The concluding sentence of Abraham Lincoln’s eloquent, poignant and contemplative Second Inaugural Address has long been held up as one of the most stirring evocations of American idealism. It reads:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan — to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
Over the past 158 years, various aspects of that sentence have been highlighted to illustrate one or another point. For historian Jon Meacham, the key phrase is “with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right.”
In a sense, his biography of the 16th president, And There Was Light: Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle, published last October, is a book-length meditation on the phrase and the man who said it.
And on the implications of the phrase to present-day America. Meacham writes:
A president who led a divided country in which an implacable minority gave no quarter in a clash over power, race, identity, money, and faith has much to teach us in a twenty-first century moment of polarization, passionate disagreement, and differing understandings of reality….
For so long as we are buffeted by the demands of democracy, for so long as we struggle to become what we say we already are — the world’s last, best hope, in Lincoln’s phrase — we will fall short of the ideal more often than we meet the mark. It is a fact of American history that we are not always good, but that goodness is possible. Not universal, not ubiquitous, not inevitable — but possible.
“The fiat of the Almighty”
The title for Meacham’s book comes from the beginning of the Bible and from the African American social reformer and writer Frederick Douglass, a former slave.
The first of three epigraphs that open Meacham’s book is from Douglass:
“I do not despair of this country…The fiat of the Almighty, ‘Let there be Light,’ has not yet spent its force.”
This was a reference to the depiction in Genesis (1:3) of God’s creation of the world:
And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
An amazing humility
In titling his book And There Was Light, Meacham is making two points.
One is that Lincoln provided light in the darkness of the fight over slavery, provided moral leadership in the face of amoral irrationality rooted in selfish interests above all other considerations. The other is that, in seeking his moral vision, Lincoln saw himself as trying, as best he could, to carry out the will of God.
While, as Meacham points out, Lincoln was an improviser throughout his life in politics, he was also someone who was firm in trying to determine and do the right thing “as God gives us to see the right.”
There is an amazing humility in this, especially in contrast to many of the leaders of Lincoln’s time, North and South, who claimed to know the final word on what the nation should do — and in our time as well.
And There Was Light is not a full biography of Lincoln. It does not try to give a well-rounded examination of his personality and politics and of the events that shaped him and those that he shaped.
Instead, it is tightly focused on Lincoln’s attitudes toward Blacks, slavery and emancipation and on his efforts to find “the right” amid the competing, conflicting, clashing imperatives of the cacophony of voices in the democracy of his time.
To deal with both issues, Lincoln grew in his understanding that he needed to search for and find, as best he could, the will of the God behind all of existence. For a man who was famous for not attaching himself to organized religion, this president, Meacham makes clear, had a deep sense of the transcendent and of the workings of the transcendent in the physical world.
Meacham’s biography of Lincoln is fully informed by the Black Lives Matter movement and by the present-day American experience of Donald Trump and his demagogic approach to politics and government. Neither BLM nor Trump is mentioned in And There Was Light, but no one can read this book in 2023 without recognizing how they permeate its look at the 16th president.
Meacham goes into great detail about Lincoln’s attitudes toward Blacks and doesn’t pull any punches. Like many whites of his time, the president was unable to see African Americans as fully equal to whites.
For instance, it is deeply unsettling for a modern American to read Meacham’s account of a meeting in August of 1862 that Lincoln had with what was described at the time as “a Committee of colored men.” The subject of the meeting, according to the president, was the voluntary colonization of “the people, or a portion of them, of African descent.”
Astonishing moral blindness
Colonization was a solution, much discussed and supported by whites — and by Lincoln — to the “problem” of what to do with enslaved Black people who became free. The reasons for that were simple, the president told the men before him:
“You and I are different races. We have between us a broader difference than exists between almost any other two races. Whether it is right or wrong, I need not discuss, but this physical difference is a great disadvantage to us both, as I think your race suffer very greatly, many of them living among us, while ours suffer from your presence. In a word, we suffer on each side. If this is admitted, it affords a reason at least why we should be separated.”
