Lincoln, Certainty, Doubt


A reader sees Lincoln as the model for how the two deep human impulses can properly interact in a statesman:

Lincoln pursued relentlessly a war that left half a million of his countrymen dead and half the country in ruins. He did this first to preserve American democracy and then to abolish slavery. Thus he would seem to fit Jonah Goldberg’s model of a leader who, like FDR and King, realized that "evil is rarely defeated by people who are unsure they are right."

But Lincoln always tempered his personal convictions with Socratic doubt and scientific skepticism. Despite his almost religious attachment to the Union he still wrote of it with scientific detachment, describing it as "dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal..." and the war an experiment "testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure."

When he wrote "if slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong," slavery is presented as the worst of wrongs, but only if right and wrong have meaning. He thinks they do, but he must consider the possibility that they do not.

Everything about Lincoln's words and action speak of a man deeply convinced that slavery is wrong and an affront to God. Yet he also knows, because he is a man who thinks as well as acts, that the conviction that one is right and that one knows God's will more often has been a curse than a blessing. One must act on one's convictions, especially if one is the President, but one must also remember how fallible they can be. Hence, when he sums up the great conflict for which he, more than anyone else bore responsibility, it contained not only conviction and justification but also, for himself and his countrymen, reminders of the need for doubt even as one acts:

"Both [sides] read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in ..."