Like Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine before him, Abraham Lincoln was a Deist. And like Jefferson’s words in the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln considered it, and not the Constitution, as the “American Manifesto” that guided all moral behavior. “Lincoln and the American Manifesto” is a stellar work of scholarship by Allen Jayne, and thus perhaps not for the casual reader. But if you can take the time to read it – and to understand it – with an open mind and a penchant for critical thinking, you will be very well rewarded.
Fully the first third of the book focuses on the development of the views of Thomas Jefferson rather than Lincoln. Jefferson was an avid student of philosophy and moral thought, and following the work of Bolingbroke, Locke, Henry Home (Lord Kames) and others, developed a strong belief in the reason-based “Nature’s God” of deism. Thus, the Declaration reflects his thinking with its “all men are created equal,” a deistic phrase that contradicted the Judeo-Christian God and the concept of predestination. Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration, with words that were removed by the Continental Congress from the final document, made it clear that he considered “all men” to include men and women, and blacks as well as whites. Lincoln read and understood Jefferson clearly, and with additional insights from Lord Kames and Theodore Parker, he developed his own deistic moral-sense belief that slavery was wrong and must not be allowed to spread into new territories.
This fundamental concept is critical to understanding Lincoln’s own writings and the moral standing that drove his words and his actions during the difficult period leading up to the Civil War, as well as during the war itself. Lincoln became an advocate for the Declaration of Independence as a standard of morality during his staunch resistance of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which made moot the earlier Missouri Compromise that had held the expansion of slavery in check. His advocacy for the “all men are created equal” principles of the Declaration grew as he debated Stephen A. Douglas and railed against the blatant pro-slavery misrepresentation of the Constitution by Supreme Court Justice Taney in the Dred Scott Decision.
Jayne next takes us through the Gettysburg Address and how in 272 words Lincoln succinctly expresses his advocacy for the principles of the Declaration as he calls for “us the living, rather, to be dedicated to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.” Jayne parses the key phrases and shows how they relate back to the deistic vision of a natural God. He then jumps to the Second Inaugural, a speech rife with references to God’s will that the war “continue until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toils shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn by the sword.” Jayne persuasively argues that the language used was quite specifically selected by Lincoln, a man known for finding exactly the right words to get his point across, to encourage the finishing of the war, the freeing of the slaves, and the passing of the 13th Amendment, which had passed with 2/3 majority but had yet to be ratified by the 75% of the states required to become law.
There is quite a bit more, of course, both on the theological underpinnings of morality that drove both Jefferson and Lincoln, and on the linguistic skill employed by Lincoln to engage those with somewhat different moral beliefs toward finding a path forward. As I noted earlier, this book is quite scholarly and not for the faint of heart. Both because of the superb and in-depth research and analysis, and the way that it will challenge some of the preconceived notions of both Jefferson and Lincoln and perhaps, the reader as well.
Not surprisingly, Allen Jayne has authored two previous books, one on Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence, of which he obviously draws superior knowledge, and the other on the religious and moral wisdom of Jefferson.
Other reviews of books about Abraham Lincoln: Abraham Lincoln Quote of the Day