"A poor hand to quote Scripture": Lincoln and Genesis 3:19Skip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 3.0 License. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org to use this work in a way not covered by the license. :
For more information, read Michigan Publishing's access and usage policy.
"My friend has said to me that I am a poor hand to quote Scripture. I will try it again, however." Poor hand or not, Lincoln was persistent. The 1858 Senate campaign was in full swing and the Democratic candidate, Stephen A. Douglas, had recently charged that quoting Scripture did not suit his Republican adversary. Lincoln's response to his "friend's" claim, as he told an audience in mid-July, was to "try it again," concluding his address with a vigorous defense of human equality, cast as a homily on the verse "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which in heaven is perfect" (Matt. 5:48). 
It was easy enough for Douglas to impugn Lincoln's grasp of Scripture. Lincoln was the product of a short and shallow formal education, and he had never fully identified with a Christian denomination or doctrinal tradition.  And yet in this case, as in so many others, Douglas was mistaken. Lincoln's legacy, far more than any other president, has, over time, become inextricably bound up with the words and themes of the Bible. He has been endowed repeatedly with biblical features—sometimes cast as Page [End Page 37] Moses, on other occasions as Father Abraham, and yet again as a fiery prophet or martyred savior. An aura of prophetic authority has accrued to his own words, heightened by his skillful use of literary devices that are also characteristic of biblical texts. The Poor Hand's homilies, like the man himself, now belong to the ages.
Lincoln contributed to this biblical aura through his adamant advocacy of what he referred to in his address to the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield in 1838 as an American "political religion." In remarks at Independence Hall in February 1861, he adopted a distinctly biblical metaphor to characterize his commitment to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, announcing, "'May my right hand lose its cunning and my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth' [Psalms 137:5–6] if ever I prove false to those teachings"—an oath that had originally referred to an abiding attachment to vanquished Jerusalem. Ten days earlier in Indianapolis, he made a similar transposition, declaring, "When the people rise in masses in behalf of the Union and the liberties of their country, truly may it be said, 'The gates of Hell shall not prevail against them'" (Matt. 16:18). In death, Lincoln became an icon of this American political faith—the only faith, it would seem, for which he could give his own last measure of devotion.
Lincoln's Collected Works are, in fact, peppered with biblical references, including several dozen direct quotations. These are taken, for the most part, from Hebrew Bible narratives, the Psalms, Wisdom texts, and the Gospels.  The Bible was the common coin of literate nineteenth-century Americans, and Lincoln made good use of its currency.Page [End Page 38]
On occasion Lincoln would cite a biblical text strictly for the sake of its imagery. The best-known example of his use of a biblical text for this limited purpose are his references to "a house divided" (Matt. 12:22–28, Mark 3:22–26, Luke 11:14–20). Lincoln consistently employed the metaphor of "a house divided" in literary settings wholly disassociated from its biblical context.  Herndon maintained that this was intentional. "I want to use some universally known figure [of speech]," Herndon recalled Lincoln telling him, "expressed in simple language as universally well-known, that may strike home to the minds of men in order to raise them up to the peril of the times." 
In the case of the "house divided" references, literary and anecdotal evidence coincide to demonstrate that Lincoln's primary interest was in decontextualized use of the text's imagery rather than exegetical exploration of its content. Historians may speculate concerning his subconscious affinity for this and other decontextualized citations,  but it is clear that his conscious intention in such cases was to employ a passage's imagery without reference to its original significance.
However, many of Lincoln's biblical citations are exegetical. These latter references not only evidence the rhetorical skill with which he appropriated biblical imagery, but also shed light on his understanding of the passages cited. Foremost among these exegetical references, in terms of frequency as well as significance of occasion, are his citations of Gen. 3:19, which, according to the King James Version he used, reads, "In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread."
The Collected Works include four direct references to Gen. 3:19. First, in the so-called "Fragments of a Tariff Discussion," which Page [End Page 39] Lincoln recalled having written in late 1847; next, in a response to a resolution of support he had received from a delegation of Baptist missionaries, written in May 1864; third, in a short autobiographical anecdote he arranged to have published in December 1864; and finally, in his Second Inaugural Address, delivered in March 1865. In addition, he appears to allude to the verse on several occasions in speaking about labor, as in his observation that the "old general rule" was that educated people "managed to eat their bread, leaving the toil of producing it to the uneducated," and his insistence that every human being has the right "to put into his mouth the bread that his own hands have earned. ..." As will become clear, what all of these references have in common is their association with what historian Gabor Boritt has contended was Lincoln's most fundamental, far-reaching and enduring political principal: the right of workers to claim and enjoy the fruits of their labor.
