Abraham Lincoln and visions of a ‘United America’

(Note from ReadTheSpirit: In this sesquicentennial era of the Civil War—Lincoln scholar Duncan Newcomer is writing a series of columns about the legacy of our 16th president. Learn more about our many Lincoln resources, which you are welcome to share with friends or with your organization to spark discussion.)

By Duncan Newcomer

Abraham Lincoln understood that politics lives by talk.

That is why he was so careful with his spoken words, why he worked so hard to get his words right. He would have succeeded in averting the Civil War if more of the people more of the time had been good listeners. He said in his First Inaugural Address, “We are not enemies. We must not be enemies.” He then appealed to the “better angels of our nature” so we would not become enemies.

What shows the better angels of our nature more than our values? Lincoln appealed to our values to avert tragedy. But too many people were in what John Burt calls a “moral panic” in his new book, Lincoln’s Tragic Pragmatism Lincoln, Douglas, and Moral Conflict. Despite Lincoln’s eloquent appeals, people didn’t listen, or couldn’t believe his words, or they were listening to a different set of values.

We can ask what would have happened if more people, then, knew how to talk and listen to each other from a common set of values. We can hope as a society that we have learned how to talk and listen better. We have a new instrument for achieving harmony in politics with Wayne Baker’s new book with the long title, United America The surprising truth about American values, American identity and the 10 beliefs that a large majority of Americans hold dear just published by ReadTheSpirit.

The book is chock full of up-to-date information about what we believe, accurate facts about who we have become—the true status of our values—and multiple sources of wisdom and guidance from a wide variety of thinkers, including personal stories and lots of quotes from just “the people.” But as we learn from the Preface by Brian McLaren, it is a chilling picture as well. Across the board we are failing our values.

The good news is we share those values.


Before looking at the 10 values documented in Dr. Baker’s research, let’s consider one other point he makes in this new book: Americans, it turns out, hold “Kindness” as our No. 1 “character strength.” This finding is from a world-wide survey of over 50 nations, of whom none but the U.S. picked Kindness as No. 1. Few presidents seem as kind, even kindly, as Abraham Lincoln. He forgave hundreds of deserting soldiers often saying things like, “You can’t blame a man for what his legs do.” When kindness becomes policy we call it reconciliation. Overall, Americans tend to be hard on leaders who call us to reconcile. Woodrow Wilson wanted a peace treaty with Germany that stressed reconciliation. Lincoln wanted peace with the rebel South that built on reconciliation. To bind up the nations wounds and tend to the widow and the orphan was Lincoln’s Second Inaugural plea.

Looking at the 10 values listed in United America:

Respect for Others. Lincoln’s single deepest value was his desire to earn the esteem of his fellow citizens, and he knew to do that he needed to be worthwhile to them. He said so in his first posting for local elected office. A psychologist recently said, in a lecture on Lincoln, that his deepest need was to earn the esteem of others. People felt this, his respect for them.

Symbolic Patriotism. Lincoln became a symbol for patriotism. Everything we know about him goes into how we feel when see the Lincoln Memorial, or hear again the Gettysburg Address, or see his outstretched hand with its shiny finger tips in a small bronze statue in the rear corner of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. Most people now love him partly because he loved this county with mystic fervor. We see him as an icon for that love.

Freedom. “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master, this expresses my idea of democracy.…” That was one statement of Lincoln’s about freedom. His view of slavery was that taking away the freedom of another human corrupted the person who did the taking. Corruption—spiritual and social—necessarily would be spread by the need to use force to maintain it. The sacred canopy of Law was Lincoln’s sanctuary for freedom. Freedom was the American opposite of the oppression known from European history.

Security. Lincoln would joke about the mosquito bite wounds he suffered as a captain in the brief Black Hawk Indian War. But he became the Commander in Chief over the largest use of force ever assembled in this country at that time. The war inflicted a total of 600,000 casualties, which would be 6 million people if figured as a percentage of today’s total population. He used force in an absolute way for the single purpose of re-establishing the authority of the national government, which he considered to be a sacred trust.

Self-reliance and Individualism. Lincoln may have heard Ralph Waldo Emerson in a Chicago speech. He felt the deep call to find the force of nature that was in him and to fulfill what his partner William Herndon called “the little engine of his ambition.” He did that with extremely thorough work. Of the seven generations of Lincolns who had lived in America, he was the first to move without a relative to accompany him. When at the age of twenty-two he landed in New Salem, Illinois, in July of 1831 to start his life, he was alone.

