Was Abraham Lincoln a Conservative and a Christian?

Michael T. Griffith


@All Rights Reserved

Fourth Edition

It’s ironic that so many conservatives praise and cite Abraham Lincoln when in fact Lincoln was an advocate of big government, higher taxes, wasteful federal public works projects, corporate welfare, and a very loose reading of the Constitution.  It’s also ironic that so many Christians view Lincoln as a fellow believer when in reality Lincoln was at best a deist who rejected Christ’s divinity and the Bible’s divine inspiration.  I realize that many people have been led to believe that Lincoln was a conservative statesman and a faithful Christian, but the facts prove otherwise.  Before I present some of these facts, I’d like to say that I take no pleasure in discussing the sad truth about Lincoln.  Until relatively recently, I shared the belief that Lincoln was a conservative president and a good Christian.  I am saddened that he was neither.

When Lincoln entered politics, he said he was doing so in order to help enact the Whig Party agenda of higher tariffs, unabashed protectionism for certain Northern industries, federal financing of railroad and canal construction projects (most of which ended in bankruptcy and/or in large-scale waste and fraud), a central bank, and a federal monopolization of the nation's money supply.  In the years leading up to the war, Lincoln joined the new Republican Party, which embraced the Whig agenda of higher taxes and bigger government.  As president, Lincoln raised taxes, increased federal spending, destroyed our free banking system, and introduced corporate welfare on an unprecedented scale.  He expanded the size and power of the federal government far beyond what the Constitution permitted (and far beyond what was required to prosecute the war).  Lincoln destroyed key aspects of the constitutional republic that our founding fathers gave us.  In a very real sense, Lincoln started America down the road of abusive big government, higher taxes, and a disregard for a faithful reading of the Constitution.  Conservative scholar Robert Ekelund of Auburn University has said the following about Lincoln’s presidency:

The ambitious economic agenda of the Republican Party had its roots in the economic platforms of Federalist icon Alexander Hamilton and Whig leader Henry Clay. They advocated protective tariffs for industry, a national bank, and plenty of public works and patronage. The flurry of new laws, regulations, and bureaucracies created by Lincoln and the Republican Party during the early 1860s foreshadowed Franklin Roosevelt's "New Deal" for the volume, scope and questionable constitutionality of its legislative output.

In fact, the term "New Deal" was actually coined in March of 1865 by a newspaper editor in Raleigh, North Carolina, to characterize Lincoln and the Republican Party platform. Lincoln’s massive expansion of the federal government into the economy led Daniel Elazar to claim, " . . . one could easily call Lincoln's presidency the ‘New Deal’ of the 1860s." Republicans established a much larger, more powerful, and more destructive federal government in the 1860s. . . .. (“The Awful Truth About Republicans,” Ludwig Von Mises Institute, March 25, 2004, http://www.mises.org/story/1476)

As for Lincoln's moral values, he was known for telling dirty jokes, even as president (see, for example, Douglas Wilson, Honor’s Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998, pp. 110-129).  Ward Lamon, another close friend of Lincoln’s, said Lincoln’s humor “was not of a delicate quality” but that “it was chiefly exercised in telling and hearing stories of the grossest sort,” and that his “habit of relating vulgar yarns--not one of which will bear printing--was restrained by no presence and no occasion” (Life of Abraham Lincoln, Boston: James R. Osgood and Company, 1872, p. 480).  Even pro-Lincoln biographers like William Klingaman, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and David Donald have discussed Lincoln’s habit of telling dirty jokes.  In his younger years, Lincoln wrote an obscene poem about gay marriage.  As a bachelor, Lincoln visited at least one prostitute and confided to a friend that he feared he had contracted syphilis (Wilson, Honor’s Voice, pp. 126-129).  There is even evidence that suggests Lincoln may have been bisexual.  For example, in recent years it has come to light that for a period of several months a young Army captain named David Derickson frequently slept with Lincoln in his bed at the White House when Mrs. Lincoln went out of town (C. A. Tripp, The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln, New York: Free Press, 2005, pp. 1-21).  Derickson’s commanding officer, Lt. Col. Thomas Chamberlain, confirmed this in his book on Derickson's unit.  Lincoln’s defenders argue that it was not unusual for men to sleep together in those days, but those who were aware of Derickson’s sleeping with Lincoln certainly didn’t view it as ordinary.  Derickson’s frequent sleeping with Lincoln was a hot subject of conversation in some elite Washington social circles at the time.  For instance, Virginia Fox, the wife of the Assistant Secretary of the Navy Gustavus Fox, was shocked when she heard about it from Letita McKean, the daughter of Admiral William McKean.  Both women thought it was scandalous; neither viewed it as innocent or routine.

