Lincoln’s life mirrors Les Misearables
By Duncan Newcomer
We remember him frozen in white marble seated in the columned memorial in Washington. But as a man Abraham Lincoln’s life moved and changed directions like a wind-driven prairie fire.
No change was greater—think of the two lead men in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables—than Lincoln’s evolution from an unfortunate resemblance to Javert, the absolute believer in the law, to a kinship with the benevolent, grace-filled Valjean. Lincoln, of course, was a real person in history while Hugo’s characters were fictional. But the values held by these three iconic figures continue to be debated in our time.
Abraham Lincoln and Victor Hugo:
Two lives briefly converged
The president and the novelist never met, although they corresponded several times. Hugo was seven years old when Lincoln was born, and his great novel came out when Lincoln was president. When John Brown was executed for his insurrection at Harpers Ferry in 1859, Victor Hugo deeply mourned his passing. In Brown’s honor, Hugo produced a tragic sketch of a hanged man that was reproduced, widely sold and raised money to buy medical supplies for Union soldiers in the Civil War, according to Matthew Josephson’s biography of Hugo. During the war, Hugo wrote to Lincoln several times, expressing what Josephson describes as “his fraternal feelings” for the president. Apparently, Lincoln was touched. He had a photograph of himself sent to Hugo, inscribed, “To Victor Hugo, Abraham Lincoln.”
Abraham Lincoln and Les Miserables:
One man embodying two characters
Beyond those brief personal contacts, the real substance of Lincoln’s connection with Hugo was with the characters in Les Miserables.
For much of his life, Lincoln was known as the embodiment of Law. He held a firm conviction that the law, rigidly prosecuted, would make for a just society. That was the Javert-like faith of the young Lincoln, lawyer and political operative, whom one historian called little more than a ‘hack.” In a photograph of him in 1846, at age 37, ready to go to Congress, his unruly black hair is all slicked down and his clothes look almost fancy. He has a cool, if not cold, look about him. “Law,” he said in a speech a few years earlier should “become the political religion of the nation.” He even underlined the words. One was never “to violate in the least particular, the laws of the country, and never to tolerate their violation by others….” This, as another writer has said, is “absolutist morality and authoritarian legalism.” Lincoln also said, “Reason, cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason” was the answer to the threat of mob law. The passions that had helped us in the American Revolution would be in the future “our enemy.”
Psychologists tell us two things about this. One is that developing young men often adopt a rigid allegiance to some absolute faith with an iron-clad code of behavior. Two, they do this in order to grow away from mother-love and the innocent good-hearted nature of their earlier years. Lincoln is well known to have always loved his stepmother, mourned the loss of his own mother, and to have had a sweet and magnanimous nature as a youth. But Lincoln seemed to put much of that aside as he set out on his own. He was a failed country store-clerk, a part-time surveyor, a part-time soldier, a sometime river boat navigator. He became a city lawyer and desperately wanted the esteem of his fellow citizens.
It was also a time of some mob violence. Lawlessness was a constant threat to the frontier around Springfield, Illinois, the new capital. The citizenry was awash in whiskey. Barrels of whiskey were used as barter. Lincoln was a tea-totaler. His greatest shame in this time was being embroiled in an illegal duel, an outlawed custom among men for handling angry passions.
Lincoln, like the fictitious character Javert, was a child of poverty but he was also intent on rising and the law was his way up. But, it is doubtful that a new birth of American freedom could have come about only through obedience to the law. The higher-law moral passions of those against slavery eventually would need to be enlisted in the saving of the union. The long restrained passions for freedom among the black population would need to be brought, somehow, into the commonwealth. In the end, Lincoln’s instinct to reach for the extra-legal—and we see this in the new movie Lincoln—was governed by his compassionate heart and his deep intellect. He had changed, and in his mind and heart he had grown, by the time he was President, beyond his first fanatical faith in the law.
Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: A New, Earned Belief
We see in the Gettysburg Address how the suffering and sacrifice of others is built into his rhetoric. Through his own mid-life crises, Lincoln was drawn toward compassion, leniency, and a faith that it would take more than the law to lead to a just society. By Gettysburg, he had a new, earned, spiritual belief in equality. Lincoln became so convinced that the equality of the people was the hope of humanity that it surpassed his faith in the law. So passionate was he about freedom and charity for everyone that he closed his Second Inaugural address with a call not just for firmness in the right but for charity for all.
In the movie Les Miserables we see the second figure, Valjean, resemble the later Lincoln in two ways. He also is a poor man of tremendous physical strength, and he is a man who suffers greatly. He receives a merciful extension of new opportunity when a bishop graciously helps Valjean and instills in him a feeling for mercy and grace. Lincoln himself felt that the people in the towns where he grew up, especially New Salem and Springfield, Illinois, extended to him opportunity and a benevolence he had never expected. Again and again Lincoln gets a second chance in life. From the love of his stepmother, to the worrisome but devoted love of his wife Mary, to the political opportunities of the new Republican party, Lincoln makes the most of second chances. That was what he wanted most for the new birth of America: more opportunity for freedom to work its progressive spirit among a people who all had an equal chance at life.
As Lincoln freed himself, in stages, from an absolute faith in law to a universal faith in benevolence, so he also took the divided country through all the legal steps possible for uniting the country and asserting constitutional law. Then he went the extra mile and extended what Tolstoy called love toward his enemies, charity toward all who had suffered, and leniency in the reconstruction of the nation. The passions of the abolitionists became the law of the land by the strong—but also warm—hands of a changing Lincoln. His passion for freedom and equality, and a willingness for mercy and charity, was a better way. History no long needed to be a code of rigid traditions but the raw material for change and new life.
The love of law had became the law of love in the heart and the work of Abraham Lincoln.
The Rev. Dr. Duncan Newcomer is a Lincoln historian, a psychotherapist and a minister with experiences including service in the Presbyterian church, a denomination once attended by Lincoln. Newcomer’s latest book is Desperately Seeking Mary. His earlier writing has appeared in magazines and journals including The Christian Century.
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(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion, values and cross-cultural issues.)