Duncan Newcomer’s Abraham Lincoln Quiet Fire 7: Lincoln looks toward his spiritual hero, Washington

This entry is part 7 of 33 in the series Duncan Newcomer's Quiet Fire

Host of the ‘Quiet Fire’ series

This is Quiet Fire, a meditation on the spiritual life of Abraham Lincoln and its relevance to us today. Welcome.

Here’s a Lincoln quote for you, strangely predictive perhaps:
“Is it unreasonable then to expect that some man possessed of the loftiest genius, coupled with ambition sufficient to push it to its utmost stretch, will at some time spring up among us? And when such a one does, it will require the people to be united with each other, attached to the government and laws, and generally intelligent, to successfully frustrate his designs.”
Springfield Young Men’s Lyceum Speech, 1838

Lincoln has in mind the heroic tyrants of the old world: “an Alexander the Great, a Caesar, or a Napoleon.”

This speech is Lincoln’s first public lecture in his role as state legislator and aspiring lawyer in the new capital of Illinois, Springfield. He is two weeks shy of his 29th birthday, his hair is probably slicked down, and he is raring to go, to talk to the esteemed young men of his town about the urgent need to perpetuate our political institutions, which he fears are in danger, and they were.

He is astute morally and psychologically about good and bad leaders and about the nobility and baseness of people. He is laying a monumental foundation for why George Washington is the answer to all our problems because he was a noble and a spiritual hero. Lincoln, in effect, is calling people to consider just “what would George Washington do?”

Lincoln is urgent and passionate. He will extol reason but he is filled with emotion about the importance of Reason, our civil religion he will call it. Washington, he sees, was a passionate and a reasonable man. His virtue could turn enemies into friends, and he believed in the rule of law.

Washington and the Founding Fathers with a revolutionary spirit had built a new world, an edifice to “civil and religious liberty.”

However, and here’s the spiritual crisis that threatens this democratic republic, the passion for our early ideals is gone. It has been spent. Once, Lincoln argues, our base emotions—hate and revenge—were either aimed at the British or subdued by our noble cause. Now hate and revenge, racially motivated, are roaming freely about the country and a tyrant, who can no longer build a new world “…would set boldly to the task of pulling down.”

He says there will always be men who want to be great, to have the passion to rule and to build. What can they do with that passion and ambition now?

In the spiritual evolution of Young Man Lincoln, in his pilgrim journey, his ethical and religious solution is to say that passionate emotion needs to be replaced by a passion for Reason, and the greatness of Alexander, Caesar and Napoleon, must be replaced by the greatness of Washington.

It will be 20 years before Lincoln himself takes up the mantle of Washington to try to save the government and the law, civil and religious liberty. By then his own suppressed passion for equality will be aroused, and his hatred of slavery. He will take the place of Washington by having the courage to be Lincoln. He will live up to the virtues he had read about as a boy, including the spiritual one of turning enemies into friends. Like Washington, he would fight against tyranny without becoming a tyrant.

Looking back we can see that Lincoln, as a young man, was a card-carrying George Washington Fundamentalist.

He was so devoted to Washington—having read about him as a boy, including his thrill over Washington’s surprise victory at the Battle of Trenton—that he closed this public address to the young men’s group by calling them to revere Washington’s name and to permit “no hostile foot to pass over or desecrate his resting place.”

Don’t step on his grave! And, Lincoln concluded, “the last trump shall awaken our WASHINGTON.” In other words, on Judgment Day it will be Washington, as like Christ himself, who will be raised from the dead.

This is a serious blend of religion and civics. But even these two presidents’ February zodiac signs are entwined with “Loyalty and Honesty.” From the famous Parson Weems biography: Lincoln, at age twelve, learned that like himself Washington was a great runner and athlete (they were both eventually 6-feet-4-inches tall) and was so honest that when he confessed to the cherry tree hatchet event his father celebrated his pure-gold honesty rather than punish the act, so went the story that Lincoln read. Lincoln saw a moral model of a spiritual man whose life followed “the divine policy of doing good for evil. It melted down his iron enemies into golden friends.”

Lincoln was just two generations away from the American Revolution. Washington and Lincoln’s grandfather, who fought in the Revolution, were in the same generation. This heritage had apostolic gravity to it.

In his almost prayer-like Farewell to Springfield on his way to the presidency, Lincoln connects his fate to that of Washington. He asked his gathered friends to pray to the God that abided in Washington, abides now in them, and can abide in Lincoln as he goes to take up a task, he says, that now is even greater than Washington’s.

But as we see, by that time, 1860, Lincoln is two decades older than when he gave his absolute commands to be faithful to Washington. Then Lincoln had conceived of the Constitution, and its covenant of liberty, to be a rock, like the church itself, an institution against which even hell could not prevail.

Why would Lincoln be so avid about such articles of faith? Because he was urgently afraid that our political institutions were going to be lost to race-baiting mob rule and a tyrant’s ambition, at the expense of the rule of law.

Lincoln at the age of 29 was looking at what he called “the slow artillery of time.” He saw that the greats of the past were like a forest of giant oaks now despoiled by the hurricane of time. Lincoln as a boy had seen the massive devastation left by a hurricane through the primeval forest of Indiana. Against such mutilation Lincoln looked for spiritual strength. He saw in the Founding Fathers, like Washington, both Enlightenment Reason and moral passion.

But passion now was spent, he feared, and the pillars of the temple that the Fathers had built had crumbled. Only Reason, pure cold and calculating Reason, intelligence and morality, the Constitution and the Law, could maintain our freedom.

Fundamentalism is what can happen when a spiritual hero is taken as a role model rather than an inspiration. Lincoln had to learn that it was the inspiration of Washington not the model that would serve him.

In his spiritual progress Lincoln found his own emotion, his own passion for equality. The love of that and the hatred of slavery moved him to lead. His heart was shaped both by grief and the noble virtue he saw in Washington and it kept him from becoming one of those “great” old world tyrants.

This is Duncan Newcomer and this has been Quiet Fire—the spiritual life of Abraham Lincoln.



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