Egypt may seem an odd place for a student of Lincoln to draw inspiration. There are no memorials to him at all that I know of, and as the only professor of American History in Egypt in 2001, I can report that there is only dim awareness of American history prior to World War I and the Treaty of Versailles. Though I do my best to convince my students that in America the relationship between church and state, or rather, church and nationality, has been more complex than they generally choose to imagine, for them America is the land of secularism. Generally speaking, for my students, America is not a country that clings to any kind of idealism, but rather it is a land of materialism, self-interest, and self-interested foreign policy. It is no mean feat to bring my students to an appreciation of Lincoln's complex relationship with the ideals of the American founding, or indeed, with the inherited Christianity of the West.

Still, the setting of Egypt calls to mind an aspect of Lincoln and his generation. The monuments of past civilizations are piled one atop another in Egypt, some lasting for thousands of years, only to be replaced by new ideas and orientations, and then replaced again—concrete reminders of transience in all human striving that do remind me of Lincoln. For the theme of nearly all of his perorations was that without self-conscious moral striving America too would pass—just one empire in a series to suffer its inevitable decline and fall. If America was just one in an endless succession of empires, how could Lincoln, even in his fondest imaginings, hope to be more than one in an endless succession of pharaohs, kings, emperors, and now presidents, each piling their ruins atop the rubble of the previous centuries? Page  [End Page 19]

As a great reader of poetry, Lincoln may or may not have been familiar with Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Ozymandias." The poem recounts the story of a traveler in Egypt who encounters a toppled statue of Ramses II, whose mummy now lies staring up blankly at the ceiling in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Apart from the fallen and decayed ruins of the statue, the traveler finds the pedestal on which the statue once stood, inscribed with the following:

'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away. [1]
Whether or not Lincoln was familiar with Shelley's particularly ironic statement of this Romantic preoccupation with the transience of all earthly endeavor, he was familiar with other Romantic poets, and his perorations reflect this. Take for example the peroration to his "Address to the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society, Milwaukee, Wisconsin" of 1859, which may also have been the peroration to his "Lectures on Discoveries and Inventions":
It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: 'And this, too, shall pass away.' How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride!—how consoling in the depths of affliction! 'And this, too, shall pass away.' And yet let us hope it is not quite true. Let us hope, rather, that by the best cultivation of the physical world, beneath and around us; and the intellectual and moral world within us, we shall secure an individual, social, and political prosperity and happiness, whose course shall be onward and upward, and which, while the earth endures, shall not pass away.[2]
Note that the last line is almost identical to the last line of the Gettysburg Address, "shall not perish from the Earth." The orientalist Page  [End Page 20] fantasy of an Eastern monarch was clearly conventional, echoing among others, both Constantin Volney (who we know Lincoln did read) [3] and Shelley. Interesting for us is the way Lincoln at this point flattered himself with the possibility that America might have a more lasting place, and a more significant meaning, on the world historical stage.

Traditionally, Lincoln has been placed primarily in the context of antebellum politics, although he has also been viewed psychologically and in terms of American economic history. And recently, the Lincoln Legal Papers Project has uncovered another rich world in which to contextualize Lincoln: the lost world of antebellum legal practice. All of those contexts are perfectly appropriate. Yet there are two others into which Lincoln's use of millennial themes in particular should be placed: first, the general context of Romantic poetry; and second, the specifically American context of George Bancroft's Romantic histories.

While Lincoln's personal love of Romantic poetry has often been discussed, it has generally remained just that: a personal idiosyncrasy. In Honor's Voice, Douglas L. Wilson began the task of weaving Lincoln's poetic side into our general interpretation of Lincoln's words. [4] I wish to extend that interpretation here. In addition, the importance of George Bancroft as the great intellectual counterpart to Lincoln has been underestimated or neglected altogether. Even more than Lincoln, Bancroft found escape from the meaninglessness of life by imagining that by participating in the life of the new American nation, he participated also in the divine plan to redeem fallen man. Bancroft's historical vision has often gone by the name manifest destiny. Lincoln thoroughly rejected Bancroft's effort to give America so esteemed a place in sacred history. Instead, his thoughts on the transience of all human striving began and finally rested with an Augustinian position that denied any equivalence of worldly institutions like the United States with the Heavenly Kingdom.

