Individual states had some degree of sovereignty, but they were not sovereign enough to secede from the Union. Morally, Lincoln ended slavery, allowing at least in principle, the opportunity for freemen and free-women to transcend the limits of bound labor and pursue some sense of the American Dream not previously afforded to them prior to the Thirteen Amendment. By rooting the Gettysburg Address, perhaps his most important oration, in the American founding (“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation…”), he gave his understanding of the Union historical justification. America was not only a “new nation,” but it was a nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

How can any good American argue with Lincoln’s vision? His America was the America that my great-grandparents encountered as they passed through Ellis Island at the turn of the twentieth century. It was an America of social mobility and economic opportunity—the very ideals that allowed me to pursue a college education and to earn a spot in the middle-class. Lincoln’s Whig vision for America set the country on the road to becoming a world super-power and an international defender of liberal values. It could be argued that Lincoln is responsible for the coming of the “American Century,” one hundred years of American economic, military, political, and cultural power that led to victories in two World Wars, the defeat of communist tyranny, the rise of democracy around the world, the ubiquitous spread of global capitalism. Martin Luther King, in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” echoed Lincoln’s universalism in his assault on the local prejudices of the south’s segregated communities. Liberalism, in the case of American race relations, needed to trump the dark side of Jeffersonian parochialism.

But Lincoln’s understanding of the nation was also informed by the idea of a capitalist system that by the eve of the twenty-first century had grown out of control. Lincoln’s nationalism, articulated so beautifully in the “Gettysburg Address,” was rooted in the “proposition that all men are created equal,” but such a vision of liberty and equality relied upon a free market economy driven by the values of wealth, power, and self-interest. Industrial capitalism, at least the corporate post-bellum variety that would emerge with force in the generation following Lincoln’s death, not only exploited its workers and created class conflict, but also destroyed local communities and redefined the American dream in terms of consumerism and the material comforts that such consumer necessities afford.

Is it thus possible to offer a more radical critique of Lincoln, a critique that draws on ideals and values that were embedded in the American tradition, but became a minority position with the Northern victory in the Civil War and the consequential rise of modern life?

What was the cultural significance of the Northern Republican victory for the course that the United States would take in the second half of its history? Even as Lincoln called for both North and South to repent of their roles in this devastating conflict, his Whig vision had clearly won the day. Lincoln’s Enlightenment was liberal and individualistic. He believed that improvement required what historian Allen Guelzo has described as a “conquest of nature” that “alienated” people from local community, tradition, and the land, all in the name of progress. Whigs built road, bridges, canals, and railroads so that people could be mobile and free, not enslaved to particular places. The impact of this vision on the defeated South, as it began to be reconstructed in the image of the industrial North, was perhaps more devastating to their way of life than the war itself.

To Lincoln’s credit, he believed, as a good Whig, that the rampant acquisitiveness associated with Whig capitalism needed to be tempered and even controlled with an ample helping of virtue drawn from the teachings of contemporary moral philosophers. He also favored a capitalism driven by small businessmen, not international conglomerates. Never could he have imaged how his vision of a national economy driven by industry, free markets, and free labor has been corrupted by corporate capitalism. He would be shocked to find that most Americans have become deeply dependent on the corporate world to supply them with food and the stuff that is supposed to make them happy. And Lincoln, moreover, would be surprised to see how a system of superhighways, railways, and airways has made his United States the most mobile society in the world, although I am not sure he would have been disappointed by such a development.

The Northern victory, which Lincoln secured by resorting to total war against southern civilians, unleashed a devastating assault on a Jeffersonian version of agrarianism that connected happiness and human well being to real communities and real places. Liberty, as defined in terms of “improvement” and “mobility,” has resulted in a rootless cosmopolitanism that has produced millions of people who claim to “love humankind,” but who do not live in one place long enough to know, let alone “love,” their neighbor. Moreover, the national infrastructure built to connect people and unify the nation economically and culturally has come at the expense of the environment. The result of a “Whig” economy has produced an ever-expanding commercialism that tempts people with products to fulfill their every desire, all in the very American quest to “pursue happiness.” Such consumer capitalism makes it all the more difficult for Americans to practice virtues of self-restraint.

Of course, any such critique of the legacy of Lincoln’s presidency must be advanced with great care and caution. There is much of the Whig criticism of Jeffersonian traditionalism that is on the mark. Southern agrarianism and Jeffersonian localism has too often run rampant over individual rights rooted in the inherent dignity of the human beings created in the image of God. Sometimes local prejudices need to be countered with a dose of universalism. But if Lincoln is going to get the credit for the emergence of American nationalism, he must also shoulder the blame for at least some of the economic consequences that this Whiggism has had on American life. As noted Civil War historian Gabor Boritt once wrote, it is important for any student of American history to “come to terms” with Abraham Lincoln.

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