Wednesday, February 6, 2013
the last book I ever read (Rise to Greatness by David Von Drehle, excerpt fourteen)
from Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year by David Von Drehle:
Abraham Lincoln was not the sort of man who claimed to know the mind of God. “Probably it is to be my lot to go on in a twilight, feeling and reasoning my way through life,” he once said. As a young man, he was “perplexed” by “the debatable wrangles” of religion, and for a time he was a notoriously outspoken skeptic. Over the years, he grew into a fatalist of the most profound sort: one who believes in divine destiny but does not limply surrender to it, who instead seeks to live meaningfully in harmony with the guiding current of history. Walt Whitman, who moved to Washington when his brother was wounded in battle later in 1862, would watch Lincoln riding along Vermont Avenue and come to feel that he knew the man. In his sorrow following the president’s death, the great poet got close to an essential truth with his famous image of Lincoln as captain of a storm-tossed ship. To steer a true course through violent seas, one must understand the wind and tides, despite being powerless to change them. So it was with Providence. “What is to be will be,” Lincoln once said. “I have found all my life, as Hamlet says, ‘There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will.’”
What was to be in that fateful September? The nation’s future hung in the balance, as Confederate armies moved into the border states and European leaders shifted forward in their seats, alert to the critical moment at hand. Just as he had struggled in the winter to find the meaning in his son’s death, Lincoln now tried to discern a divine purpose behind the string of failures and betrayals that made the summer of 1862 so miserable. At his desk on day in September, “his mind . . . burdened with the weightiest question of his life”—of slavery, the survival of the Union, and the role of each in the war—Lincoln took out a fresh sheet of lightly ruled paper and began writing down his thoughts. “The will of God prevails,” he started, slowly and carefully. This was true by definition: if God exists, and God wills a result, then the result must come to pass. That is the nature of infinite power. Lincoln added a second proposition: “In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God.”
From these two ideas, Lincoln began methodically building his analysis, brick by brick, writing more quickly and fluidly as he went. “Both sides may be, and one must be wrong. God can not be for, and against the same thing at the same time,” he noted. “In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party.” The Almighty might favor the North or the South—or neither side: Providence chooses its own goals. But the players in this great drama—the generals, whether effective or incompetent; the soldiers, brave or cowardly; the politicians and opinion makers, wise or foolish; indeed, all the “human instrumentalities” of the struggle, as Lincoln put it—must somehow perform the roles they had been given by the directing spirit of God. When John Pope met mutiny rather than triumph on the road to Richmond, it must be because God had something other than immediate Union victory in mind.
All this flowed logically from the first proposition: that the will of God prevails. Now Lincoln inserted a hedge. “I am almost ready to say that this is probably true”—almost, probably—“that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet.” If one believed in a divinity shaping history, then it followed that God could have saved or destroyed the Union short of war, or ended the war already, without this painful seesaw struggle. “Yet the contest proceeds.”