The Romantic should be familiar to us all as the phase of western intellectual history after the Enlightenment, and as such, it both rejected and built upon aspects of that earlier Enlightenment. Whereas Enlightenment thinkers tended to celebrate as liberation Page  [End Page 21] for mankind the destruction of the God-centered scholastic world view that had dominated in the West for centuries, Romantics had a more ambiguous and ironic relationship with the religious past. Romantics longed for a world of lasting meaning but were skeptical about the possibilities for reestablishing such a world view. Unlike Enlightenment thinkers, they often admired the religious thought of the past, and through poetry and philosophical idealism they strove to reestablish some view of the world that might, after all, have lasting meaning.

The Enlightenment itself was a reaction to the religious wars of the seventeenth century, and if there was one element of Christianity that troubled Enlightenment thinkers from Hobbes, Locke, Gibbon, and Voltaire to Madison, Adams, and Jefferson, it was an appeal to uncompromising religious zeal. From the Enlightenment point of view, religious enthusiasms or zealotry had led to calamities such as the Thirty Years War and the English Revolution. Inherently divisive appeals to revealed truth became therefore anathema. We might recall some of the mood of the Enlightenment in this regard if we think of the way that for some today religious extremism in the Middle East seems to block what should otherwise be an orderly process of economic and political modernization.

Religious enthusiasm was not only imprudent for the Enlightenment, it was irrational. Reveling in the irony, Perry Miller recounts the story of Isaac Newton's bewilderment at the impossibility of a final apocalypse given his famous Newtonian mechanics. Whereas scholastic thinkers relied on God's constant supervising providence literally to hold their world together, Newton's physics eliminated both the need and the possibility of such a divine role. If Newton's laws were laws, then the final judgment was difficult to imagine. And without a final judgment, what was the meaning of human striving? Miller relates how Newton spent his final days trying to reconcile his marvelous new physics with the possibility of a final judgment, which spectacle provoked Voltaire to remark acidly, "that Newton, out of mercy for the rest of mankind, deliberately tried, for once in his life, to be as silly as they."[5] For a Voltaire or Jefferson, the destruction of the religious world view embodied in medieval scholasticism could only mean liberation from the tyranny of irrationality and medieval priest craft. Questions about the meaning of life, which formerly had been Page  [End Page 22] answered with ponderous authority, were put aside and generally disregarded at best as mere distractions from the pleasures of a material world.

At the dawn of a new millennium, it is easy to scoff with Voltaire at Newton in his dotage. But Miller did well to remind us that, as a pre-Enlightenment thinker, Newton was troubled by something that perhaps ought to trouble us once again. And in the Romantic period, what once troubled Newton again became important, inspiring perhaps the greatest burst of poetry since the ancient world.

With William Blake, one gets a sense of the Romantic disquiet with the new materialism. Blake regarded Newton as an "enemy of spiritual truth."[6] For Blake, Newton stood for a mechanical world view bereft of cosmic meaning. What troubled Blake was the empty selfishness that seemed to come with the materialism of the Enlightenment. Rather than a spiritual release, the Enlightenment had brought a trivialization of everything that had once been important; rather than freeing mankind, the industrial revolution was bringing forth new, more terrible forms of tyranny. Thus Blake's now-familiar apocalyptic lines: "And was Jerusalem builded here / Among these dark Satanic Mills?"

There would soon be a version of this protest in the works of Charles Dickens and Harriet Beecher Stowe and Abraham Lincoln as well. Longing for a world in which human life still had ultimate value, Blake sounded an important keynote for the Romantic in demanding what for Voltaire could only be a laughable absurdity: a meaningful apocalypse. Recalling the biblical books of Daniel and Revelations (books that did not, by the way, figure large in Jefferson's edited version of Holy Scripture),[7] he continued: "Bring me my Bow of burning gold: / Bring me my Arrows of desire: / Bring me my spear: O clouds unfold! / Bring me my Chariot of fire! [8]

Blake articulated a desire that would resound throughout the Romantic literary corpus and indeed in the works of Abraham Lincoln, a desire, in a post-Enlightenment context, to draw upon the religious thought of the past, including apocalypticism, to give human striving some ultimate moral meaning in the present.

As with Shelley, Lincoln may or may not have encountered Blake directly. But similar ideas were repeated in poems we know Lincoln Page  [End Page 23] read, loved, and recited. In Honor's Voice, Douglas L. Wilson charts Lincoln's path through the intellectual movements that swirled around him, even in the intellectual back eddies of Springfield, Illinois. Lincoln passed first through a skeptical Enlightenment phase that led him to reject any literal version of his inherited family Calvinism. At that point Lincoln was particularly attracted to the anti-clerical history of Constantin de Volney's Ruins.[9] Like Shelley's "Ozymandias," Ruins "begins with the author contemplating the ruins of the great Middle Eastern civilizations and reflecting on their meaning for the modern world." "Who knows," said I, "but such may one day be the abandonment of our countries? ... Who knows if some traveler, like myself, shall not one day sit on their silent ruins and weep in solitude over the ashes of their inhabitants, and the memory of their greatness."

