The day of Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address presented an ominous metaphor to a republic ravaged by civil war. A cold, miserable rain, greeted the exhausted assemblage who gathered before the U. S. Capitol to hear their chief implore renewed dedication to a remorseless struggle. But as the president rose, the skies cleared, and the sun shone. It was as if God himself pined to hear his humble servant’s appeal to Heaven. Yet rather than ushering in the dawn of a glorious future, Lincoln delivered a sermon on the divine judgments of history. On that day in March 1865, Lincoln asked his fellow citizens to consider why God wrung American blood to affect his holy will in accounting for the nation’s collective sin of slavery. His query embodied a lifetime of introspection into the mysteries of providence, the consequence of time, and the enduring battle between good and evil.
Lincoln’s hallowed address informs the scope of renowned writer Jon Meacham’s landmark biography of this most vital nineteenth-century American. And There was Light confronts Lincoln in all his simple complexity: an ambitious yet skeptical individual, a stoic yet dogmatic politician, a resolute yet compassionate statesman. We also traverse Lincoln’s world, stirred by the rowdy chords of a nascent democracy, and moved by an alluring Protestant supplication. And when we enter Lincoln’s inimitable mind, the very currents that fueled his intellectual spirit stimulate us.
Meacham’s Lincoln does not reside in the remote past. He is rather a vessel on which to navigate a fractured political world, a sage to unbind our exasperating age of postmodern relativism. Lincoln embodies how a committed citizenry, though often delayed, can secure moral justice. “Lincoln is there,” Meacham thus writes, “an example of how even the most imperfect of people, leading the most imperfect of peoples, can help bend that arc.” Meacham nevertheless warns against the seduction of inevitability, channeling Lincoln’s belief that a more perfect Union is hardly destined. “It is for us the living, rather,” Lincoln instructed at Gettysburg, to ensure “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
From his meek roots in the Kentucky backcountry to his profession as an Illinois attorney and to the White House itself, Lincoln abided by a philosophy that all people possess natural claims to reason and conscience from which to discern demonstrable right from wrong. “With firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right,” he counseled in the Second Inaugural, a free citizenry holds the ability to pursue—if not the prerogative to assure—objective moral truth. The American people maintained a unique obligation to learn the history of their nation and uphold the logic of its founding charters. Threatened by the United States possibly becoming a uniform slave nation, Lincoln appealed in 1856 to “the human heart,” beseeching his fellow citizens to act according to the “central idea” of American nationhood. Only by living the Declaration’s creed “that all men are created equal,” would generations of free people fulfill the golden charge of treating others as you would be treated.
Beyond the acute examples of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Daniel Webster, and Henry Clay, Meacham also explores an influential cohort who animated Lincoln’s political philosophy. We encounter the antislavery Baptists of Lincoln’s youth; William Grimshaw, a popular historian of the American Revolution; Cassius M. Clay, a prominent antislavery Kentuckian; Theodore Parker, the celebrated Unitarian theologian; Phineas Gurley, President Lincoln’s Presbyterian minister; John Bright, a British liberal who championed the cause of Union; and Frederick Douglass, the nation’s foremost African American abolitionist. Their rich direction guided Lincoln’s unbending faith in self-government and his commitment to preserving the principle of natural equality for the nation and the world.
Meacham’s central theme—the national struggle to pursue moral right amid the malevolence of human bondage—connects Lincoln’s antislavery impulse to his devotion to the American Union and the divine counsel of God. He adopts the logic enmeshed in Lincoln’s “house divided” schema to explain how slavery imposed fundamental, irreconcilable, moral differences upon a nation that could not remain half slave and half free. As Lincoln pronounced in 1854, the natural right of human equality diverged from the iniquitous right to enslave another. Such claims “are as opposite as God and mammon; and whoever holds the one must despise the other.” For Lincoln, the founding of 1776 inaugurated an unprecedented moment in human affairs. Guided by his “ancient faith [which] teaches me that ‘all men are created equal’[,] that there can be no moral right in connection with one man’s making a slave of another,” Lincoln identified the Constitution and Union as the foremost means by which to fulfill the Declaration’s ideal of placing slavery on “the course of ultimate extinction.”
