Binding Up the Nation’s Wounds, 1864
Binding Up the Nation’s Wounds, 1864
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter summarizes some of the accomplishments of Abraham Lincoln and Owen Lovejoy's unusual but remarkable collaboration that continued until the latter's death in 1864. It first considers Lovejoy's support for Francis Carpenter in creating a life-size portrait of Lincoln depicting the moment when he read the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet. It then recounts how, in the last ten years of their lives, Lincol and Lovejoy had relied on each other, working together to unite the divergent factions in the Illinois Republican Party, to keep the Republicans united in Congress, and to convince moderate and radical members of Congress to pass emancipation legislation. It argues that Lovejoy and Lincoln had acted from the perspectives of both radicalism and pragmatism in their quest to end slavery, that as radicals, they collaborated pragmatically to make major and lasting contributions to the process of emancipation. Their ability to collaborate was enhanced by a common religious approach, which was also a source of their mutual trust and respect.
“I am hoping … for a revival of religion, pure and undefiled, which will be eminently practical … giving eyes to the blind, ears to the deaf and charity to all.”
Owen Lovejoy’s opportunity to assist in shaping Abraham Lincoln’s legacy came unexpectedly in December 1863, when well-known painter Francis Carpenter invited Lovejoy to visit his studio in New York City. Carpenter asked for Lovejoy’s assistance in encouraging Lincoln to sit for a composite portrait depicting the moment when Lincoln read the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet.1 Lovejoy eagerly supported Carpenter’s endeavor, believing that the life-size portrait would convey tremendous symbolism and would help cement Lincoln’s reputation as the Great Emancipator. On February 5, Carpenter went to the Lovejoy residence and found him feeble but optimistic: he told the painter, “I am gaining very slowly.—It is hard work drawing the sled up-hill.” Nevertheless, Lovejoy willingly dictated an introductory note, and when Carpenter presented the note to the president, Lincoln said, “Well Mr. C——, we will turn you in loose [sic] here, and try to give you a good chance to work out your idea.”2 Carpenter ultimately produced not only an iconic painting that today hangs in the U.S. Capitol but also an 1866 book, Six Months at the White House with Abraham Lincoln, that is still read for its insights into Lincoln.
The book provides evidence of the intimate relationship between Lincoln and Lovejoy. According to Carpenter, “Lovejoy had much more of the agitator, the reformer, in his nature, but both drew the inspiration of their lives from the same source, and it was founded in sterling honesty.”3 Carpenter also observed some of Lincoln’s other basic character traits: “Though kind-hearted almost to a fault, nevertheless Mr. Lincoln always endeavored to be just.” On one occasion, Carpenter overheard a man complain that “the trouble with” Lincoln was “that he is so afraid of doing something wrong.” Lincoln had said the same thing to Joshua Speed in 1855.4
(p.155) Carpenter visited Lovejoy again near the end of February and found him “nearly well again and in fine spirits.” When Carpenter noted that “many of the extreme anti-slavery men appeared to distrust the President,” Lovejoy responded indignantly, “‘I tell you,’ said he, ‘Mr. Lincoln is at heart as strong an anti-slavery man as any of them, but he is compelled to feel his way. He has a responsibility in this matter which many men do not seem to be able to comprehend. I say to you frankly, that I believe his course to be right. His mind acts slowly, but when he moves, it is forward. You will never find him receding from a position once taken.’”5
On March 9, Lincoln invited Lovejoy to the small ceremony at which Ulysses S. Grant was sworn in as lieutenant general of the Armies of the Republic. The only other politicians present were the president and his cabinet.6 Three of the four great spokesmen for the large constituencies that ended slavery were in the room; only Frederick Douglass was absent.