As Wilson points out, Volney, like Gibbon in his famous Decline and Fall, laid the blame for the decay of past civilizations on "misanthropic systems of religion." This rather typical bit of Enlightenment anti-clericalism probably struck a chord with Lincoln who, because of his inherited Calvinism, also showed a fondness for the mocking anti-Calvinism of Robert Burns. But along with the anti-clericalism, Lincoln already encountered a problem with the secular, material world view: namely, how could history have meaning?

Wilson charts Lincoln's shift away from the Enlightenment's triumphal secularism, and this point deserves more emphasis than it has received.[10] As the Romantic movement progressed, the disquiet with the loss of inherited sources of ultimate meaning became increasingly pronounced. Lincoln's personal reading recapitulated the intellectual history of the West in that regard. Soon Lincoln moved from the lighthearted anti-clericalism of Burns to the dark Romantic melancholy of Byron and Poe. Wilson describes a particularly somber poem, "Darkness":

One of the 'fugitive pieces' that James H. Matheny remembered as one of Lincoln's favorites was a poem titled 'Darkness.' The poem is a tour de force, presenting graphically a horrific vision of the end of human life. It begins: Page  [End Page 24]

I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The Bright sun was extinguished, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy Earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air....

The effect of the disappearance of the sun on humankind is the subject of most of the rest of the poem. The event is all-consuming: 'men forgot their passions in the dread / Of this their desolation; and all hearts / were chilled into a selfish prayer for light... ' to create light, they burn everything, including their own houses. People become distracted, go mad, then begin to make war on each other:

... a meal was bought
With blood, and each sate sullenly apart
Gorging himself in gloom: no Love was left;
All earth was but one thought—and that was Death,
Immediate and inglorious...

Even the dogs assail their masters, a point that is given emphasis by the description of one faithful dog that guards his master's corpse against all encroachments and dies licking his hand. [11]

Byron's apocalyptic vision was not all a dream. Indeed, Byron described what Friedrich Nietzsche would later describe as the death of God. The point of the figure is that in the post-Enlightenment world, there was no longer any spiritual light to guide human striving. After a relatively carefree and even giddy liberation from the heavy weight of strictest Calvinist orthodoxy, Lincoln personally discovered in Byron the downside of Enlightenment, and like many others in the Romantic period, he became afflicted with "melancholy," or an oppressive sense that life ultimately had no meaning. This same "mysterious psychic depression"[12] had afflicted Newton at his discovery that a meaningful apocalypse might not, after all, be possible. Lest one thinks I am relying too heavily on Byron, those same sentiments were expressed in Lincoln's favorite poem "Oh, why should the spirit of Mortal be Page  [End Page 25] Proud,"[13] and in the poems of his own fashioning like "My Childhood-Home I See again." [14]

Another favorite poet of Lincoln's, Edgar Allan Poe, also described the deepest spiritual difficulty of his generation—the loss of the inherited faith in a life hereafter—in a comic poem about an annoying bird, a poem that Lincoln loved.[15] As Byron's dream was not all a dream, "The Raven" was not entirely comic. Rather the repeated vocalizations by the bird of "Nevermore" refer not so much to the death of the lost Lenore, as to the finality of death itself. The bird—in Poe's "Sonnet To Science" a vulture rather than a raven—never took his beak from out the poet's Victorian heart; and the consciousness of the finality of death inherent in a materialist world view seems never to have left the heart of Lincoln.

Lincoln's Byronic phase is perhaps best seen in the apocolypticism of his "Speech on the Subtreasury," in which he said of the upcoming 1840 presidential campaign:

I know that the great volcano at Washington, aroused and directed by the evil spirit that reigns there, is belching forth the lava of political corruption, in a current broad and deep, which is sweeping with frightful velocity over the whole length and breadth of the land, bidding fair to leave unscathed no green spot or living thing, while on its bosom are riding like demons on the waves of Hell, the imps of that evil spirit, and fiendishly taunting all those who dare resist its destroying course, with the hopelessness of their effort; and knowing this, I cannot deny that all may be swept away. Broken by it, I, too, may be; bow to it I never will. The probability that we may fall in the struggle ought not to deter us from the support of a cause we believe to be just; it shall not deter me. If ever I feel the soul within me elevate and expand to those dimensions not wholly unworthy of its Almighty Architect, it is when I contemplate the cause of my country, deserted by all the world beside, and I standing up boldly and alone and hurling defiance at her victorious oppressors. Here, without contemplating consequences, before High Heaven, and in the face of the world, I swear eternal fidelity Page  [End Page 26] to the just cause, as I deem it, of the land of my life, my liberty and my love ...[16]
Rather than coming from a speech on fiscal policy by an Illinois Whig assemblyman in 1839, this passage sounds like it might have come from the "lost cause" religion of the post-war South. [17] It is indeed apocalyptic, invoking the reign of Satan prior to the thousand-year reign of Christ. Drawing freely and poetically on traditional Christian imagery, Lincoln casted himself as one of the righteous remnant to be lifted up in rapture—not literally, but figuratively. It is also dark and Byronic. There is in it the desire for salvation, but simultaneously, there is also a pessimism and negativity about the prospects of ever achieving it. Lincoln would find other, more optimistic ways to think about history and the end of time, but for now we get a sense for the impact of Romanticism on his political expression.

Even less often remarked than Lincoln's shift from the blithe skepticism of Enlightenment thought to the gloomy pessimism of Byron and Poe was a still further shift, this time away from Byron and Poe and toward Lincoln's own Romantic form of Christianity.[18] Generally speaking, Romantics achieved this in two ways, first, by rejecting the empiricism of the Enlightenment in favor of various idealist alternatives, and secondly, through poetry and poetic license. As Herndon paraphrased Mary Lincoln's account: "Mr. Lincoln had no faith and no hope, in the usual acceptance of those words. He never joined a church; but still, as I believe, he was a religious man by nature ... it was a kind of poetry in his nature; and he was never a technical Christian."[19] By "technical Christian" Mary Lincoln may have meant that Lincoln never submitted the Page  [End Page 27] testimony of conversion required for membership by the Reformed denominations, (Congregationalist, Presbyterian, and Baptist) as well as by Methodists in the nineteenth century. But she clearly referred also to the non-literal, poetic approach Lincoln took to Christianity in his adult years.

If Lincoln involved himself with the Romantic poets in a personal quest for meaning, it was law and politics that largely gave his life meaning. But this does not mean that Lincoln forsook poetry as a source of meaning; on the contrary, it is far more important for us that he drew upon the Romanticism of his time to give meaning to the life of the American nation. Thus despite Mary Lincoln's technical definition, I think it best if Lincoln is referred to as a Romantic Reformed Christian.

No one in antebellum America drew more upon religious and millennial themes to give American life meaning than did the Romantic historian George Bancroft. Thus to understand Lincoln's use of time, history, and the end time, it is necessary to introduce the second context: the dominating historical/theological vision of George Bancroft's massive History of the United States. Beginning in 1834, Bancroft's History of the United States set out the essential mythological framework that remains with us today. Each subsequent volume ran to countless editions, and it would be hard to overestimate the impact Bancroft's history has had and still has on the American self-image. While Americans claim an Enlightenment founding, in fact they typically assume Bancroft's messianic vision of America as the telos of all world history. (Nowhere is this more obvious than in the Middle East, where, thinly veiled in secular garb, Americans happily assume that the rest of the world not only wants to be more like America, but also that this is the inevitable direction of "development" or "modernization.")

Through his historical writing as well as through his political activity, Bancroft's ideas provided an intellectual foundation for the manifest destiny vision of Romantic young Democrats like Stephen A. Douglas and the Young America movement. George Bancroft became a prominent Democratic politician whom Van Buren appointed collector of the Port of Boston, a position he in turn used to give positions to Nathaniel Hawthorne and Orestes Brownson. Later he would serve under Polk as secretary of the navy, acting secretary of war, and minister to London. He was an advisor to Democratic presidents as well as to Stephen A. Douglas, and he eventually delivered both Lincoln's official eulogy and wrote Andrew Johnson's "First Annual Message to Congress," the latter Page  [End Page 28] earning him an ambassadorship to Prussia. He was also called upon to deliver Johnson's official eulogy. In those political capacities as well as in his role as historian, he became perhaps the chief intellectual spokesmen for the Democratic Party.