The moral blindness of this is astonishing. Lincoln is equating the suffering of Blacks, the vast majority of whom were or had been enslaved, with the discomfort of whites to live in close proximity to them. Lincoln went on:
“But even when you cease to be slaves, you are yet far removed from being placed on an equality with the white race…I cannot alter it if I would. It is a fact, about which we all think and feel alike, I and you.”
Again, more astonishing rhetoric.
Lincoln is telling these Black men that they “think and feel alike” with him that the are far removed from “being placed on an equality with the white race.”
Perhaps he was saying that they recognized the fact of their being treated as inferiors, but it certainly seems that he was, in fact, saying that they recognized their inferiority.
Slavery, a moral wrong
Yet, despite the many ways in which Lincoln revealed his racist attitudes, he also evolved as a leader and a man. During his presidency — indeed, during his life — he became less racist because of his willingness to recognize, at least at times, his previous blindness.
More important for the nation, Lincoln, despite his racist attitudes, was throughout his life an opponent of slavery as a violation of God’s moral law.
And, although the Civil War began as a fight to reunite the Union, Lincoln knew and stated from the beginning that the question of slavery’s morality was the central issue. The South would never have seceded except to protect slavery.
As the years of war progressed, the aims of the war expanded, and Lincoln was able to target the morally wrong slavery for initially practical reasons — employing the Emancipation Proclamation as a means of undercutting the war-making abilities of the South while, at the same time, giving freedom to thousands of enslaved people.
The point here for Meacham is that, despite Lincoln’s racist faults, he always held tight to his recognition that slavery was a moral sin.
“Right, just and morally sound”
That might not seem like a big thing to a modern reader. But the entire Southern culture had been built on the argument that the Bible and moral principles endorsed slavery. That enslaving Blacks was good for them. That it was God’s will.
Like a bulldog, Lincoln held tight to his belief in the wrongness of slavery.
For instance, during the months between his election and inauguration, Lincoln was beset by his Northern allies who were demanding a compromise with the South to end the secession — a compromise that given greater latitude to the expansion of slavery.
There were a great many reasons to give concessions to the rebel states to entice them back. But Lincoln refused.
So why did Lincoln hold the line? Because he thought it was the right, just, and morally sound thing to do. Surely a decision rooted in political reality, but political reality has a way of quickly changing….
The most convincing explanation for Lincoln’s adherence to the principles of his Cooper Union address….is that he truly believed slavery was wrong and should be ultimately eradicated, over and against the many who believed it was right and should be perennially protected.
This is about more than slavery and about more than race. This is about how to lead a nation. How to govern.
It is about making decisions not simply on the basis of self-interest — as the South was doing in the Civil War, and as Trump and his base demand in the present day — but to search for the morally right thing to do.
To move forward “with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right.”
For the moment, leave God out of that equation. Lincoln’s presidency and his way of making decisions and his way of leading was based on seeking and determining, as best as possible, the morally right path.
You don’t have to be a believer in God to recognize that there is a moral way of making decisions and a selfish way.
“A moral undertaking”
Indeed, Meacham looks closely at what Lincoln said in his speech at Gettysburg and concludes:
The Gettysburg Address was an eloquent attempt to frame American politics as not only a mediation of interests but as a moral undertaking.
Slave owners portrayed slavery as divinely ordained. Lincoln portrayed individual liberty as God-given.
Slave owners invoked the Constitution as a shield for suppression. Lincoln invoked the Declaration of Independence as a higher, older, superseding authority.
Slave owners defended an aristocracy of color. Lincoln defended democracy.
Again, anyone today who reads A There Was Light will understand the story that Meacham tells in the context of Black Lives Matter and the amorality of Trumpism.
This book forces the reader to confront the question: Is American politics and government solely about the acquisition and exercise of power or is it also about doing the right thing?
In his time, Lincoln decided in favor of doing the right thing.
Patrick T. Reardon