Owen Lovejoy died less than three weeks later, on March 25, 1864, while on his way to the South Carolina Sea Islands.7 Slaveholders had abandoned plantations in that area as Union forces invaded, and some ex-slaves were permitted to purchase small tracts of the vacated land. The Sea Islands thus became an experiment in land sequestration for African Americans, and Lovejoy was undoubtedly eager to observe firsthand whether this form of reconstruction could be replicated throughout the South after the war was over.8 Abraham Lincoln, of course, lived less than thirteen months longer than Lovejoy. For the last ten years of their lives, the two men had relied on each other, working in tandem to bring together the divergent factions in the Illinois Republican Party, to keep the Republican Party united in Congress, and finally to convince moderate and radical members of Congress to pass emancipation legislation. James McPherson claims that the slaves were freed by Lincoln’s decisions to resist compromise, supply Fort Sumter, and call the Union Army into being. Owen Lovejoy provided crucial support for all of those decisions.9
Lovejoy’s death brought tributes from many of the people whose lives his activities had touched. John L. Lee, a black leader in the District of Columbia, asked, “What, sir have been the fruits of the labors of this great man?” and then answered his own question:
Why it has hurried into the earth the law of slavery, which said that a free and respectable colored person shall not walk after 10 o’clock at night, without being provided with a pass; it has enabled us to testify in all legal courts of justice, in any and all cases that come under our notice; the shouldering of the musket is also allowed, and free schools for the education of our children, are commenced to be strewed in profusion throughout our city and I expect soon, to be seen walking to the polls of the 7th ward, handing in my little piece of paper with a name of candidate.10
supposed … that he had not only an ardent but a vindictive temper; that he was rough and savage in his nature. … It was only when we came together in our committee-room, when the formalities which prevail here are laid aside, and in frank intercourse men express their sentiments, that we found that the highest intellect was combined with a childlike simplicity of character. … He was ever amiable and gentle, always ready to do full and ample justice, to listen patiently to those who sought redress of wrong.11
Sounding a more personal note, Mary Todd Lincoln, whom Lovejoy had befriended and counseled as she mourned the loss of her child, wrote to Charles Sumner, “Our friend, whom we all so loved and esteemed, has so suddenly and unexpectedly passed away—Mr. Lovejoy! An all-wise power directs these dispensations. Yet it appears in our weak and oftentimes erring judgments, ‘he should have died hereafter.’”12
Radical Lincoln, Pragmatic Lovejoy
A month before his death, Lovejoy wrote to William Lloyd Garrison expressing appreciation for his support for Lincoln’s reelection. Although Lincoln was not perfect, Lovejoy was “satisfied, as the old theologians used to say in regard to the world, that if he is not the best conceivable President, he is the best possible. I have known something of the facts inside during his administration, and I know that he has been just as radical as any of his Cabinet.”13 Seventeenth-century philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz had famously argued that this world is not “the best of all imaginable worlds but only the best of all possible worlds.”14 Earlier in his career, Garrison had acted from a perspective of the best of imagined worlds (a radical vision); at midcentury, Lovejoy and Lincoln had acted from the perspectives of both the best imaginable worlds (radical justice) and the best possible worlds (pragmatic action). These remarks on the relation between the ideal and the practical provide the foundational assumptions for interpreting the relationship between the radical and the pragmatic. Today’s philosophical thinking has moved beyond reflecting on the “mutually exclusive features of reality” to the consideration of the “mutually implicative features” of reality. In “this method of dipolar relation it is explicitly recognized that the definition of one principle requires reference to its counter principle.”15 From this perspective, the understanding of governance requires the exploration of the interactive relationship between the radical and the pragmatic.
The need for a radical vision of what should be imagined is encapsulated in Proverbs 29:18: “Without a vision the people perish.” Don E. Fehrenbacher suggests that Lincoln was challenged to “articulate a vision for the new antislavery (p.157) republic being born.”16 Eric Foner recognizes that the abolitionists’ vision prepared the public to support antislavery measures. But Lovejoy’s oft-repeated and persuasive contention that Lincoln was a radical challenges one of the standard assessments of Lincoln—that radical politicians were mainly leading the way to end slavery without the support of the executive.17 At the same time, Lovejoy’s argument also challenges Allen C. Guelzo’s assessment that the abolitionists, including antislavery political abolitionists, were troublemakers who hindered Lincoln’s task of freeing the slaves.18 In a sense, the question about Lincoln and Lovejoy has shifted. We no longer ask who was more radical and who was more pragmatic; rather, we question how these two radicals collaborated pragmatically to make major and lasting contributions to the process of emancipation.