As for Lincoln’s religious beliefs, he was widely known for being an “infidel,” i.e., a non-believer.  As a young man, Lincoln read the writings of Thomas Paine, a well-known critic of Christianity.  It was common knowledge among Lincoln’s friends and neighbors that he agreed with Paine. One of Lincoln’s close friends said Lincoln accepted Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.  John Stuart, one of Lincoln’s law partners, said Lincoln “went further against Christian belief and doctrines and principles than any man I ever heard; he shocked me” (William Herndon with Jesse Weik, Life of Lincoln, New York: Fawcett Publications, 1961, reprint of 1888 edition, p. 349; Tripp, The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln, p. 184).  Years before he entered the political arena, Lincoln wrote a manuscript that argued against Christ’s divinity and rejected the inspiration of the Bible.  Perhaps it’s revealing that when Lincoln ran for president in 1860, 20 of the 23 ministers in his hometown opposed his candidacy.

Lincoln’s defenders point to his presidential speeches in which he mentioned God and expressed gratitude for God’s blessings.  But Bill Clinton did the same thing. Clinton regularly attended church, talked about reading the Bible, mentioned God in many of his speeches, and signed the Defense of Marriage Act.  Yet, would anyone argue that therefore Clinton was a Christian president?  John F. Kennedy mentioned God in some of his speeches, was known to read the Bible on occasion, and carefully cultivated the image of a devoted family man.  But would anyone seriously assert that Kennedy was a Christian president? 

Lincoln’s public speeches that expressed belief in God were intended to satisfy religious people and were usually written by his Secretary of State, William Seward.  When Judge James M. Nelson asked Lincoln about his overtly religious (and now famous) Thanksgiving Message, Lincoln replied, “Oh, that is some of Seward's nonsense, and it pleases the fools.”  Judge Nelson later said the following about Lincoln’s religious views in a letter to the Louisville Times in 1887:

In religion, Mr. Lincoln was about of the same opinion as Bob Ingersoll [an agnostic and ardent critic of the Bible], and there is no account of his ever having changed. He went to church a few times with his family while he was President, but so far as I have been able to find out, he remained an unbeliever. Mr. Lincoln in his younger days wrote a book, in which he endeavored to prove the fallacy of the plan of salvation and the divinity of Christ. (In Franklin Steiner, The Religious Beliefs of Our Presidents, Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 1995, reprint, p. 137)

Lincoln’s original drafts of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Gettysburg Address contained no references to God.  The references to deity that now appear in those documents were inserted at the suggestion of others in order to make them more politically appealing.  It should also be noted that Lincoln never so much as mentioned Jesus in any of his speeches or writings.

