God, Lincoln, and the Civil War

Position Paper by Charles Strozier for the Center for Millennial Studies


In America the psychohistorical shift in consciousness that would in time create the contemporary forms of the apocalyptic which dominate our age begins around 1820, though, of course it has antecedents: the colonists' struggles to create the city on a hill in the seventeenth century encountered truly great odds; our own revolution was more radical than most people realize; and as Catherine Keller has noted the very discovery of America began in the fierce and phallic apocalyptic of Christopher Columbus, who harbored extravagant dreams about the Americas and his relation to them.

But the apocalyptic began to take clearer shape in the early nineteenth century. Antebellum America was obsessed with apocalyptic anxieties. This era of rapid social and economic change seemed to spawn great confidence, and yet, as de Tocqueville and many other European visitors noted, the boisterous claims made for the superiority of American life and land and democratic institutions had a distinct note of insecurity to them. Underneath everything lay the great moral blot of slavery that at last began to push many whites to feel radical social change was necessary (or at least inevitable, even if regrettable). The sensitive founders, especially a Virginian like Thomas Jefferson, had recognized the immorality of slavery and the contradictions of their slave-owning lives as they wrote impassioned documents of human freedom. After the 1820s such tortured hypocrisy was a thing of the past, as the institution of slavery itself changed in the first half of the nineteenth century, gaining a new economic vitality and bringing vast wealth into the South. Its apologists became increasingly brittle. In the North the voice of dissent gained new moral ground, connected in part to the spirit of intense revivalism and religious fervor that swept the land from the 1820s on. Preachers like Charles Grandison Finney had remarkable evangelical successes in upstate New York and whole new religions (like Mormonism) appeared in the country. It was also a time of widespread apocalyptic predictions. William Miller, the most famous such prophet, had fifty thousand devoted followers and may have had as many as a million people more loosely associated with his movement in the early 1840s, though after his failed prediction of the return of Jesus on October 22, 1844--called the Great Disappointment--his movement rapidly disintegrated.

The wait for some kind of dramatic resolution to the crisis affected peoples' minds and souls, and profoundly influenced the shape of politics. The antislavery movement, for example, beginning in earnest in the 1830s, reacted with moral outrage and a mounting sense of frustration to the continued existence of slavery. With the identification of slavery as a national sin, the antislavery movement brought a new earnestness and zeal to the political process. During the 1830s a strong religious fervor encouraged abolitionists to commit themselves to a variety of reform movements (especially temperance) and remain peaceful, even pacifist, in their means. But after the war with Mexico and the huge land grab in 1848 seemed to open up the country to domination by a white-led South based in slavery, abolitionists felt the struggle for radical but peaceful social change was being lost. Moral persuasion was not working. The old pacifism gave way to accommodation to violence as the only way to end slavery. For example, John Brown's attack on some proslavery settlers in 1856 at Pottawatomie in Kansas reshaped attitudes and prepared the ground for his attempted raid on Harper's Ferry in 1859. That raid, said the leading African American intellectual, Frederick Douglass, "has attacked slavery with the weapons precisely adapted to bring it to the death . . . Like Sampson, he [Brown] has laid his hands upon the pillars of this great national temple of cruelty and blood, and when he falls, that temple will speedily crumble to its final doom, burying its denizens in its ruins."

An underlying dread pushed the culture to extremes. There was almost a war in 1850, especially over the return of fugitive slaves. Some, like Lincoln, reluctantly accepted the great compromise measures of that year ("I confess," he said, "I hate to see the poor creatures hunted down . . . but I bite my lip and keep quiet.") Others, however, were much more vehement in their denunciation. " Let the President drench our land of freedom in blood, said Joshua Giddings of Ohio, "but he will never make us obey that law." Throughout the rest of the decade there was much apocalyptic rhetoric about the "irrepressible conflict" (William H. Seward), the "impending crisis" (Hinton R. Helper), more loosely of the great fight to come, and of course Lincoln's own imagery of the "House Divided" in 1858 (which resonated so widely partly because it was imagery drawn from three of the four Gospels): ' 'It will become all one thing, or all the other, " Lincoln said from the floor of the House of Representatives in Springfield, prophesying a climactic end to the great issue facing the nation.

As the crisis over slavery deepened in the next three years, so did the sense of inevitability, North and South, about the approaching war. For the first time in the country's history, voters faced stark presidential choices regarding secession and slavery: the Southern wing of the Democratic party openly favored secession against a Republican candidate widely perceived as an active enemy of the South determined to abolish slavery. Even the centrist Stephen A. Douglas blamed the Harper's Ferry raid on the "doctrines and teachings" of the Republican party. Nevertheless, as Don Fehrenbacher has recently noted, it remains surprising that the South should have taken such an apocalyptic view of the perfectly legal election of Abraham Lincoln. Somehow Southerners had come to feel that the Republican party was a "hostile, revolutionary organization bent on total destruction of the slaveholding system. " And so, mysteriously it seems to me, the Confederate States of America squandered whatever moral authority they might have possessed in their attempt to build a new nation and fired the first shot at Fort Sumter.

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., has said that the end of slavery in America is a good example of the triumph of the rational in our history. If true, it is an odd characterization of the rational. Slavery itself was grounded in wild fantasies on the part of Europeans about Africans; the antislavery movement, from the moment of its active beginnings in the 1830s, drew its entire inspiration from biblical images of moral reform, and when it turned toward an accommodation with violence in the 1850s generated apocalyptic (and sometimes mad) leaders like John Brown, while even its moderates, like William Lloyd Garrison, thundered with Mosaic certainty: "Ardently as my soul yearns for universal peace, and greatly shocking to it as are the horrors of war, I deem this a time when the friends of peace will best subserve their holy cause to wait until the whirlwind, the fire and the earthquake are past, and then 'the still small voice' may be understandingly and improvingly heard. " The forces that the war set loose pushed the sluggish system toward radical change; and the great jubilee of emancipation itself inspired apocalyptic rhetoric in almost all observers, including in that seemingly rational man of action whom history pushed to actually free the slaves.

The Civil War shattered the dream of infinite progress that Americans had long nourished. De Tocqueville noted, with grudging respect but more than a little irritation, that Americans possessed a complete confidence that they rode the wave of the future and that their democratic institutions would eventually triumph over the tired monarchies of Europe. Ideas about American millennial purpose reached a kind of apotheosis in the notion, first formulated in 1845, of our "manifest destiny" in the world. Such exuberance in both the North and South cloaked imperialistic (and often genocidal) motives while at the same time expressing a genuine sense of chosenness. The South felt entitled to create a nation in its own image while the North felt virtuous in its condemnation of the extension of slavery and its commitment to keeping the Union intact. Perhaps clashing forms of self-righteousness were required for such a bloody civil war to result. The special forms of our mission had been taking shape since the seventeenth century, when some ministers began calling their congregations "our Israel" and culminated in the northern idea of the Civil War as "ennobling." Such attitudes led a man like Matthew Simpson, a confidant of Lincoln and champion of the Union, to comment during the war that, "If the world is to be raised to its proper place, I would say it with all reverence, God cannot do without America."


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