Michael Zuckert, Nancy Reeves Dreux Professor and Department Chair of Political Science, presented a talk entitled “Providentialism and Politics: On Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address” on Wednesday, February 12, for the Professors for Lunch series. The event, located in South Dining Hall’s Oak Room, coincided with Lincoln’s birthday.
In his presentation, Zuckert compared the political theology of Julia Ward Howe’s 1861 song, “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” with that of Lincoln’s second inaugural address from March 1865. Both works typify Civil War-era political literature and rely on providentialism, a conviction that God’s judgment governs history, to find meaning in the causes and events of the war.
Zuckert argued that the religious elements of Lincoln’s second inaugural indicate a new providentialism, displaying a distinctive interpretation of the moral issues and imperatives facing Americans who supported the Union cause.
Zuckert proposed that Howe and other abolitionists wanted to transform the early war effort. They employed strong religious language to articulate the morally just outcome of their struggle and to encourage commitment from others in the North.
The language of “Battle Hymn” presents the Civil War as a crusade against slavery in which God is unequivocally on the side of the Union Army. The popular patriotic song uses biblical imagery comparing the sacrifice of the Union soldiers to that of Christ, and compares Southern slaveholders to the “serpent” whose head the North aims to crush.
The political theology of Lincoln’s second inaugural, Zuckert continued, constitutes a different understanding of the war’s religious meaning. The speech acknowledges that slavery was one main cause of the war, but emphasizes that reality is more nuanced than the Battle Hymn indicates.
At this point in his presentation, Zuckert introduced political science graduate student Mark Hoipkemier. Hoipkemier, who wore a black tailcoat and resembled Lincoln, apologized that “his stovepipe hat was still at the haberdasher’s” and performed a convincing dramatic reading of the second inaugural to emphasize its rhetorical elements.
After Hoipkemier concluded, Zuckert enumerated the ways in which Lincoln’s providentialism is unique. Lincoln does not deny that God’s hand was visible throughout the course of the war, but he interprets the evidence of God’s justice differently than abolitionists like Howe.
Men, Lincoln purports, cannot be certain that they understand God’s aims in history; if God sided with the Union from the beginning, the war would not have taken its long and destructive course. According to Lincoln, God always acts with justice even if His aims are unintelligible to us.
Clearly, Zuckert argued, Lincoln believes that “both the North and the South are implicated in the injustice of slavery.” Through both action and inaction, Northerners share the guilt of the Southern slaveholders, despite viewing Southerners as enemies of God who must be defeated as a matter of religious duty. Lincoln’s desire for “malice toward none” recognizes this mutual guilt and emphasizes reconciliation and peace for both sides.
Zuckert explained that Lincoln’s rhetoric lays the groundwork for a conciliatory postwar Reconstruction policy, and advocates for its support both in Congress and among the people.
Lincoln’s understanding of providence led him to conclude that vengeance is the prerogative of God, who alone sees men’s actions and knows true justice. Therefore, Lincoln’s policy was one of charity and moderation, seeking a quick restoration of the relationship between North and South, guaranteeing the freedom and dignity of slaves and promoting mutual respect between former slaves and slave owners. Though his plan would meet with opposition from radical members of Congress who shared the political theology of justice espoused by the Battle Hymn, Lincoln established a contrary vision for the victors’ behavior.
Zuckert noted that religion and public life interact in such a way that there will always be tension between our commitment to what is right and our temptation to align God’s purposes with our own projects of justice. Lincoln’s wish, Zuckert said, is that we combat this tension with a spirit of charity, not of malice.
Elizabeth Argue, a senior studying political science, helped to organize the event and enjoyed hearing Zuckert’s perspective on Lincoln’s contribution to American political life.
“Professor Zuckert is a very thorough Lincoln scholar who looks at [Lincoln’s] writing and speeches with an honest eye,” she said.
Professor Philip Muñoz, the Tocqueville Associate Professor of Religion and Public Life in Political Science and Director of the Tocqueville Program for Inquiry into Religion and Public Life, praised Zuckert’s study of Lincoln’s speech. “Lincoln was the savior of the Republic in many ways,” Muñoz stated.
Moreover, as the director of the Constitutional Studies minor, Muñoz has noticed the impact of the Professors for Lunch events: “These events enhance students’ intellectual life beyond the classroom.”
Zuckert agreed, having participated in three Professors for Lunch events.
“We are reaching a different audience,” he said, and this discussion is an effective “extension of the classroom environment.”
Katelyn Doering is a junior political science major whose favorite president is Abraham Lincoln. Needless to say, she enjoyed this talk. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.