Abraham Lincoln and the Destruction of Place

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?

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