Abraham Lincoln, “Remarks to Baltimore Presbyterian Synod, Washington, D.C.”

Note: As far as I can tell, there are no copies of the primary source below online. The text is from the Library of America, Lincoln’s Speeches and Writings 1859-1865, ed. Don Fehrenbacher, copyright 1989. I am open to claims about the authenticity of the text, but extended comment follows below nonetheless.

Remarks to Baltimore Presbyterian Synod, Washington, D.C. (October 24, 1863)
Abraham Lincoln

Gentlemen of the Baltimore Synod: I can only say that in this case, as in many others, I am profoundly grateful for the support given me in every field of labor in which it can be given, and which has ever been extended to me by the religious community of the country. I saw before taking my position here that I was to have an administration, if it could be called such, of extraordinary difficulty, and it seems to me that it was ever present with me as an extraordinary matter that in the time of the greatest difficulty that this country had ever experienced, or was likely to experience, the man who, at the least of it, gave poor promise of ability, was brought out for duty at that time. I was early brought to the living reflection that there was nothing in the arms of this man, however there might be in others, to rely upon for such difficulties, and that with the direct assistance of the Almighty I was certain of failing. I sincerely wish that I was a more devoted man than I am. Sometimes in my difficulties I have been driven to the last resort to say God is still my only hope. It is still all the world to me.

I again say I thank you in the name of the religious people of the country generally, and in the name of our common Father of returning you my thanks for the encouraging and most unanimous support that has been constantly given me. I know not that I can say more.

Comment:

Lincoln says he is “profoundly grateful” for “support given” in every “field of labor” in which it can be given. Contrasts exist between “every field of labor” and “giving” vs. “the religious community” and “extending.” “Every field of labor” implies many arts, divisions. “The religious community” emphasizes unity. “Given” is used to denote limit; not every field of labor can give. “Extended” is not a product apart from the religious, but seems to be intrinsic to its nature.

None of this is to say in Lincoln’s mind that the religious stand apart and above “every field of labor.” While many who consider themselves religious see themselves as laboring in the Lord’s sight, “they also serve who only stand and wait.” A different kind of spiritedness characterizes those who are pious from those who want to be more explicitly honored in practical endeavors, but what is common to both is spirit. Moreover, “field of labor” strictly describes Lincoln’s own position, perhaps too fully. Politics is the realm of action (i.e. “executive”). He gives, but his giving is not unlimited, and depends on the job.

Lincoln brings out the problem with his comment about “administration” – extent is what he does not possess, but needs. His task was broken from the start. Twice he uses the term “extraordinary,” what is beyond order or human arrangement. First, his “administration” seemed initially to be of “extraordinary difficulty” to him. Second, it was an “extraordinary matter” that he, with “poor promise of ability,” was called to duty during this country’s “time of… greatest difficulty.” The administration, by itself, lacks extent. But the “extraordinary matter,” which sounds like it could be from Judges, reconciles limited giving with unlimited extent. Lincoln’s language goes out of its way to emphasize that this makes no sense: if this is a miracle, then it will never be rationally accounted. A more proper division between things was given when “every field of labor” and “religious community” were first spoken.

What has made Lincoln “devoted,” in his very, very limited way, is the nature of the task before him. Xenophon’s Socrates often tells interlocutors that after they have made appropriate preparation for a task they can do, they should be praying. The results of a given task are not up to us (contrast with Socrates’ lifestyle and complete control of speech to see the full teaching). There is a similar statement of the import of religion here: it seems very practical. That’s not a bad thing, not at all. Our limitations in the face of most necessary tasks unite us. Lincoln says thank you in the name of the religious people of the county, and the common Father. One wonders to what degree these are the same: Lincoln’s preservation of the law matters as much people care there is a law to preserve. The final emphasis is on silence in the face of spirit, “the encouraging and most unanimous support that has constantly been given me.”