Lincoln's reading of Gen. 3:19 is a preeminent example of his skill in political homiletics, a skill rooted in his ability to draw radically new insights from ostensibly familiar sources. His idiosyncratic application of the verse demonstrates his ability to give memorable expression to his perspective on an issue through rhetorical coordination of both the form and content of a citation. In addition, careful examination of his references to the text, which extend from the beginning of his term in Congress through the Second Inaugural Address, can help to clarify the development of his thinking on the role of labor in human society, and, in turn, the origins and depth of his opposition to slavery.
Gabor Boritt makes a convincing argument for the importance of practical economic concerns to Lincoln's political and moral outlook, with the rights of workers situated at the center of these concerns. Boritt concludes that, "Above all, there remained in Lincoln, unchanged, that firm, moral-materialistic core. ... Surely, Lincoln was also a highly moral, indeed spiritual, being. Yet this characteristic was thoroughly intermingled with his materialism and while cleansing it, also strengthened it."  This intermingling of the moral and material, born along by images of "sweat," "face," and Page [End Page 40] "bread," is nowhere more clearly illustrated than in his references to Gen. 3:19.
Reference 1: From "Fragments of a Tariff Discussion" (December 1, 1847?)
Commenting on that passage, along with related references and allusions by Lincoln to Gen. 3:19 in connection with the rights and aspirations of workers, Boritt contends that "Whatever ideal he held to, whatever stood for America in his eyes, in the most basic sense was embodied for him in this faith." Boritt concludes that this was, to use Lincoln's own expression, the "central idea" of his political outlook throughout his public life.
Boritt's contention notwithstanding, one could easily pass over Lincoln's reference to Gen. 3:19 in the "Fragments of a Tariff Discussion" as unexceptional. In form and language, it closely resembles a passage from Francis Wayland's Elements of Political Economy:
Lincoln begins the "Fragment" by reiterating Wayland's commonplace identification of Gen. 3:19 with the inevitability of labor. Wayland's contention that, given this inevitability, workers should have the opportunity to prosper from their efforts may also have influenced the composition of the "Fragment." But if Wayland is to be credited with the initial coupling of Gen. 3:19 with economic issues in Lincoln's rhetoric, the implications Lincoln drew from the verse differed markedly from those Wayland endorsed. Lincoln's inference that it is a wholly appropriate and "worthy" object of good government to assist workers in securing the "whole product" of their labor suggests a personal connection to working people and comfort with political activism on their behalf that went far beyond Wayland's tepid affirmation of workers rights. It is clear from numerous remarks Lincoln made throughout his career that he believed labor to be the source of all productive value, or, as Wayland put it, that capital was "pre-exerted labor." However, in opposition to Wayland, Lincoln went on to concur, he said, with a "certain class of reasoners," that "labor is prior to, and independent of, capital; that, in fact, capital is the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed—that labor can exist without capital, but that capital could never have existed without labor. Hence they hold that labor is the superior—greatly the superior—of capital." Wayland's adamant insistence on an even-handed "equality" between capital and labor finds no echo here.
Though Wayland's comment would appear to anticipate the "Fragment," the differences in how the two men understood the salient implications of Gen. 3:19 far outweigh the similarities. There is, in fact, no record of a commentator having read Gen. 3:19 as an unambiguous affirmation of the rights of workers to enjoy the fruits of their labor before Lincoln's "Fragment." In future references Lincoln would continue to ignore the conventional interpretation of the verse as a curse brought upon humanity by Adam's disobedience, Page [End Page 42] in favor of his own novel and daring inferences concerning the primacy of labor and the rights of workers.
