Lincoln and the Will of God

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Justice exalteth a nation: but sin maketh nations miserable.

Proverbs 13:14

Today is the 204th birthday of Abraham Lincoln.  One of the many things I find fascinating about Lincoln is his view of the Civil War, a view which is not much considered these days.  Lincoln viewed it simply as a punishment for the sin of slavery.  Lincoln put this idea forth clearly in a letter to Albert Hodges on April 4, 1864.  Hodges was the editor of the Frankfort Commonwealth in Kentucky and Lincoln was explaining why he had found it necessary to adopt a policy of Emancipation and to enlist black troops, neither policy being popular in Kentucky or any of the border states.  At the close of the letter Lincoln disclaimed that he had controlled the events which had led to his embracing abolition as a war goal:

I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me. Now, at the end of three years struggle the nation’s condition is not what either party, or any man devised, or expected. God alone can claim it. Whither it is tending seems plain. If God now wills the removal of a great wrong, and wills also that we of the North as well as you of the South, shall pay fairly for our complicity in that wrong, impartial history will find therein new cause to attest and revere the justice and goodness of God.

God was willing the removal of slavery and gave the War as a punishment to both North and South for the sin of slavery.  This was not a spur of the moment thought by Lincoln, but rather the fruit of much anguished contemplation as to why the War came and what it meant.

We see Lincoln’s thought process in development in a note that he wrote and which was not meant for publication.  Lincoln’s secretary John Hay found it and preserved it.  It has become known as Lincoln’s Meditation on the Divine Will:

The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be, wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party — and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect His purpose. I am almost ready to say that this is probably true — that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet. By his mere great power, on the minds of the now contestants, He could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest. Yet the contest began. And, having begun He could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds.

We Americans tend to be an optimistic people and most of us believe that our country has received many blessings from God.  Both of these features of our national life were far stronger in Lincoln’s day than our own.  Then the War came.  Explaining why this terrible catastrophe had been visited upon the country was of concern to many of the people who lived through that terrible trial.  Lincoln was far from unique in viewing the War as a punishment for sin.

In a letter to a little Northern girl on May 5, 1861, Robert E. Lee too saw the coming War as perhaps punishment for national sins:

I should like, above all things, that our difficulties might be peaceably arranged, and still trust that a merciful God, whom I know will not unnecessarily afflict us, may yet allay the fury for war.     

                    Whatever may be the result of the contest, I foresee that the country will have to pass through a terrible ordeal, a necessary expiation, perhaps, of our national sins.     

                    May God direct all for our good, and shield and preserve you and yours.     

Lincoln put his beliefs about the War and God in immortal words in his second inaugural delivered just a bit over a month before the War would claim him as one of its final victims:

If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

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37 Responses to Lincoln and the Will of God

  • If the nation then had to go through the punishment of civil war for the expiation of the sin of slavery, then what will the nation today have to go through for the expiation of the twin sins of the infanticide of the unborn and the sanctification of homosexual relations?

  • Whatever comes our way as a nation Paul we must meet it with faith, courage, the willingness to endure and prevail for the right, and, perhaps most important, with “malice towards none, and with charity for all.”

  • yes, we are beginning to see that our GOD is alive and well and he has had it with the worlds arrogant ways!
    countries rattling the sabers
    no jobs
    evil administration
    turning our backs on Israel
    young people mindless and drifting
    slavery
    dictators
    i could go on and on, you get the picture!

    ditto, paul

  • “Turning our back on Israel” ? Please expound.

  • JL, haven’t you been following the news and seeing the multiple diplomatic and military snubs the current administration has given to Israel?

  • What I find most remarkable about Lincoln was that he recognized God’s plan could be totally Other, that what God is about is his own business whether he chooses to reveal it or not, and that reading his providence in history is no easy thing. It takes a man of vision and wisdom to speak as Lincoln did. His humility was obvious in this. If all leaders recognized their authority derived from God and that God had his own ways, and that their decisions should reflect that in wisdom and goodness, the world would be a far better place, I think.

  • “The Almighty has His own purposes.”

