This year, Presidents' Day on Feb. 16 provides an opportunity to reflect on not only the dignity of the presidency in good times, but the way that some presidents have responded to challenges in bad times.
Think of all the stories about Abraham Lincoln's folksy humor. Many of those tales are true, but the Lincoln I tend to think of is the one who in fall,1862, walked through packed hospitals in the District of Columbia, becoming sadder and more contemplative. When Lincoln made his visits to the wounded, gaping wounds assaulted his eyes. Groaning resounded in his ears. The stench of chloroform and death invaded his nose. Thousands of broken bodies arrived in the aftermath of battles like Antietam. Whenever Congress was not in session the Capitol itself became a hospital, with 2,000 cots set up in the rotunda and hallways.
The jokes Lincoln told in those days had a grim flavor. Once he visited wounded soldiers just after a lady had come by to distribute religious tracts. He later told of his surprise to find one recipient of a leaflet laughing. "Mr. President," the soldier said, "She has given me a tract on the 'Sin of Dancing,' and both of my legs are shot off."
When Lincoln looked out from the White House he could not see much hope. The Washington Monument was partly built, and ornamented blocks of stone squatted around the base, ready to be placed high when funds allowed. But around the blocks of stone stood slaughterhouses for the 10,000 cattle brought in to feed growing numbers of Union troops. The cattle droppings were two feet deep.
Lincoln looked, and tried to figure out why all this was happening. In October, 1862, he told four visitors that God was permitting the war "for some wise purpose of his own, mysterious and unknown to us; and though with our limited understandings we may not be able to comprehend it, yet we cannot but believe, that he who made the world still governs it."
Lincoln did not side with those who argued that God demanded the destruction of the South. When he issued a "Proclamation Appointing a National Fast Day" in 1863, Lincoln asserted, "We know that, by divine law, nations like individuals are subjected to punishments and chastisement in this world." He called the war "a punishment inflicted upon us for our presumptuous sins to the needful end of our national reformation as a whole people." Lincoln spoke of sins of the whole people, rather than focusing on one particular sin in one particular part of the nation.
Furthermore, Lincoln's proclamation emphasized how Americans had taken for granted God's kindness: "We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own."
His proclamation applied the Old Testament pattern-God's faithfulness, man's forgetfulness, God's discipline-to a new people who had become "too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us."
Lincoln, who had questioned prayer previously and not even affirmed it under earlier political pressure, was becoming a praying man. He told one general that as reports came in from Gettysburg during the first two days of fighting, "when everyone seemed panic-stricken," he "got down on my knees before Almighty God and prayed.... Soon a sweet comfort crept into my soul that God Almighty had taken the whole business into his own hands."
By 1864, Lincoln was even recommending Scripture reading to Joshua Speed, his fellow skeptic from Springfield days. When Speed said he was surprised to see Lincoln reading a Bible, Lincoln earnestly told him, "Take all that you can of this book upon reason, and the balance on faith, and you will live and die a happier man." When the Committee of Colored People in 1864 gave Lincoln a Bible, he responded, "But for this book we could not know right from wrong."
Christians should particularly remember Lincoln not because he preserved the Union, but because God during the Civil War may have moved him toward union with Christ. Bulwarked by a deeper understanding, Lincoln tried to do what he believed to be right, in the knowledge that "the times are dark, the spirits of ruin are abroad in all their power, and the mercy of God alone can save us."