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Lincoln, Religion, and Romantic Cultural Politics.

Lincoln, Religion, and Romantic Cultural Politics. By Stewart Winger. (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2003. Pp. viii, 271. $38.00.)

This book is one of a handful of recent studies of Abraham Lincoln focusing on the great president's religious beliefs. According to Stewart Winger, however, the general trend in Lincoln scholarship has been to dismiss religiosity in Lincoln's rhetoric "as politically expedient hokum" that "mattered very little"--a practice reflecting "a broader tendency in American historical scholarship to downplay the role of religion in American life" (6-7).

Winger's thesis is that Lincoln's use of religious language in his most stirring speeches and writings "reflected a Romantic and poetic understanding of religion" (4). By examining key Lincoln texts, Winger demonstrates that Lincoln shared with Henry David Thoreau, Theodore Parker, and other mid-nineteenth-century Romantics a deep skepticism of the ideology of Young America, represented by Lincoln's most noteworthy political opponent, Stephen Douglas. Lincoln and the Romantics questioned the ethics of manifest destiny and modern market capitalism and opposed Douglas's notion of popular sovereignty on the slavery issue. The 1858 debates between Lincoln and Douglas for Illinois's Senate seat were part of a broader discussion on the direction that the United States would take as Americans grappled with the slavery issue. Whereas Douglas found slavery to be morally neutral, a Romantic quest for moral rightness--"the desire to set oneself right with God"--informed Lincoln's opposition to slavery (58).

Winger convincingly argues that Romantic religious ideas shaped Lincoln's positions on the crucial moral and political issues of his time. Lincoln questioned the morality of the prevailing mid-nineteenth-century belief that material progress alone was the key to salvation. He criticized the Mexican War as an example of unprincipled national expansion. His opposition to slavery was morally based, not economically motivated as many Lincoln scholars suggest. In Winger's view, "it was Lincoln's appeal to a Christian state under God that lent power to his most memorable political oratory" (111).

One weakness in Winger's otherwise compelling argument is an occasional tendency to ignore evidence contrary to his thesis. For example, Winger contends that Lincoln, like Thoreau and other Romantic thinkers, embraced the concept of "higher law," a universal standard superior to the U.S. Constitution. In his 1838 address at the Young Man's Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, however, Lincoln rejected the idea of civil disobedience and recommended that even bad laws should be obeyed until they are amended.

Winger has presented a credible argument that will prompt scholars to reconsider their views of Lincoln and his speeches and writings. Winger's text, however, is not aimed at the general reader or even the Lincoln "buff." Readers who most appreciate this book will have some familiarity with the writings of George Bancroft, the mid-nineteenth-century American historian, and will be prepared to digest difficult sentences like this one: "Lincoln everywhere assumed an ultimately inscrutable divinity, and covenantal theory had its origins with the Bible and the medieval nominalists who rejected the rationalism and natural law of Aquinas because it compromised the absolute sovereignty of God" (164). But Lincoln scholars willing to tackle an occasionally taxing text will find Winger's book worthwhile.

Roger Williams University

James Tackach
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Author:Tackach, James
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2004
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