Equal Opportunity. With those five words, “All men are created equal,” Dr. Baker opens his sixth chapter. From the time Thomas Jefferson penned that new natural law to the time when Martin Luther King brought it all home, first for Black Americans and then for poor Americans, no one lifted those words higher than Abraham Lincoln. If the moral arc of the universe bends towards justice, as King reminded us, the American crown on that rainbow was Lincoln at Gettysburg making equality the new gold to be found at the rainbow’s end. Always a matter not of social status—but of legal status—equality for Lincoln was the common doorway to opportunity.

Getting Ahead. Lincoln admitted his taste for the presidency. He was ambitious in advancing his career. He was the smartest person he knew. He worked long hours and hard ones. He was lucky often. When he saw a chance to merge his failing career with his moral passion to stop the spread of slavery, he became a national meteor. But he told his law partner that after his presidency was over, he would just come back, again, so the two of them could hang out a shingle and practice law just like before. In August of 1864 he fully expected not to be re-elected, and wrote a letter for the next president and put it in his desk drawer. He was peacefully resigned.

The Pursuit of Happiness. Lincoln made himself happy telling jokes which he need to relieve his melancholy. He deeply enjoyed the theater. As president, he learned to like opera. His chief pleasures were to read his Robert Burns and Lord Byron—and to read and recite Shakespeare. He had a frontier man’s appetite for simple food, and he did not drink or smoke or lust after women. He did make money as a railroad lawyer in Illinois and had one of the better houses in Springfield. He was proud of his social achievement, but that was not what made him happy.

Justice & Fairness. Kindness and mutual help was the way people survived and children grew up in the small settlements in Indiana when Lincoln was a boy. There were eight other families within a mile of his home in Pigeon Creek, and another six within two miles. Within four miles of his home there were 90 children under the age of seven and 48 between seven and seventeen. That adds up to a lot of people to enforce fairness and the Golden Rule. The rule of law was for Lincoln the force that made fair play and justice work.

Critical Patriotism. In a speech to the New Jersey Legislature on his way to becoming president, Lincoln turned a crucial—and critical—phrase. He referred to America as “God’s almost chosen people.” That is what separates Lincoln from the glory gluttons of contemporary patriotism. He had a mystical awe for what self-government in a free land could mean for the human race. He was not ever in favor of the nativist American movement that wanted to slam the door on immigrants. As an Enlightenment thinker, Lincoln was poised to be critical of just about everything. He and Mark Twain would have been Mississippi riverboat soul mates joking with skeptical discontent in the service of a freer humanity. While the war effort closed down much political opposition, Lincoln was never the tyrant people feared or imagined.


We can never know what Lincoln would do now. But we can easily imagine him reading United America and “getting it.”

We know from his life and words that his appeal to values failed in preventing the Civil War. Competing values themselves made the Civil War. If there had been sociologists trained like Dr. Baker in 1860, it would have been interesting to know if they could have found a common ground in the values claimed by North and South. Could those values then have been a part of the better angels of their nature?

Certainly the values Lincoln offered as he entered his presidency, values of reason, law, and sheer common sense, were not enough to calm the “moral panic” of the extremists on both sides.

As the conflict unfolded, Lincoln pondered deeply why the war was so long and horrible. He wondered: Were there deeper demons in human nature? Was there some higher value he had yet to grasp? Finally for Lincoln, what he perceived as the mystery of God in history and Biblical justice were what defined the common ground for the North and the South.

Ironically, it was killer angels that made happen what our better angels failed to do. This was the tragedy of that failed conversation about values.


In 1999 Duncan earned a Doctor in Ministry in Preaching from the ACTS DMin program through the Chicago Theological Seminary. He is the author of Desperately Seeking Mary. He  has prepared various community resources, discussion starters and historical columns, which you can find in our extensive Abraham Lincoln Resource Page. Currently, he is working on an upcoming series of columns about the popular Western writer Ralph Moody (1898-1992), the author of the Little Britches books. Duncan currently lives and works in Maine, but travels to present talks and programs. Got questions about Duncan’s work? Email us at [email protected]


Visit our resource page for the new book, United America, to learn more about the 10 core values documented in research by University of Michigan sociologist Dr. Wayne Baker. The United America resource page includes study guides and also two colorful, downloadable charts of the 10 values.

You are free to use, discuss, share and even republish this “sample sermon,” as long as you credit Duncan Newcomer and readthespirit.com online magazine.

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