Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President by Allen Guelzo is a unique contribution to Lincoln biographies. Rather than focusing on Lincoln’s career, family, or presidential policies, this book is an intellectual portrait of America’s sixteenth President. Taking Lincoln seriously as a man of ideas, this work explores Lincoln’s beliefs, ideas, and sources. As such, it speaks more about Lincoln’s why’s than what’s, more about his motives than his accomplishments.
Lincoln appears as an old-school Whig, following in the path of Henry Clay. Throughout his life, Lincoln thought of freedom as social mobility and favored Whig policies because they promised all (white) Americans the opportunity to better their conditions. Lincoln detested Jeffersonian agrarianism, reckoning its static social hierarchy as nearly slavery.
Such economic and political views could easily lead a man to oppose negro slavery, but although Lincoln privately detested the slave institution, for much of his life he did not favor emancipation or abolition. Lincoln’s views on slavery evolved slowly; before his Presidency, he did not consider it a major agenda. While in office he favored containment rather than abolition, and as hostilities escalated, he continued to offer gradual and compensated emancipation long after the Southern states had rejected his proposals. He stifled several efforts at emancipation by his generals. Finally, he declared emancipation, but only because he esteemed it the best strategy for keeping the Union intact. Nevertheless, he became a heroic icon to the black community.
Historians hotly debate Lincoln’s religious views. Guelzo offers a measured reading based on the whole of Lincoln’s life. Although certain aspects of Lincoln’s hardshell Baptist heritage would remain with him permanently (such as his denial of free will and belief in overruling providence), Lincoln never professed faith in the Christian religion. Early in his life he wrote a book attacking Christianity, but concerned friends coerced him to destroy it. He embraced pieces of the Christian worldview and quoted Scripture freely (mostly for polemic ends), but there is no indication that he believed it to be inspired. Later in life, Lincoln would begin attending church, at least occassionally, but he never joined one. Especially late in his life, he acquired a more religious outlook, but not necessarily a Christian one, and certainly not an evangelical or “experiential” one. He was, however, interested in Christianity and said that he wished he were more of a believer than he actually was. Certain statements indicate that he planned to make a serious examination of spiritual claims after his Presidency; of course, that opportunity never came.
Lincoln devoured books, and his tremendous memory ensured that ideas remained with him for a lifetime of meditation and development. He read broadly, perusing poetry, classics, and science texts alike. Invention and ideas were the new economic baseline, replacing land as the measure of wealth. Philosophically, Lincoln was a man of Enlightenment ideals. There is, however, more than one Enlightenment. Lincoln’s Enlightenment was the liberal Lockean school, whereas his philosophical opponents had attached themselves to a Rousseauan interpretation.
Abraham Lincoln provides copious material for meditation wrapped in highly readable prose. Lincoln’s life before his Presidency is especially well-written. Guelzo streamlines his text by not using footnotes, but those inclined to engage with him on a critical level will welcome his “Note on the Sources,” an entire chapter at the end explaining his interaction with the primary and secondary literature. I heartily recommend this book for anyone interested in Lincoln, the Civil War, or 19th century American political or religious history.