  • I do believe that Government, the Military, the Medical divisions of our Health Care systems, and even our Catholic Bishops have done much to raise and cause the lowering of Our Lords Righteousness upon us as a Nation. How long has Our Lady been holding back Jesus’ arm, as she had warned the people in Europe where His arm was let go twice. To say that the World Bankers, Israel, China, Russia and the many secret societies have not done harm and are not themselves complicit in the evils that afflict us is mind blowing. The Churches enemy’s are legion. American can be said to be it’s own worst enemy, for we no longer have the faith of our Fathers.

  • When I was young, in NY, we had both Lincoln’s and Washington’s Birthdays off.

    Then, the rebels took over.

    I was told that Jefferson Davis’ birthaday is a state holiday in Alabama.

    I passed, without mention, Lincoln’s birthday in western Tennessee.

    I couldn’t (snow) fly home for the weekend. Saturday I made a tour of the Shiloh Battlefield Military Park. Pray for the living and the dead. Not as grand as Gettysburg but quite good.

    I’m thinking if the Army of the Ohio hadn’t reinforced Grant’s Army of the Tennessee, things could have ended differently. Confederate General Johnston was the highest ranking American officer to be killed in action. Was Union General Reynolds (Gettysburg) of equal rank?

    We do sufficient personal sins to deserve all the ills that we suffer. Worry about that which you can control.

  • Reynolds was a major general and one of many to be killed on both sides in the War. Albert Sydney Johnston was a full general-four stars. He is equivalent in rank to Lesley J. McNair who was killed by an American bomb as he witnessed the carpet bombing at the beginning of Operation Cobra, the breakout from Normandy. (Although his final promotion was posthumous.) The cross over McNair’s grave is precisely the same as the crosses put over the graves of all GI’s who were Christians who were killed in World War II. His son, Colonel McNair, was killed two weeks after his father by a sniper on Guam. People today forget the endless tragedies that occurred for families during World War II.

  • “Worry about that which you can control.”

    Ah, but in a democracy T.Shaw we collectively are Caesar. Tending one’s vegetable patch and hoping to pass life “of the world forgetting and by the world forgot” is a luxury we do not have.

  • “When I was young, in NY, we had both Lincoln’s and Washington’s Birthdays off.

    Then, the rebels took over.”

    Lincoln’s birthday is a court holiday in Illinois and I always shut my law office on that day, a fact that will come as no surprise to readers of this blog!

  • Interesting you should say that Donald. I’m reminded of Voltaire who reached a point of despair politically, and resolved finally that one should tend one’s own garden.

  • Voltaire was a glib dork, to be quite blunt about it. What Napoleon said about Talleyrand fit Voltaire to a silk stocking.

  • “Ah, but in a democracy T.Shaw we collectively are Caesar.”

    And like the Caesar’s of two millennia ago, we are claiming for ourselves divinity which we deny to God’s only begotten Son. I speak in the rhetorical plural sense.

    I still say that much of what ails us is this idea of democracy – majority rules – especially when the majority is as ill-informed and of such low morals as ours is in this early 21st century. I think we need to emphasize the distinction between that and a constitutional republic where the individual human right to life, liberty and the fruits of one’s labor remain sacrosanct, and where each person is responsible for the consequences of his own actions. Sadly, that last we will soon see come to fruition, for those who sow the whirlwind will reap the whirlwind just as happened back in the mid-1800s. :-(

  • “JL, haven’t you been following the news and seeing the multiple diplomatic and military snubs the current administration has given to Israel?”

    Why is it so essential that we give Israel $3+ billion a year? And refrain from critiquing any and every move they make?

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  • “still say that much of what ails us is this idea of democracy – majority rules”

    A belief that tended to be popular among those Paul who assumed that they would be ruling the majority rather than among the majority being ruled. I think that what ails us, in addition to original sin, is a lack of democracy. Most of the bad mistakes in our society over the past five decades have not been initiated by popular votes but by federal courts and by nameless, faceless bureaucrats who do most of the day to day governing in our society.

  • Donald, I agree with you that Voltaire was glib, though I’m not sure he was a dork except insofar as the eighteenth century was full of savant dorks. I do find him obnoxious.