Amid the overwhelming corpus of Lincoln tomes, Meacham makes a sensitive contribution to Lincoln’s religiosity. As a young man, Lincoln struggled with questions of divine will. He nevertheless sensed the world gripped in a supernatural struggle between virtue and malice. To what extent did God mediate this eternal dispute? Lincoln did not know. But as he matured, particularly when he engaged in the national debates over slavery during the 1850s, Lincoln came to see history not as an arbitrary or random process. The world was rather “defined by a moral drama” in which God furnished his people with clues and a compassionate soul to discern his will. When God’s children ignored or cursed his holy designs, they confronted an inevitable punishment foretold in the Old Testament. For Lincoln, perpetuating American slavery beckoned the Lord’s wrath. “Slavery is founded in the selfishness of man’s nature,” he spoke in 1854, “opposition to it, is [in] his love of justice. These principles are an eternal antagonism; and when brought into collision so fiercely, as slavery extension brings them, shocks, and throes, and convulsions must ceaselessly follow.”
Lincoln long believed in the capacity of representative institutions to abolish slavery gradually through moral suasion and public consent. But when secessionists in 1860–61 severed the Union to build an independent slaveholding nation, their act blasphemed the sacred Declaration and shattered lawful constitutional processes. Lincoln took seriously Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens’s audacious testament that the slaveholding republic “is the first, in the history of the world, based upon [the] great physical, philosophical, and moral truth” that “the negro is not equal to the white man.” This novel, hubristic polity now vied to control the very continent on which the American fathers once “brought forth . . . a new nation, conceived in liberty,” and committed to human equality.
Here, Meacham thrives in surveying Lincoln’s swift evolution into seeing the Civil War not merely as a political crisis, but as a spiritual battle that engulfed Americans and their divine maker. How did Lincoln arrive at this mystic proposition? He committed his presidency to untangling why God acted “in a specific place and a specific time—in the United States of America in the mid-nineteenth-century” to impart a prophetic message about the dignity of all individuals.
The tragic death in February 1862 of Willie, the Lincolns’ cherished eleven-year-old son, confronted the president with a disquieting reality that God acted in transcendent, unexplainable ways. Later in the year, Meacham explains, Lincoln seemed to connect his familial tragedy to the national crisis. In a private note that he penned in September 1862, Lincoln anticipated the central theme of his Second Inaugural. “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 of the best adaptation to effect His purpose.” But just as God punished the unrighteous, so too did he imbue humans with an ability to understand and atone for their sins. Might it be “that God wills this contest” to effect that which most Americans, including Lincoln himself, once considered hitherto impossible—the swift, widespread abolition of slavery?
Lincoln well understood that slavery made war on free societies, free thought, and free will itself. The institution deceived the human heart, seducing ambitious fools with an amoral promise of earthly riches. To tolerate the Confederacy’s slaveholding ambitions would condemn the United States before the judgment of God. To oppose its unholy designs would sustain humanity’s better angels. In Meacham’s telling, Lincoln embraced wartime emancipation—and later the Thirteenth Amendment—to dismantle an antidemocratic oligarchy whose institutions degraded the nation’s virtue. As Lincoln came to believe, God brought such a terrible civil war to account for the United States’ failure to rid itself of human bondage. As he thus advised the Congress in 1862, emancipation offered “a way which, if followed, the world will forever applaud, and God must forever bless.”
Meacham does not recite a tired trope about Lincoln’s seemingly tardy move toward emancipation. Lincoln may not have been a political radical. He was a political realist who explained to his people the necessity of radical means of national preservation. The Confederate war impressed upon the loyal citizenry a fierce urgency either to save or lose their Union. Fundamental to the survival of self-government and the national soul, Lincoln “insisted that a core moral commitment to liberty must survive the vicissitudes of politics, the prejudices of race, and the contests of interest.” Emancipation eliminated sectional toxins and the source of disunion. But the measure also fulfilled a spiritual obligation to relieve a republic of liberty from the vile sway of racial caste and class privilege.
Abolition may not have arrived gradually, as Lincoln long assumed. It had come from the terrible swift sword, wielded by a God who moved the nations “through His appointed time.” When Lincoln surrendered his life, his beloved Union had survived. He departed the world conscious of providence’s guiding hand, for he had been a tool of God during his moment on earth. Jon Meacham’s affective chronicle surveys far more than the life of Lincoln. It is the story of us and our daily struggle to see the light.