Lincoln, of course, was not alone among mid-nineteenth-century thinkers in his preoccupation with the rights of workers. His "central idea" connected him to a far-flung chorus of observers, ranging from Marx to Mill, who would also lash out against "the same tyrannical principle": "You work and toil and earn bread, and I'll eat it." However, the manner in which Lincoln gave voice to his convictions about rights purchased by the sweat of a worker's brow, amidst the unparalleled circumstances that converged upon him, was distinctly his own. Informed by his understanding of the priority of labor over capital, Lincoln's reading of Gen. 3:19 as a statement about labor and its just rewards takes on revolutionary implications. He arrived at these implications by transforming a verse that was (and still is) commonly interpreted as a description of the human condition into a moral imperative.
In Lincoln's hands, Gen. 3:19 serves as a stepping-off point for his conclusion that the fruits of labor rightfully belong to those who do the work, and that it is a public concern of the highest order that these rights be secured. In the earliest of his "sweat of thy face" texts, these two points are laid out in the form of commentary. In the remaining three cases, Lincoln progressively clarifies the connection between verse and commentary through underlining, paraphrase, and hypothetical antithesis. These devices will serve to direct the reader's attention away from the theme of inevitable toil and toward a consideration of the moral significance of the possessive pronouns, actual and inferred, that Lincoln viewed as the verse's pivotal terms.
Reference 2: From a "response to the preamble and resolutions of the American Baptist Home Missionary Society" (May 30, 1864)
The manner in which Lincoln links the themes of workers' rights and slavery in his "Response" to the Baptist missionaries suggests that he derived his position on the specific issue of slavery from his general perspective on the rights of workers. It is the unreasonableness of slavery that commands Lincoln's attention here, and this unreasonableness allows no play for the paternalism or racism that in other contexts sometimes adhered to his remarks. Whatever patronizing biases Lincoln may have harbored are subordinated to a line of reasoning about the rights of workers that he found incontrovertible. It is not necessary to reconfigure Lincoln as completely free of such biases to appreciate his commitment to abolition, if we understand that in Lincoln's case it was his revulsion at the exploitation of workers rather than anti-racism that was the initial catalyst for his opposition to slavery.
When it came to defending the rights of workers, Lincoln had little difficulty finding common ground with slaves. Two months earlier, in a letter to the New York Workingmen's Democratic Page [End Page 44] Republican Association, he had told his correspondents that "... the existing rebellion, means more, and tends to more, than the perpetuation of African Slavery ... it is, in fact, a war upon the rights of all working people."  In an early political address he went so far as to announce that in his impoverished youth he too "used to be a slave," and that "we were all slaves one time or another," but that he had seized the proffered opportunity to shake loose the bonds of economic subordination. Twenty years later he confirmed the persistence of this facet of his self-image when he concluded the autobiographical sketch circulated during the 1860 presidential campaign with the oblique comment that aside from his height, weight, and coloring, there were "no other marks or brands recollected"—an expression commonly used in the South in identifying runaway slaves.
Lincoln's application of Gen. 3:19 to the issue of slavery was a natural extension of his previously stated position that all workers have the right to enjoy the fruits of their own labor. However, this application is only possible on the basis of his atypical understanding of the verse, in which emphasis is placed on the sweat of thy brow purchasing thou the right to eat thy bread. In his "Response" to the Baptist missionaries, Lincoln refers to the verse as he moves from a general concern for worker's rights to the specific case of slavery. He argues his case in the strongest of terms, characterizing slavery as a stealing of another's "self," more worthy of contempt than the theft of another's "goods," or even Satan's attempt to seduce Jesus in the wilderness. The introduction of the latter motif carries with it a furious condemnation of the hypocrisy Lincoln ascribed to those who would attempt to reconcile the enslavement of others with Christian faith. This condemnation, in varying degrees of harshness, also accompanies his two subsequent uses of Gen. 3:19.
Reference 3: "The President's Last, Shortest, and Best Speech," (published in the Washington Daily Chronicle, December [6?], 1864)
Reference 4: "Second Inaugural Address" (March 4, 1865)
Lincoln's juxtaposition of Gen. 3:19 to Matt. 7:1 ("Let us judge not ...") reiterates his previous condemnation of slavery as the theft of another's "self," as well as his claim that he was obliged not to "judge" the motives of those who would lend their support to such a crime. Here, as in the "Response" to the Baptist missionaries, the counsel that one must withhold judgment appears ironic, though his convincing reference to "charity for all" in the peroration indicates a tempering of his earlier sarcasm. However, having counseled forbearance, Lincoln immediately goes on to declare that it was not to be expected that restraining the urge to judge would save the nation from undergoing judgment. Instead, in a passage punctuated by repeated references to justice ("just," "judge," "judged," "judgments") he joins his "materialist" reading of Gen. 3:19 to a corresponding vision of an immanent Divine judgment which was "true and righteous altogether," purging the nation, Page [End Page 47] measure for measure, of slavery's "wealth" and "lash." The ravages of war had extracted a terrible price from those "by whom the offence cometh," be they collaborators or bystanders, but the debate was over, and the conclusion, as he had long insisted, was "self evident." The Almighty had had His own wrenching purposes. Those purposes having been accomplished, the time for rending was now speedily passing away, and a time for mending had begun. 