  • JL, we’ve also been funding the Palestinian Authority, which is controlled by the same people raining rockets down on Israel. At any rate, we shouldn’t treat our allies badly by doing things like snubbing an invitation to meet from the visiting Israeli Prime minister, and then announcing an appearance on the Letterman show at the time of the invitation. Very bad form. In fact, it’s borderline hostile.

  • A pittance when compared to how much we’ve given Israel over the years, and when one considers the disparity of existing economic conditions in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

    The snub does seem bizarre, but perhaps the Obama administration calculated it was the right move to employ in order to engender Israeli cooperation on matters where they had been less than accommodating.

  • A pittance when compared to how much we’ve given Israel over the years, and when one considers the disparity of existing economic conditions in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

    The ‘disparity of existing economic conditions’ is a consequence of the deficit of human capital and public order in and among the Arab population. It is not that the opportunity was not there. Israel invested considerable sums in education at all levels in the territories after 1967 and broad swaths of the Arab population in the West Bank, Gaza, and Jordan also qualified for aid distributed by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which included schooling. The mid-1970s were the salad days for Arab populations on both sides of Jordan river due to intense demand for tradesmen of all skill levels in the Gulf emirates. There was huge labor migration to the Gulf and generous remittance flows to the West Bank and Gaza. Changing terms of trade injurious to the Gulf emirates, serious public disorder as a result of the 1st Intifada, and the 1st Gulf War all brought an end to this; Arabs from the Levant fled en masse from Kuwait in 1990 and were unable to persuade their cousins back home of the horrors of what was going on in Kuwait City; the Emir of Kuwait and his subjects were so exasperated with the political stances taken by Yasir Arafat and the Arab rank and file in the Levant that the refugees were not allowed to return. Israel cannot be blamed for any of that. Later, Yasir Arafat’s government of the West Bank and Gaza amounted to a crime boss regime, which is not conducive to economic development; Hamas celebrated its takeover of Gaza by tearing down greenhouses and irrigation works built by Israel. If the Arabs on the West Bank and Gaza want to know who is responsible for their poverty, they can look at their gangster-politicians and look in the mirror.

    As for aid to Israel, it currently amounts to about 1.2% of the country’s gross national income and a miniscule percentage of federal expenditure here. If we cut off Israel at once, they would face an economic recession of ordinary dimensions and some fiscal problems which they would have to work out over the course of a business cycle. Israel is not particularly dependent on American subsidies. The United States can be helpful to Israel in frustrating contrived harassment of Israel (trade boycotts, &c.) and in sharing intelligence information. However, Israel’s affluence and technological competence are its own work. Other than the Gulf emirates and several states in the peripheral Far East, Israel has had the most vigorous experience of economic development of any country in the world. Unlike the Gulf emirates, they were not blessed with a natural resource bonanza (or the social pathologies which go with it). Unlike the industrial Orient, they are not facing a demographic catastrophe.

    While we are at it, masses of aid have been puked into the refugee camps, into the West Bank, and into Gaza by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. No other population has had such a history of mendicancy or a international agency devoted exclusively to itself. This has been an ongoing phenomenon for over 60 years. As for bilateral aid from the United States, hostile governments and hostile populations which traffick in the most obstreperous and malicious particularism have no claim to the largesse of the United States, or our patience.

  • Art,

    Thanks for the background. I am generally aware that Arab leadership has played a detrimental role to the well-being of Palestinians since Al-Nakba, but your details were insightful.

    My main contention is that the Israeli government shows very little concern for pursuing long-term solutions. Their policy of eliminating Hamas militants in a bi-annual fashion has been described by some as “cutting the grass.” It’s a routine procedure that maintains the status quo without addressing the underlying causes. It also treats human beings like weeds.

    Exports and imports out of Gaza are still tightly regulated, including the importation of several raw materials needed for production and infrastructure construction. Innocuous items like cilantro, for instance, are not allowed to enter the Gaza Strip. Now public information reveals that, for years, Israel determined the quantity and type of food-stuffs allowed into Gaza so as to be capable of inducing crippling conditions with ease if the Israeli government saw the need to tighten things up. Israel still controls utilities in Gaza, a reality that, in some very real scenarios, could lead to Israel cutting off power in the Strip if it deemed it necessary to maintain grid stability in Israel proper.

