Our recent trip to the Washington D.C. area did not afford my wife, Janet. and me nearly enough time for seeing historical sites. Since we stayed nearby, we did visit the battlefield at Manassas (or Bull Run, as the Union referred to it), where the Civil War began. It is a place of great beauty and deep sadness, where two critical battles were waged and many lives were lost.
During the first battle, unknown to Union forces, 85 year-old Judith Henry, blind and in her sickbed, occupied the upper bedroom of her home. Cannon fire aimed at Confederate snipers, who had taken refuge near the house, resulted in her death. Adding to the poignancy is that this all occurred on a warm and bright Sunday morning.
The Confederates won both battles, the first of which convinced Abraham Lincoln that it would be a long and hotly contested war. It is also where General Thomas J. Jackson earned his nickname, “Stonewall.”
Goodwin, an excellent historian (and true baseball fan) has used a rather unique approach to her study of Lincoln. Lincoln has been written about perhaps more than any other U.S. president, but Goodwin chose to illuminate his presidency by researching his cabinet, four of whom were heated political rivals and who ran against him for the Republican nomination.
She uses their perspective to draw a unique picture of the 16th president. Lincoln, you see, surrounded himself with his political nemeses rather than his cronies (if he had any) because he thought them to be of the kind of leadership material the nation needed. What a refreshing perspective .
Not that I’ve had a chance to read Goodwin’s book yet. I bought it for Janet, and she has yet to relinquish it to me. It is, after all, a thick tome with small print and few pictures. She has read portions of it to me, however, and did allow me a peek at the liner notes. But when I do eventually get my hands on it, I’m sure I will only grumpily accommodate interruptions.
I’ve been fascinated with Lincoln for a number of years. During my doctoral days at Vanderbilt Divinity School, I took a seminar under Richard Wolf entitled, “American Religious Biography.”
Elton Trueblood’s book on Lincoln, Theologian of American Anguish, was still only a few years in print, so I reviewed it for the class. Having met Trueblood, and still young enough to be impressionable, I was enamored of his views on Lincoln.
Dr. Wolf was less taken with the book. Yet, he graciously gave me an A on the paper. Still, after 30 years of hindsight, I think history will be kinder to Trueblood’s views of Lincoln than was Dr. Wolf.
I know one thing: Lincoln’s words need to be revisited for our day and time.
In his second inaugural address he said: “Both sides (North and South) read the same Bible, pray to the same God and each invokes His aid against the other. The prayers of both could not be answered: that of neither has been answered fully.” It is a spirit of humility not seen often enough within the walls of government today.
Richard C. White, who authored Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural, compares it to the Gettysburg Address. Like his speech at Gettysburg, Lincoln’s second inaugural address was brief. It includes only 703 words, 505 of which were only one syllable.
White says that Lincoln was “inveighing against a tribal God,” one who takes the side of one part against the other, “and building a case for an inclusive God.”
How we still need Lincoln’s voice! Lest we think we need him solely because of today’s partisan politics, realize that we are no more partisan now than were they in Lincoln’s day. Then and now, parties (both individual and collective) claim the ear and tongue and heart of God.
To them, I would quote Lincoln yet again: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives to see the right, let us strive 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.”