The Romantic aspect of American nationalism is generally underappreciated. Completely lost to us is how Lincoln, in his own Romantic way, consistently opposed Bancroft and manifest destiny. Bancroft explicitly rejected the materialism of the Enlightenment and its "afterbirth," positivism. [20] There was a source of knowledge beyond the five senses, and it allowed for a more personal relationship with God than the observation of regularities in the natural or moral order; it made room, once more, for a poetic relationship with nature. Bancroft wrote a history that led up to a world in which original sin was thought no longer to apply. Bancroft insisted he was orthodox, and he allowed that individuals were imperfect and even sinful. But in the aggregate the people expressed the will of God. "The people" were always right; and since the people ruled in America, by a kind of historical definition America was always on the side of God. Neither Indian removal nor slavery troubled Bancroft and the Democrats. The theology was remarkably overt. "Liberty so long militant," said Bancroft, was "at length triumphant."[21]

Technically speaking, this made Bancroft "post-millennialist." (On a less Romantic epistemological basis, many if not most evangelicals of the period likewise articulated post-millennial positions.) The millennium had arrived and America was it. Now that original sin had been overcome, mankind could achieve perfection in this world. America was the light unto the nations, and it represented the end and purpose of all history. Reclaiming an aspect of the American religious past, Bancroft built upon Jonathan Edwards in an effort to find a place for America in sacred history.[22] As the first American historian trained in the German critical method, Bancroft took great pride in the scientific pretensions of his work, and he knew well the sources he had painstakingly gathered. But for Bancroft, what lent history coherence was the attempt to discover "the principles that govern human affairs" and thereby to Page  [End Page 29] demonstrate "the superintending providence of God." The German word weltgeschichte generally refers less to the history of the world as to the history of salvation, and Bancroft's translation of the German as "universal history" shared this soteriological cast. [23] Bancroft sought to reclaim a pre-Enlightenment vision of history, a vision not merely of one empire after another, the vision that so disturbed all Romantics, but one in which events had a discernible cosmic meaning. For Bancroft, the U.S. Constitution accomplished the "grand event of the thousand years of modern history."[24] Like Jonathan Edwards, Bancroft gave America the lead part in the grand drama of sacred history.[25]

For Bancroft, Augustine's great divide between the City of Man, and the City of God—between the Church Militant and the Church Triumphant—had been overcome, and this was the meaning of American democracy: America was the Church Triumphant. What this meant politically was that there was no need for overt moral striving or for overt moral action of any kind. Since America, by definition, was always right, it had, as others put it, a manifest destiny to rule the continent. Nor did the slavery issue trouble Bancroft. Working through the electoral process, the American people expressed the will of God. Bancroft insisted on the inevitability of progress in large measure because he feared that the self-conscious reform zeal of the abolitionists would lead to civil war. Bancroft confidently clamed that abolitionism and reform zeal were unnecessary because progress was inevitable.

The good time is coming when humanity will recognize all members of its family as alike entitled to its care ... But this result must flow from internal activity, developed by universal culture; it cannot be created by the force of exterior philanthropy; and still less by the reckless violence of men whose desperate audacity would employ terror as a means to ride on the whirlwind of civil war.[26]
If progress were irresistible, it could neither be checked, nor accelerated. It would not be overstating the case to say that Bancroft's entire historical project was intended to preach complacency. Page  [End Page 30]

But the theme of most of Lincoln's great perorations stated that moral striving was necessary, and thus Lincoln rejected Bancroft's Democratic party theology entirely. In fact Lincoln argued directly with Bancroft on at least three occasions. Polk's "war message" was largely written by Bancroft. In his 1848 reply, Lincoln deprecated the intellect of the war message's author for his bad logic, and, more importantly, he decried the depravity of the crimes Bancroft meant to conceal with his professions of American innocence. Lincoln's "Lectures on Discoveries and Inventions" were also a reaction to Bancroft's Literary and Historical Miscellanies. [27] Lincoln once again challenged Bancroft's complacent version of history, responding to Young America with a historical vision that emphasized the continuing need for moral and intellectual struggle. But the Lincoln-Bancroft debates did not end there. In the late 1850s, a working relationship developed between Stephen Douglas and George Bancroft. Bancroft advised Douglas on historical background in the Lincoln-Douglas debates. [28] There were other ways than Bancroft's to affect a Romantic synthesis of Christianity and democracy, and for Lincoln, America was emphatically not an absolute good in itself. Lincoln may have strayed from his ancestral Calvinism, but Bancroft made an idol of the nation, and Lincoln still recognized idolatry when he saw it. In his own Romantic way, Lincoln remained true to his orthodox Calvinist upbringing by denying Bancroft's equation of the secular American state with the Church Triumphant.