    With all that being said, I do see progress. Who knows. Maybe Netanyahu will prove me wrong.

  • “It also treats human beings like weeds.”

    The human beings who run Hamas would like to see every Jew in Israel dead or thrown into the sea. They wage perpetual war against Israel. They almost hate the Israelis as much as they hate Fatah, which is saying something. Under those circumstances I think the Israelis have engaged in almost superhuman restrain.

  • “The human beings who run Hamas would like to see every Jew in Israel dead or thrown into the sea. They wage perpetual war against Israel. They almost hate the Israelis as much as they hate Fatah, which is saying something. Under those circumstances I think the Israelis have engaged in almost superhuman restrain.”

    I disagree. I’ll set the leadership of Hamas aside for the moment. I don’t think it’s too much to assert that the rank-and-file foot soldiers are a product of their environment more than anything else. So sure, Hamas’ radical leadership is too blame, but I don’t mowing the grass is ever going actually stop weeds from popping up. I’ll concede that it’s a messy and complex scenario, and I’m not imparting fault entirely on one side or the other. Sometimes, the only solution in a zero-sum game like this is to hope that the logic of self-interest is broken, if only for a brief moment.

    https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&cad=rja&ved=0CDUQFjAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fvox-nova.com%2F2012%2F11%2F19%2Frisking-peace-a-thought-experiment%2F&ei=Oa0dUayhD6Ge2gWemIGoDw&usg=AFQjCNFDVDqIIVOFsNTWdwm8-riKET3vfQ&sig2=6cq1zxV68rGAqvZCwZ1u2A&bvm=bv.42553238,d.b2I

  • If I were a Jew, I would always take what my enemies say with deadly seriousness. Hamas has been quite as eloquent in what they intend to do with the Jews of Israel as Hitler was about the Jews of Germany in Mein Kampf. If I were a Jew I would also say that if Hamas were ever in a position to do what they have threatened over and over again, most of the World would either be cheering them on, viewing the carnage with icy indifference or expressing meaningless stern words.

  • I’m not denying the reality of the Jewish historical experience or the relevance of that cultural narrative today. But, I think Israel has things more or less under control. I don’t perceive Iran, and certainly not any Palestinian entity, as some existential threat.

    I think Hamas’ radical stance and relative popularity are at least partially tied up in conditions on the ground in Gaza. Economic prosperity has a way of making people temper their zealousness and desire for revenge. It is a chicken or the egg dilemma, but I think stabilizing the Gazan economy could go a long way to de-legitimizing Hamas.

  • “I don’t perceive Iran, and certainly not any Palestinian entity, as some existential threat.”

    Of course you don’t JL because you are not a Jew and you do not live in Israel. Your neck is not on the chopping block.

    “Economic prosperity has a way of making people temper their zealousness and desire for revenge.”

    One of many pleasing myths of our time that has little historical support. The Germans under both Weimar and the Nazis were among the most prosperous peoples of Europe. The same thing could said for France prior to the Revolution. Ideology will trump prosperity all the time, unless the ideology begins to wane. Sadly I do not expect Jew hatred to wane among the Arabs any time soon.

  • “Of course you don’t JL because you are not a Jew and you do not live in Israel. Your neck is not on the chopping block.”

    Sure, but I guess I’m trying to take a removed, objective view, which is, of course impossible. I actually wrote a paper a couple years ago analyzing Israeli policy from a neo-classical realist perspective, the distinction being that it accounts for the fact that actors don’t have perfect knowledge and rely on their own perspective, informed by culture and memory. So yes, the “Masada complex”(not my term) and the reality of the Holocaust definitely informs the Jewish perspective. I think it’s changing though. Though not a direct parallel to Jews in Israel, emphatic and near unanimous support for Israel in the American Jewish community has dropped off significantly from its levels in the 60s and 70s, undoubtedly a causative effect of the fact that those alive during and immediately after the Holocaust are dying off. I’m not sure what it’s like in Israel itself, but most American Jews born after a certain point are far less likely to identify with the historical Jewish narrative of being treated as pariahs and constantly near the brink of extinction. I do, imagine, however that a similar, though perhaps muted development is occurring in Israel itself.