Lincoln’s defenders also note that Lincoln was known for reading the Bible.  But Lincoln rejected the Bible’s divine inspiration and viewed it only as a book of practical advice.  Lincoln read Aesop’s Fables just as much as he read the Bible.  William Herndon, Lincoln’s long-time friend and law partner, said Lincoln rejected the Bible as a revelation from God:

As to Mr. Lincoln’s religious views. . . .  He was, in short, an infidel . . . a theist.  He did not believe that Jesus was God, nor the Son of God.  He was a fatalist and denied the freedom of the will.  Mr. Lincoln told me a thousand times, that he did not believe the Bible was the revelation of God, as the Christian world contends. (William Herndon, Life of Lincoln, p. 28)

C. A. Tripp commented on Lincoln’s Bible reading as follows:

On the other hand, later as president he was known to read the Bible (rather more than before) and would not infrequently quote words and phrases from it.  Both these images--is Bible reading and borrowings from it--caused a few casual observers to believe he had become a convert, or at least that he came to lean more than he ever had before toward conventional beliefs.  Far from it.  Consistently through life . . . Lincoln was greatly disinclined toward prayers or praying or preachers; least of all we he ever prone to believe in, or to petition help from, any personal God. (The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln, p. 189)

Orville Browning, who socialized often with the Lincolns at the White House, said,

I have seen him reading the Bible but never knew of his engaging in any other act of devotion.  He did not invoke a blessing at table, nor did he have family prayers. . . . (In Tripp, The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln, p. 185)

Browning noted that even when Lincoln’s favorite son, Willie, was dying a slow, painful death, and another son, Tad, was seriously ill, not once did he see Lincoln pray or express any hope for divine intervention.  This is not surprising, given the fact that when asked specifically if he believed in an afterlife, Lincoln said, “when we die, that is the last of us” (in Tripp, The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln, p. 80).

In a letter responding to claims that Lincoln had converted to the Christian faith, Herndon said,

Not one of Lincoln's old acquaintances in this city [Lincoln’s hometown of Springfield, Illinois] ever heard of his conversion to Christianity by Dr. Smith or anyone else. It was never suggested nor thought of here until after his death. . . .  I never saw him read a second of time in Dr. Smith's book on Infidelity. He threw it down upon our table--spit upon it as it were--and never opened it to my knowledge. (In Steiner, The Religious Beliefs of Our Presidents, p. 134)

Jesse Fell, an early Lincoln biographer who interviewed Lincoln at length, characterized Lincoln’s religious views in the following terms in 1870, five years after Lincoln’s death:

On the . . . character and office of the great Head of the Church, the atonement, the infallibility of the written revelation, the performance of miracles, the nature and design of present and future rewards (as they are popularly called), and many other subjects, he [Lincoln] held opinions utterly at variance with what are usually taught in the Church.  I should say that his expressed views on these and kindred topics were such as, in the estimation of most believers, would place him outside the Christian pale. (In Herndon, Life of Lincoln, p. 351)

In 1892 the Chicago Herald summarized Lincoln's religious beliefs as follows:

He was without faith in the Bible or its teachings. On this point the testimony is so overwhelming that there is no basis for doubt. In his early life Lincoln exhibited a powerful tendency to aggressive infidelity. But when he grew to be a politician he became secretive and non-committal in his religious belief. . . . It must be accepted as final by every reasonable mind that in religion Mr. Lincoln was a skeptic.

Only toward the very end of his life may Lincoln have begun to take religion seriously, and even then there is doubt about the depth and genuineness of his alleged conversion.  Lincoln’s own wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, told Herndon that “Mr. Lincoln had no faith and no hope in the usual acceptation of those words” (Herndon, Life of Lincoln, p. 352).  She added that Lincoln “was never a technical Christian” (Herndon, Life of Lincoln, p. 352).