6 Comments

  1. Wonderful, Ashok.

    The intersection of religion and politics in Lincoln’s moral imagination is so worthy of our attention. Last night, I read his Temperance Address delivered before the Springfield Washington Temperance Society, Feb 22, 1842. One quick note:

    “‘But,’ say some, ‘we are no drunkards; and we shall not acknowledge ourselves such by joining a reformed drunkards’ society, whatever our influence might be.’ Surely no Christian will adhere to this objection.–If they believe, as they profess, that Omnipotence condescended to take on himself the form of sinful man, and as such, to die an ignominious death for their sakes, surely they will not refuse submission to the infinitely lesser condescension, for the temporal, and perhaps eternal salvation, of a large, erring, and unfortunate class of their own fellow creatures. Nor is the condescension very great.”

    This is the *Washington* Temperance Society, which doesn’t strike us at all, really. But I was taught that this was because Washington had tasted the strongest vice and ‘reformed’ himself. The theme of Lincoln’s speech is that the strongest testimonies against “dram drinking” come not from “Preachers, Lawyers, or hired agents” (who are not “approachable”) but from drunkards themselves.

    Washington, by giving up power, inspired the country to believe that self-government was possible. Just read his letter to Lewis Nicola, and you see that this man could have been a life-long king:

    http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/index.asp?document=18

    So think about what it means, then, when Lincoln says that he leaves (not knowing if he will ever come back) “with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington.” I believe that this (by this, I mean Lincoln’s understanding of temperance above as well as of the religious nature of the Founding [not “we are Christian as a nation!” but rather “the Founders are our political Aaron and Moses”]) is the basis of Jaffa’s theme of political salvation in Ch. X of Crisis.

    As a small aside, I don’t see the above remarks in Roy Basler’s collection, but I don’t doubt its authenticity. That speech is Lincoln to the bone.

  2. I meant to also add this link, to Lincoln’s Farewell Address:

    http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/index.asp?document=1075

    And now that I think about it, it has direct bearing on the Remarks to Baltimore Presbyterian Synod — insofar as Lincoln consistently speaks of the refounding as an “extraordinary” task. In this way, Lincoln took the self-evident truths of the Declaration — objects of cognition — and makes them objects of faith as well (cf. Gettysburg, where you quite nicely point out that now this self-evident truth is a proposition, something to be *proven* by works and faith).

  3. @ thag – I really like how you sketch the theme of ambition: Glen Thurow was wondering aloud about a year ago about Lincoln’s own ambition, and I think there’s something in these few remarks that can be used to discuss that.

  4. Oh, definitely. And I’m sure that you are well aware of Lincoln’s Lyceum Address, delivered in (I believe) 1838. The Remarks to the BPS above can again be traced back to Lyceum, where Lincoln calls for (in explicit terms) political religion, and claims that so long as there is reverence for laws, “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”

    This political religion was to serve as a bulwark, not against foreign powers or lawlessness, but ambition. A Caesar or Napoleon could not rest content with being one of forty-five presidents: the highest honor that the people could give is not enough:

    “It denies that it is glory enough to serve under any chief. It scorns to tread in the footsteps of any predecessor, however illustrious. It thirsts and burns for distinction; and, if possible, it will have it, **whether at the expense of emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen.**”

    Given Stephen Douglas’ “don’t care” policy, this is almost clairvoyant!

    But Lincoln truly makes the case that the ambitious man par excellence would have the former rather than the latter — in quite the same way that the Almighty saves while neither needing nor having to.

    In a sense, Lincoln’s task did outweigh the Founders’, for the re-articulation meant, in one way or another, that the Founding was imperfect. Lincoln’s affection for the religious came, at least as I see it, from the conviction that the faithful lead a most difficult life but most rewarding life.

    The principle of the Declaration — that all mean created equal — is not the principle which most men abide by most of the time. As the Athenians put it, “justice is a consideration among equals in power.” But as Lincoln showed, the highest honor is given to magnanimity, because rather than engendering contempt, it causes wonder in and baffles the man who cannot consider anything but his own self-interest.

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