    “One of many pleasing myths of our time that has little historical support.”

    It’s one thing to convince prosperous people to fight for one of the largest and most advanced armies in the world. It’s another to convince them to strap bombs to their chests and blow themselves up. Suicide bombing is the ultimate recourse of the desperate.

  • Also, Germany seems like apples to oranges. The arcs are completely different. Within a early 20th century German’s lifetime, he could’ve experienced great prosperity pre-WWI, absolute squalor during it, and then a heightened sense of national pride during the height of the Nazis. I don’t think most Palestinians are motivated by the same return to an idealized state as Germans between the wars were, mostly because they’ve never experienced such a thing.

  • “My main contention is that the Israeli government shows very little concern for pursuing long-term solutions. Their policy of eliminating Hamas militants in a bi-annual fashion has been described by some as “cutting the grass.” It’s a routine procedure that maintains the status quo without addressing the underlying causes. It also treats human beings like weeds”

    JL, you should read up on advanced game theory. Israel is making the best bargaining strategy they can given the circumstances. Normally, when a positive is given at the negotiating table, a positive should be given back. This hasn’t happened in negotiations with the Palestinians. They return negatives for positives. If you view what is going on as a Nash equilibrium, the Israel is making the best of a situation where no one can get what they really want. If the Palestinians would stop attacking civilians and stop calling for the destruction of Israel, I think you would see an entirely different equilibrium come into existence. As it is, any concession by Israel has been met with additional hostility. This makes it impossible for meaningful negotiations to take place. As it stands now, the historical response of the Palestinians will require a very sustained effort at making concessions on their part before it would be reasonable for Israel to move forward as well.

  • My main contention is that the Israeli government shows very little concern for pursuing long-term solutions. Their policy of eliminating Hamas militants in a bi-annual fashion has been described by some as “cutting the grass.” It’s a routine procedure that maintains the status quo without addressing the underlying causes. It also treats human beings like weeds.

    The Arab political class, such as it is, is derived from the broader population and to a degree constrained by that population’s goals. I used to have access to a database called Polling the Nations. A mass of public opinion surveys was taken of the West Bank and Gaza over the period running from 2003 through 2008. They make for depressing reading. The conceivable ‘long-term solution’ – segregate the two populations as much as possible and call it a day – is the stated preference of about 30% of the Arab population. The attitude of the remainder is that the Jews just should bend their neck for the axe, with some variation on operational details. This is why, in the few circumstances competitive elections have been held, the entire political spectrum has been occupied by two sorts of agitators: malicious fascists who are quite clear about their ultimate objects and a criminal element with a long history of feints and double dealing. The Government of Israel is not interested in your fantasies about long-term solutions. They have been burned more than once. What Conor Cruise O’Brien said a generation ago remains true today: there is no solution; there is merely security.

  • Economic prosperity has a way of making people temper their zealousness and desire for revenge. It is a chicken or the egg dilemma, but I think stabilizing the Gazan economy could go a long way to de-legitimizing Hamas.

    To anyone remotely familiar with the history of the Fertile Crescent from about 1932 onward, this statement sounds unreal. The same deal applies with regard to Egypt: four decades of economic development at a moderate pace conjoined to the development of a vile political culture.

  • Japan had had, as of 1937, seven decades of fairly vigorous economic development, Do you think the residents of Nanking conceived of them as deficient in zealousness and desire for revenge?

  • Maybe putting a Jewish state in the middle of Muslims wasn’t a good idea. There is never going to be peace because the US and the West keep interfering. If the Israelis and the Palestinians could just be cut loose to fight it out maybe there would be a decisive end.

  • Daisy, when I think of the Middle East, I think of a territory that has been characterized by warfare for millennia. I don’t think it was recently introduced by Zionist westerners and Jews.

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