It is not surprising that Lincoln would return on several occasions over the course of his political career to Gen. 3:19. Its images of "sweat, "brow," and "bread," contrary to Douglas's friendly concern, fit well with his rhetorical style. James M. McPherson points out that Lincoln's facility with metaphor, as well as the particular types of metaphor he tended to employ, reflected his formative experiences in rural Indiana and Illinois. His skill with concrete imagery was nurtured through conversation with neighbors, and was therefore, as he later noted, well suited for political talk with his constituencies.  In addition, the verse's imagery was neatly bound up with the themes of labor and, for Lincoln, justice, both of which were central to his political outlook.
But Lincoln's ability to shape and apply the implications he drew from the metaphorical possibilities in Gen. 3:19 ran far deeper than nostalgia or stylistic considerations alone. Even an appreciation of the passage's capacity to rhetorically integrate themes that were central to Lincoln's political outlook, and to do so with great economy, does not adequately explain his persistent affinity for the verse. When purely rhetorical motives for repeated references to the verse are exhausted, there remains a personal dimension to its Page [End Page 48] prominence. For Lincoln, Gen. 3:19 was not only a verbal metaphor, it was also a life metaphor. His reading of the verse is wholly congruent with his own experience and character. It was not only an expression of what he thought, but of who he was. Though historians have done much to correct the popular romantic image of the young, pastoral Lincoln, it is clear that an overlay of middle-class gentility acquired in his later years could not completely obscure his own personal knowledge and appreciation of physical labor. Francis B. Carpenter, in his memoir Six Months at the White House with Abraham Lincoln, recounted a remarkable demonstration of this aspect of Lincoln's personality as part of his description of a visit to Grant's headquarters at City Point, Virginia, in late March 1865. According to Carpenter, Lincoln was enthused by the warm reception he received from the soldiers, and he spent several hours with patients at the army hospital. As he concluded this marathon of handshaking, a surgeon commented that his arm must be terribly sore from the workout. Lincoln smiled and replied that he had "strong muscles," and picking up a heavy ax, proceeded to vigorously chop wood for a few minutes. He then held out the ax horizontally, keeping it absolutely still—a feat that none of the soldiers present could duplicate. 
Lincoln's pride in his continued physical strength is indicative of a "poor hand" well acquainted with labor. In his letter to the New York Workingmen's Democratic Republican Association, he maintained that "The strongest bond of human sympathy, outside of the family relation, should be one uniting all working people, of all nations, and tongues, and kindreds."  A lifetime of social advancement could not sever this bond. One can safely assume that if Lincoln's hand did not quiver as he held out the ax, there was, nevertheless, the gleam of sweat on his brow. Page [End Page 49]
- Roy P. Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 9 vols. (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1953–1955), 2: 501 (hereafter cited as Collected Works). Quote is from the King James Version.
- Richard Current, The Lincoln Nobody Knows (New York: Hill & Wang, 1958), chap. 3, for a review of the literature on Lincoln's religious life, including the contention that he formally embraced Christianity in his later years.
- Elton Trueblood concluded that it was "partly in response to the pioneer culture in which he was steeped, [that] Abraham Lincoln's religion was centered far more in the Bible than in the Church," and cites William J. Wolf's comment that for Lincoln, "... the Bible rather than the Church remained the highroad to the knowledge of God." See Trueblood, Abraham Lincoln, Theologian of American Anguish, (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), 55, and Allen C. Guelzo, introduction to Abraham Lincoln, Redeemer President (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1999).
- In reference to Lincoln's "Letter to Mrs. Bixby," Carl Sandburg commented, "Here was a piece of the American Bible." See Roy P. Basler, Abraham Lincoln, His Speeches and Writings, Universal Library Edition (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1962), 35.