There is evidence that Lincoln experimented with the occult.  There are numerous reports that Lincoln associated with what were known as “spiritualists,” i.e., people who claimed to be mediums or who consulted mediums, and who participated in séances.  Apparently Lincoln attended at least one séance, according to the Mary Todd Lincoln Research Site (http://members.aol.com/RVSNorton/Lincoln44.html).  Some spiritualists claimed to have seen Lincoln in attendance at several séances, most of which they said were held in nearby Georgetown (Merrill Daniel Peterson, Lincoln in American Memory, Oxford University Press, 1995, pp. 229-230).  Two spiritualists said they attended a séance with Lincoln in the White House Red Room (Peterson, Lincoln in American Memory, p. 229).  The Lincoln Institute acknowledges that some séances were held at the White House (http://mrlincolnswhitehouse.org/inside.asp?ID=71&subjectID=3).  For decades after the war, spiritualists claimed Lincoln as one of their own.  No one disputes the fact that Mrs. Lincoln frequently consulted mediums and attended and hosted séances.  (Mrs. Lincoln claimed she frequently saw her dead children.  She said her dead son Willie visited her every night.)

Lincoln held racist views about blacks and other minorities, and he was heard to use the N word on occasion.  To be fair, Lincoln's racist views were, sad to say, very common in that era, in all parts of the country, but there were some Americans even at that time who did not hold the kinds of racist views that Lincoln held.

Lincoln repeatedly said he did not believe in the social or political equality of the races, that he believed in white supremacy, that he opposed interracial marriage, that he opposed allowing blacks to vote, and that he opposed allowing blacks to serve on juries.  Lincoln supported the Illinois "Black Code," which prohibited the immigration of blacks into the state.  Lincoln, a staunch defender of the fugitive slave law, once defended in court a slaveowner seeking to retrieve his runaway slaves but never defended a runaway.  Lincoln was a lifelong advocate of colonization, which was a program that would have sent most or all American blacks to Africa, Haiti, or Central America.  Even as president, Lincoln supported a proposed constitutional amendment that would have made it impossible for the federal government to abolish slavery.  During the war, Lincoln doggedly opposed giving black Union troops equal pay.  Additionally, Lincoln authorized the largest mass hanging of American Indians in our history.  He also authorized the execution of a black Union soldier who had protested the unequal treatment that he and other black federal troops were receiving. 

As far as freeing the slaves, Lincoln really doesn't deserve much credit for this. Lincoln only issued the Emancipation Proclamation under intense pressure from Radical Republicans (as they were commonly known back then). The Radicals were threatening to cut off funding for the army if Lincoln didn't issue some kind of emancipation statement.  In fact, Radical Republicans expressly hoped the Emancipation Proclamation would lead to slave revolts that would kill thousands of Southern citizens.  Even after Lincoln issued the proclamation, he immediately sought to undo it, as African-American scholar Lerone Bennett documents in detail in his book Forced Into Glory: Abraham Lincoln's White Dream (Chicago: Johnson Publishing Company, 2000).  Furthermore, the Emancipation Proclamation did not free any slaves in the four Union slave states; nor did it free any slaves in those areas of the South that were under federal control.  The proclamation was a war measure that only applied to slaves in Confederate-held territory.  It was primarily a public relations maneuver that was designed to keep Britain and France from siding with the Confederacy, and, as noted, Lincoln himself worked hard to ensure that it had as little practical effect as possible.  Slavery wasn’t abolished until several months after the war, with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution.

What I find especially disturbing about Lincoln is his conduct during the war. Lincoln authorized a disgraceful form of "total war" against the South that resulted in the deaths of some 50,000 Southern civilians.  A few Union generals protested this brutality, but most went along with it.  Even the infamous Union general William Tecumseh Sherman admitted, after the war, that the form of warfare that Lincoln permitted against the South violated the rules of war that had been taught at West Point. Lincoln's war policy also violated the rules of civilized warfare that had long been accepted by European nations. What's more, Lincoln refused to allow medicines to be sold to the South, which resulted in the needless deaths of tens of thousands of Confederate soldiers and of several thousand Southern citizens. Lincoln wouldn't even sell medicines to the South when the Confederate government wanted to buy them for wounded Union soldiers in Southern prison camps--in spite of the fact that the Confederacy was willing to allow Union doctors to accompany the medicines to ensure they were used only for Union prisoners.