Already in his lyceum lecture of 1838, this idea is fully developed in Lincoln. Here is the peroration:

Reason, cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason, must furnish all the materials for our future support and defence. Let those materials be moulded into general intelligence, sound morality and, in particular, a reverence for the constitution and laws; and, last; that we improved to the last; that we remained free to the last; that we revered [Washington's] name to the last; that, during his long sleep, we permitted no hostile foot to pass over or desecrate his resting place; shall be that which to learn the last trump shall awaken our Washington. Page  [End Page 31] Upon these let the fabric of freedom rest, as the rock of its basis; and as truly as has been said of the only greater institution, 'the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.'[29]
The last trump" was clearly a figure of speech more than a literal reality in this passage. But for Bancroft and the Democrats, the last trump had already sounded. The overt Christian eschatology (or theory of the end of time) of Lincoln's lyceum has seldom been remarked upon, but Lincoln deliberately began the lecture by placing the American people "under date of the nineteenth century of the Christian era." Thus in this address he overtly framed American history within the larger and more fundamental compass of Christian eschatology, and he explicitly rejected any interpretation of America as the divine fulfillment. Throughout the address Lincoln presented history as a still-open-ended affair, from which he drew his always-inescapable moral: to "improve to the last." Where Bancroft saw an inevitable and progressive dialectic between the parties of reform and those of conservatism, Lincoln in this speech was deliberately more orthodox and Augustinian. Lincoln saw in the slavery issue "the eternal struggle between these two principles—right and wrong—throughout the world. They are," he said, "the two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time; and will ever continue to struggle." [30]

Lincoln's last sentence has received comparatively little attention, but given the elaborate theological self-conception articulated by the Bancroft and the Democrats, it was nothing short of stunning! Perry Miller began his great history of American thought with "the Augustinian Strain of Piety," [31] from which he—and Sacvan Bercovitch after him[32]—charted the steady declension of that Augustinian piety into the worship of the American way of life itself. "Gradually in America the nation emerged as the primary agent of God's meaningful activity in history. Hence Americans bestowed on it a catholicity of destiny similar to that which theology attributes to the universal church." [33] For Bancroft, no critique of American life, Page  [End Page 32] no prophetic voice was necessary. And though Whigs tended to use it as a summons to further moral striving, still the founding "upon a rock," already cliché,[34] implicitly equated the church universal with the republic. Virtually all of the great American intellectuals of the antebellum period followed Bancroft in equating America with the church universal in some fashion or other.[35]

But in a brief phrase that could not have been calculated to catch votes or to appease local religious sentiment, Lincoln revealed a theological thoughtfulness that surpassed Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and even the early Melville. Almost in the same breath that he called for a reverence for the law as a "political religion," he was troubled enough by the implications of his metaphor to note that America was not the church universal, let alone the Church Triumphant. Nor was this remark an isolated incident in Lincoln's literary life; Lincoln quietly attempted to temper the chiliasm of his Romantic cohort—hence for instance, his revision of "chosen country" from Jefferson's First Inaugural,[36] to "almost chosen people" at Trenton in 1861 (if the New York Tribune can be trusted).[37] Lincoln feared that the moral complacency and self-satisfaction of the Democrat's manifest destiny would lead to moral enervation. All our actions, including those regarding slavery, remained under the judgment of history—and of God. Remarking on the Democratic president at the time, Major Wilson summed it up: "If Van Buren can be seen as a priest of political religion, the position Lincoln defined made room for a prophet."[38]

Bancroft and Lincoln both saw a "last hope" in American democracy,38 but for Lincoln there was a real possibility that we might meanly lose it. In keeping with Whig theory, Lincoln therefore emphasized the need for self-consciously moral self-government, and the self-conscious education of public opinion by "statesmen" (or in our day "opinion shapers.") Here, by the way, was one of the chief theoretical differences between Whigs and Democrats. Democratic theory admitted of no role for elite leadership, nor indeed, for any real leadership at all. The people, by definition, knew right from wrong. Paradoxically, Lincoln's exhortations to overt moral action proceeded from a more pessimistic sense of human nature than Bancroft's. Along with the belief in the inevitability of Page  [End Page 33] moral progress, Lincoln also rejected the idea that original sin had somehow been overcome. [39]

Unlike Bancroft, Lincoln did not assume that American democracy necessarily brought with it the spiritual regeneration of humanity. There were elements of Bancroft's vision in Lincoln; Lincoln did not question progress in the sense that man's mastery of nature was on the increase, nor even that human freedom was now more completely realized than ever before. But he did deny that progress was inevitable, that America was inevitably progressive, and most importantly, he denied that human depravity was a thing of the past. He also questioned the value of any material advancement that neglected or evaded the moral and spiritual problems that had always confronted humanity, and which therefore still confronted America. Thus even while he took pride in America's legitimate achievements, Lincoln attempted to temper the more outrageous theological claims made for American democracy. If democracy equaled "practical Christianity" in any way, it was not the simple equation that Bancroft suggested. America was not quite the kingdom of God on earth.