An examination of these two men that goes deeper than their apparent superficial differences reveals many commonalities. The practical ways that Lovejoy applied the levers of power on behalf of the people resembled the way Lincoln listened to the common people who constantly came into his office. Both cared for people as well as policy, and keeping in touch with their constituents was a source of their political strength. Lovejoy excelled at using biblical references to support arguments about contemporary matters, a skill that Lincoln developed until he became quite expert at it. This common religious approach enhanced their mutual trust and respect as well as their ability to collaborate, and according to John Lovejoy Elliott, “On Sundays Mr. Lovejoy would take his Bible to the White House and read passages to the President.”19
In this light, as Carpenter wrote, “It is not strange that they should have been bosom friends. … The president repeatedly called to see him during his illness; and it was on one of these occasions that he confided to Lovejoy, ‘This war is eating my life out; I have a strong impression that I shall not live to see the end.’”20 Carl Sandburg claimed, “They came to cling to each other.”21 And as Lincoln himself recalled, their relationship “was quite intimate, and every step in it has been one of increasing respect and esteem, ending, with his life in no less than affection on my part.”22
The Source of Their Radicalism and Pragmatism
Writing to his close friend, Governor John Andrew of Massachusetts, on February 22, 1864, Lovejoy expressed his hope that when slavery had been swept away, religion would experience a revival, “that instead of expending its energies on theologies and creeds and rubrics it shall go around like its divine author healing the sick, cleansing lepers, giving eyes to the blind, ears to the deaf and charity to all.”23 A year later, Lincoln uttered words that have since become famous: “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive to bind up the nation’s wounds.”24 It (p.158) is not a matter of who influenced whom; rather, both men came to appreciate how much they shared sentiments, goals, and values.
In their trusting relationship, Lincoln and Lovejoy came to recognize that trusting only in regenerative love was dangerous. At times, it was also necessary to trust the power of retributive justice. Lovejoy frequently reminded the public of the need to repent not only for personal sins but also for sins committed by larger communities—specifically, a town that allowed its elite to kill an antislavery editor and a nation that perpetuated a system that enslaved more than four million people. Most radically, however, Lovejoy reminded the people that the Divine Presence “has woven the threads of retribution into the web of national life no less than into that of individual life.”25 In November 1863, as the war dragged on and black and white soldiers died by the thousands, he prayed, “We feel that thy judgments are upon us, and justly we are suffering for disregarding thy commands.”26
Lincoln was just as radically concerned with divine retributive justice and had on several occasions called the whole nation to repentance. In a letter written shortly after Lovejoy’s death, he explained his reasons for issuing the Emancipation Proclamation: “If God now wills the removal of a great wrong, and wills also that we of the North as well as you of the South, shall pay fairly for our complicity in that wrong, impartial history will find therein new cause to attest and revere the justice and goodness of God.”27 And in his Second Inaugural Address, he applied the Scripture and appealed to the faithful: “If we shall suppose [that God] gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe to those by whom they came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him?”28
Both men had the courage to speak truthfully to powerful officials and the even more powerful citizens of the republic. Though both felt their lives ebbing, their radical vision carried them forward. The remarkable nature of their relationship and its accomplishments deserves a greater appreciation than historians have generally afforded, though their colleagues and associates were more perceptive. On January 31, 1865, the day the House of Representatives passed what would become the Thirteenth Amendment, the leaders bestowed the honor of dismissing that historic meeting to recently sworn-in congressman Ebon Ingersoll. He said, “Mr. Speaker, in honor of this immortal and sublime event, I move that the House now adjourn.”29 Newcomer Ingersoll had taken Lovejoy’s seat.
(1.) Francis B. Carpenter, Six Months at the White House with Abraham Lincoln (New York: Hurd and Houghton, 1866), 14–15.
(7.) Owen Lovejoy to Mary Denham, March 13, 1864, Lovejoy Papers, Clements.
(8.) Willie Lee Rose, Rehearsal for Reconstruction: The Port Royal Experiment (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1964), 201, 214.
(10.) Christian Recorder, April 30, 1864.
(11.) Thomas T. Davis in Addresses on the Death of Owen Lovejoy, 35. Sixteen colleagues, among them the key leaders of Congress, presented speeches in tribute to Lovejoy’s personal and professional qualities. The University of Illinois has made them available at books.google.com/books?id=dqvhAAAAMAAJ.
(12.) Ruth Painter Randall, Mary Lincoln: Biography of a Marriage (Boston: Little, Brown, 1953), 356.
(14.) Daniel J. Bronstein and Harold M. Schulweis, eds., Approaches to the Philosophy of Religion: A Book of Readings (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1954), 234n.
(16.) Don E. Fehrenbacher and Ward M. McAfee, The Slaveholding Republic: An Account of the United States Government’s Relations to Slavery (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 311.
(23.) Owen Lovejoy to John Andrew, February 22, 1864, in BCR, May 5, 1864.
(29.) Congressional Globe, 38th Cong. 2nd sess., 531. (p.188)