Lincoln's conduct leading up to the war wasn't praiseworthy either. Regardless of how one feels about secession, the Southern states withdrew from the Union in a peaceful, democratic manner--in fact they did so in a manner that closely resembled the process by which the U.S. Constitution was ratified. And, once formed, the Confederacy sought peaceful relations with the North. Indeed, the Confederacy offered to pay the South's share of the national debt, offered to pay compensation for all federal installations in the South, offered to honor federal mail deliveries to the Confederate postal service, sought to make trade agreements with the North, and offered the North free navigation of the Mississippi River. The Confederacy sent peace commissioners to Washington, D.C., in an attempt to establish peaceful relations, but Lincoln wouldn't meet with them, not even informally. Even after the Fort Sumter incident, which Lincoln later admitted he provoked, the Confederacy expressed its desire for peace. It's worth noting that it was the North that invaded the South. That's why nearly all the battles were fought on Southern soil.

Instead of accepting the South's offer for peaceful relations, Lincoln called up 75,000 troops and ordered a blockade of Southern ports--without Congressional authorization. This was an unprecedented usurpation of power. Even during the Nullification Crisis between the federal government and South Carolina in 1832, none other than the great federalist Daniel Webster said the president did not have the authority to blockade South Carolina's ports without Congressional authorization. Also, in his final message to Congress, Lincoln's predecessor, President James Buchanan, said the federal government did not have the authority to use force against the seceded states.  Buchanan correctly pointed out that the founding fathers, including James Madison, had expressly rejected the idea that the federal government could use force to compel the obedience of a state.  Lincoln's unlawful demand for 75,000 troops to invade the seven seceded states led four more states to join the Confederacy.  (It’s worth pausing to note that when Lincoln gave his first inaugural address, there were more slaves states in the Union than there were states in the Confederacy--there were eight Union slave states and seven states in the Confederacy at the time.  But when Lincoln made it clear several weeks later that he was going to use force to maintain the Union, four Upper South states--North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, and Arkansas—joined the Confederacy.  They didn't secede over slavery; they seceded because they believed it was unjust and unconstitutional for the federal government to use force to compel the seceded states to rejoin the Union.) 

Lincoln violated the Constitution in other ways. He illegally suspended the writ of habeas corpus and allowed the military to arrest, try, and imprison Northern civilians, even in areas that were not near combat and where civilian courts were still in operation. One year after the war, the Supreme Court finally, and belatedly, declared this policy unconstitutional (in Ex Parte Milligan). Under Lincoln's direction, over 10,000 civilians were jailed without due process of law, in many cases for merely voicing opposition to the war and/or for expressing the view that the South should be allowed to go in peace. When former President Franklin Pierce voiced objections to Lincoln's conduct of the war and to his violations of civil rights, Lincoln's Secretary of State, William Seward, took steps to have Pierce arrested (but then backed down). Under Lincoln's direction, well over 100 newspapers were shut down for printing what Lincoln and his Union generals viewed as "unpatriotic" articles about the war, and dozens of newspaper editors were jailed for the same reason. In one noteworthy instance, Lincoln ignored a circuit court's writ of habeas corpus for the release of a Northern citizen who had been jailed by the military. The writ was issued by the chief justice of the Supreme Court in his capacity as judge of the judicial circuit that included the area where the citizen was being held. The man had been jailed without an indictment and without a trial. When the chief justice heard about this, he issued a writ of habeas corpus for the man's release. Lincoln refused to comply. Instead, Lincoln illegally ordered the military to ignore the writ, and then he ordered the arrest of the chief justice himself (luckily this order wasn't carried out).

Lincoln sought to justify these abuses with the argument that they were necessary in order to suppress the "rebellion." But there was no rebellion--there was no threat to the federal government's existence.  The Southern states weren't trying to overthrow the federal government. They were merely seeking to form their own government and then to establish peaceful relations with the federal government. The real reason Lincoln had to suppress civil rights was that there were so many Northern citizens who opposed the war and/or who didn't understand why the South couldn't be allowed to go in peace.