But there was a tension in Abraham Lincoln's conception of America's place in history. Lincoln sometimes stepped away from the Augustinian orthodoxy of his youthful lyceum speech. In his more optimistic moods, Lincoln too fell in line with the general tendency of Americans to see America in millennial terms as the fulfillment of all previous history. After all, in his 1859 speech Lincoln held out the possibility that by the best cultivation of the physical intellectual and moral world, Americans might secure an onward and upward course of prosperity that "while the earth endures, shall not pass away." And this too was the mood of the Gettysburg Address. Note the nearly identical last clause, "shall not perish from the earth." At Gettysburg Lincoln would flirt, in true Romantic fashion, with a kind of heresy, using Luke's Magnificat and the Immaculate Conception as a metaphor for the advent of America four score and seven years previously. In his willingness to use religious language to describe the meaning of America, Lincoln's audacity at Gettysburg rivaled that of Bancroft and resulted in perhaps the greatest testament of Romantic nationalism bar none. In the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln came near to defining America as the savior of the world. Page  [End Page 34]

Echoing his careful phrasing of "almost" chosen people and his careful reference to the church as the only institution "higher" than the state, even at Gettysburg Lincoln withdrew from the blasphemy of claiming divine status for America. This, I submit, was the impulse behind his last-minute addition of the star-fated coinage "under God." Unlike the Enlightenment state of the founders, America was not a secular empire that could imitate classical models of a secular state and safely ignore the judgments of God. Nor, on the other hand, was America, as it was for George Bancroft, the millennial fulfillment of God's plan to redeem fallen man. Rather like all empires, the nation stood beneath the judgment of history and of God. It therefore behooved Americans to act accordingly. As always, Lincoln emphasized the need for ongoing moral struggle.

More clearly than at Gettysburg, the Second Inaugural denied any millennial role for America. In that address, Lincoln returned as a Romantic to the two kingdoms teaching of his father's radical Calvinism and refused even to flirt with the idea that America had special status in the divine economy. The city of man was not the city of God. Lincoln offered a stern theological rebuke both to the devotees of manifest destiny like George Bancroft and to clergy who uttered similar millennialist blasphemies about America like "the New School Presbyterian General Assembly [who] hailed the Union cause in 1862 as 'the final theater' for solving 'the final problems of history.'" [40] Not even the Union represented the end of history. Rather both sides prayed to a just God for deliverance, and neither side's prayers had been answered fully. Americans therefore stood beneath the judgment of God and could not arrogate to themselves any special knowledge of God's purposes. History was an open-ended affair in which right and wrong continued to struggle against one another. As of old, the ways of the Almighty remained His own.

Now, after the end of the Cold War and the beginning of a new millennium, America bestrides the world with economic, military, and cultural power perhaps unprecedented in world history. And once again there is talk of "the end of history."[41] In less explicitly millennial tones, perhaps, we Americans often assume that America Page  [End Page 35] represents the cutting edge of modernization. But in his own time Lincoln suggested that as Americans, we should avoid the temptation to define ourselves in millennial terms as the be all and end all of history. Rather we should remain open to continued moral critique. However dangerous and explosive, the reluctance in the Middle East to abandon the religious heritage has not been without precedent in the West. Indeed Lincoln spoke to this reluctance. We should therefore endeavor to understand this impulse rather than dismissing it as mere irrationalism. Even in the year 2001, after the end of the Cold War, we should adopt due humility, as one empire among many in the history of the world, under the judgment of history and of God, "to the latest generation." Rather than walking with arrogant self-superiority assuming to have all the world's answers, we should humbly strive to create a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations. Page  [End Page 36]