- See Charles B. Strozier, Lincoln's Quest for Union: Public and Private Meanings, (New York: Basic Books, 1982), 225–27, and Basler, Speeches and Writings, 34–49.
- "'The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions': Address Before the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, January 27, 1838," Collected Works, 1: 108–15.
- Trueblood, 55–56. Matt. 16:18 is also the closing words of Lincoln's "Address Before the Young Men's Lyceum," Collected Works, 1: 115.
- Lincoln was clearly well read in Bible. Though it is an exceptional case, William J. Wolf counted no less than thirty-four biblical references in Lincoln's manuscript of his 1858 Address to the Bloomington Young Men's Association on "Discoveries and Inventions." See William J. Wolf, Lincoln's Religion, (Philadelphia: Pilgrim Press, 1970), 132.
- In its biblical context Jesus employs the image of "a house divided" to deflect the charge that his ability to exorcise demons came from Satan. Surely, he retorts, Satan would not divide his own house between exorcists and exorcised. Lincoln used the image in an 1843 pamphlet calling for unity among Whigs, and then again, more memorably, during the 1858 Senate campaign, in reference to the divisive effects of slavery.
- William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, Life of Lincoln, ed. Paul M. Angle, (Cleveland: World Publishing, 1930), 325; David Donald has suggested that Lincoln took the metaphor from Aesop's fable "The Lion and the Four Bulls." Herndon's reference to Lincoln's stated motive for using the metaphor is ambiguous enough to allow for this possibility, but absent additional evidence in support of Donald's contention, a biblical derivation would appear to be more likely. See Donald, Lincoln Reconsidered (New York: Vintage Books, 2001), 68.
- See Strozier's Lincoln's Quest for Union for an example of this type of analysis of the House Divided motif.
- Collected Works, 3: 479.
- Ibid., 2: 520.
- Gabor Boritt, Abraham Lincoln and the Economics of the American Dream, (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978), 240.
- Collected Works, 1: 411–12.
- Boritt, Lincoln and Economics, 278.
- Ibid., 123.
- For a summary of Wayland's economic views see Joseph Dorfman, The Economic Mind in American Civilization (New York: Viking Press, 1946), 758–67. Though it is possible that Lincoln's rendering of the verse was sparked by a pamphlet, sermon, or conversation, I can find no evidence of such a source. Though written a century before Lincoln's birth, Matthew Henry's exegetical comment that "we are bound to work, not as creatures only, but as criminals; it is part of our sentence ..." succinctly conveys the typical reading of the verse among both Christians and Jews of all denominations in Lincoln's day as well.
- Collected Works, 3: 478.
- Ibid., 315.
- Collected Works, 7: 368.
- Ibid., 259.
- Guelzo, Redeemer President, 121.
- See also LaWanda Cox, Black Freedom and Lincoln (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985), 24–26, concerning Lincoln's views on race, his personal relationships with African Americans, and his commitment to emancipation.
- Collected Works, 8: 154–55.
- Collected Works, 8: 332–33.
- The use of the terms "widow" and "orphan" in the closing paragraph of the Address also appear to be influenced by biblical usage, e.g., Exod. 22:22,24, Isa. 1:17.
- During the war years, Lincoln frequently referred to Providential "purpose," "will," and "justice." One could see these references to the unsparing judgment of a Sovereign Will as a late personification of his earlier belief in the "doctrine of necessity." Ann Douglas, discussing the Calvinist underpinnings of Herman Melville's Billy Budd, connects Captain Vere's unwillingness to spare Budd from condemnation with Lincoln's reference to Luke 1:17 in the Address. She concludes that in Budd's story "history, presented in its uncompromised detail, merges, no matter how inscrutably and partially, ambiguously, with providence." The same might be said of Lincoln's observations concerning the Almighty's "purposes." See Douglas, The Feminization of American Culture (New York: Avon, 1977), 391–95. On the "doctrine of necessity" see Current, Lincoln Nobody Knows, chap. 3.
- James M. McPherson, "How Lincoln Won the War With Metaphors," in Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution (New York: Oxford, 1990), 93–112, and see the discussion of Lincoln's use of metaphors in Strozier, Quest for Union, 177–81.
- See David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), 575.
- Collected Works, 7: 259.