Finally, I think I should say a word about the issue of slavery in relation to the Civil War. Although I'm very glad slavery was abolished, I don't agree that we had no choice but to fight a bloody war before we could end it.  Slavery was starting to die out anyway. Furthermore, the war did not start over slavery, and slavery was never the main reason the war was fought.  The war started because the North would not allow the South to go in peace.  Throughout the war, the major point of contention between the North and the South was the South’s desire for independence.  The North’s main reason for invading the South was to force the South back into the Union (and a good case can be made that the North did so to avoid the loss of Southern tariff revenue and to protect Northern business interests).  However, halfway through the war, the Radical Republicans made the violent, uncompensated abolition of Southern slavery the second major objective of the war, over the objections of Lincoln himself.  Many of these same Republicans were known to hate the South and to hold racist views themselves. Many of them didn't really care about the slaves, but they used slavery as their justification for ravaging and subjugating the South.  Nearly every other nation on earth where slavery existed managed to abolish the institution peacefully. It's interesting to note that some of the more responsible Northern abolitionists said the South should be allowed to go in peace because they felt this would hasten the demise of slavery.  Historians J. G. Randall and David Donald, after noting the Confederacy’s move toward granting freedom to slaves and their families for faithful military service, acknowledged that the Confederacy may very well have abolished slavery even if it had survived the war: 

On November 7, 1864, President [Jefferson] Davis went so far as to approve the employment of slave-soldiers as preferable to subjugation, and on February 11, 1865, the Confederate House of Representatives voted that if the President  should not be able to raise sufficient troops otherwise, he was authorized to call for additional levies “from such classes . . . irrespective of color . . . as the . . . authorities . . . may determine”. . . .  There was no mistaking the meaning of this action.  The fundamental social concept of slavery was slipping; an opening wedge for emancipation had been inserted.  Lee’s opinion agreed with that of the President and Congress.  On January 11, 1865, he wrote advising the enlistment of slaves as soldiers and the granting of “immediate freedom to all who enlist, and freedom at the end of the war to the families of those who discharge their duties faithfully. . . .”  This fact, together with other indications, suggests that, even if the Confederacy had survived the war, there was a strong possibility that slavery would be voluntarily abandoned in the South. (The Civil War and Reconstruction, Lexington, Massachusetts: D. C. Heath and Company, 1969, p. 522)

Again, I'm glad slavery was abolished.  I think that was the one good thing that resulted from the war. But I believe slavery could and should have been ended peacefully. Yes, this would have taken longer, maybe a lot longer, but it would have saved the lives of over 600,000 soldiers and the lives of over 50,000 Southern civilians, and it would have avoided a cruel war that devastated the South for decades and that still causes bitter feelings to this day.

If a true statesman had been president in 1861, I believe war could have been avoided. I'm reminded of the fact that Lincoln derailed a popular compromise plan in Congress that would have avoided war, banned slavery from 80 percent of the territories, and kept the Union together. In fact, on Lincoln’s orders, Congressional Republicans blocked the compromise plan, and then blocked a proposal that would have allowed the people to vote on the plan in a national referendum.  Lincoln and his fellow Republicans knew that a strong majority of Americans probably supported the compromise plan, but they prevented the people from voting on it anyway. 


ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  Michael T. Griffith holds a Master’s degree in Theology from The Catholic Distance University, a Bachelor’s degree in Liberal Arts from Excelsior College, two Associate in Applied Science degrees from the Community College of the Air Force, and an Advanced Certificate of Civil War Studies and a Certificate of Civil War Studies from Carroll College.  He is a two-time graduate of the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, in Arabic and Hebrew, and of the U.S. Air Force Technical Training School in San Angelo, Texas, and has completed advanced Hebrew programs at Haifa University in Israel and at the Spiro Institute in London, England.  He is also the author of five books on Mormonism and ancient texts and one book on the John F. Kennedy assassination.


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