  1. Alexander W. Allison et al., The Norton Anthology of Poetry, 3d ed. (New York: W.W. Norton, 1983), 619. return to text
  2. Roy P. Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 9 vols. (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1953–1955) 3: 481–82; Don E. Fehrenbacher, ed., Abraham Lincoln, Speeches and Writings, 1859–1865 (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1989), 101 (hereafter cited as Lincoln Speeches and Writings 2). return to text
  3. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, eds. Herndon's Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements about Abraham Lincoln (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998), 172, 179, 210, 460, 513. return to text
  4. Douglas L. Wilson, Honor's Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998), 299. return to text
  5. Perry Miller, Errand into the Wilderness (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1956; New York: Harper & Row, 1964), 228. return to text
  6. Allison et al., Norton Anthology, 510. return to text
  7. Ibid. return to text
  8. Ibid. return to text
  9. Wilson, Honor's Voice, 78–81. return to text
  10. See also Allen C. Guelzo, Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1999), 20. return to text
  11. Wilson, Honor's Voice, 190–91. return to text
  12. Miller, Errand into the Wilderness, 228. return to text
  13. Collected Works, 2: 90; Donald E. Fehrenbacher, ed., Abraham Lincoln, Speeches and Writings, 1832–1858 (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1989), 254–55 (hereafter cited as Lincoln Speeches and Writings 1). return to text
  14. Collected Works, 1: 367–70; Lincoln Speeches and Writings 1, 64–65. return to text
  15. Douglas L. Wilson, Lincoln before Washington: New Perspectives on the Illinois Years (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997), 137. return to text
  16. Collected Works, 1: 178–79; Lincoln Speeches and Writings 1, 64–65. return to text
  17. Charles Reagan Wilson, Baptized in Blood, The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865–1920 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1980), passim. return to text
  18. In Honor's Voice, pages 319–20, Wilson marked this shift in Lincoln away from Byronic despair at the imperfections of this world. Lincoln "told [Joshua] Speed: 'It is the peculiar misfortune of both you and me, to dream dreams of Elysium far exceeding all that any thing earthly can realize.' This might be called the Byronic condition, [continued Wilson], and it may help explain why Speed told Herndon, rather cryptically, that Lincoln 'Forsook Byron.'" return to text
  19. William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, Herndon's Life of Lincoln (1888; reprint, New York: Da Capo, 1983), 359–60, 412–15. See also William E. Barton, The Soul of Abraham Lincoln (New York: George H. Doran Co., 1920), 229–30. This is Herndon's reconstruction, from his notes, of what Mary Lincoln related to him in Sept. 1866. For the notes, see Wilson and Davis, Herndon's Informants, 358, 360. return to text
  20. George Bancroft, Literary and Historical Miscellanies (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1855), 505. return to text
  21. George Bancroft, History of the United States from the Discovery of the American Continent, 10 vols. (Boston: Little, Brown, 1852), 4: 151–52. return to text
  22. Ibid., 154–57. return to text
  23. George Bancroft, History of the United States from the Discovery of the American Continent, 10 vols. (Boston: Little, Brown, 1840), 398. return to text
  24. Bancroft, Miscellanies, 446. return to text
  25. Sacvan Bercovitch, The American Jeremiad (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1978), 107. return to text
  26. Bancroft, Miscellanies, 514–15. return to text
  27. Henry C. Whitney, Life on the Circuit with Lincoln (Boston: Estes & Lauriat, 1892), 214. return to text
  28. Robert H. Canary, George Bancroft (New York: Twayne, 1974), 31; M. A. DeWolfe Howe, The Life and Letters of George Bancroft (New York Charles Scribner's Sons, 1908), 129–31; Robert W. Johannsen, ed., Stephen A. Douglas (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 584, 599, 613. return to text
  29. Collected Works, 1: 115; Lincoln Speeches and Writings 1, 36. return to text
  30. Collected Works, 3: 315; Lincoln Speeches and Writings 1, 810–11; Robert W. Johanssen, ed., The Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1965), 319. return to text
  31. Perry Miller, The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century (New York: Macmillan, 1939; Boston: Beacon Press, 1961), 3. return to text
  32. Bercovitch, American Jeremiad, passim. return to text
  33. John Edwin Smylie, "National Ethos and the Church," Theology Today, Oct. 1963, 313–17, cited in Conrad Cherry, ed., God's New Israel: Religious Interpretations of American Destiny (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971), 13. return to text
  34. Bercovitch, American Jeremiad, 146. return to text
  35. Ibid., chap. 6 passim. return to text
  36. Cherry, God's New Israel, 107. return to text
  37. Collected Works, 4: 236; Lincoln Speeches and Writings 2, 209. return to text
  38. Major Wilson, "Lincoln and Van Buren in the Steps of the Fathers: Another Look at the Lyceum Address," Civil War History 24: 197–211. return to text
  39. George Bancroft, Oration Delivered on the Fourth of July (Northampton: T. Watson Shepard, Printer, 1826), 26; Collected Works, 5: 537; Lincoln Speeches and Writings 2, 537. return to text
  40. Guelzo, Redeemer President, 413. return to text
  41. Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Avon, 1992). 44. Collected Works, 5: 537; Lincoln Speeches and Writings 2, 415. return to text