I’ve been on a bit of a presidential history kick lately, as the two primary areas of history I find most interesting are presidential history and military history in the United States, and I’ve also been trying to get back into absorbing as much about the American Civil War as I can. There’s no better place to turn than that of Abraham Lincoln to accomplish all of those goals. Admittedly, while at the library, I was in search of two other Lincoln books, neither of which were available in audiobook form. However, I did come across Stephen Mansfield’s book, Lincoln’s Battle with God: A President’s Struggle with Faith and What It Meant for America.
Now, for those who know me and know that I’m not religious, a book centered on a president’s faith might seem an odd choice for me. But it’s not in the slightest. You don’t have to be religious to study religion and to be familiar with it, particularly because, as the title points out, a president’s faith is influential on the course the country can take or not take. And I’m pretty convinced by Mansfield’s argument that Lincoln’s evolution over time on religion influenced the kind of president he was. It also influenced Lincoln’s view of the Civil War as being a righteous cause for the Union to persist within, even when the war seemed lost at times.
Also, Lincoln has always struck me as a sort of sermon-like president in the way he writes his speeches. They feel steeped in a grander vision of the country and humanity itself.
As any book about a president and his faith is going to do, Mansfield has to offer a quasi-biographical look at Lincoln and I found all of that fascinating. I’m particularly fascinated by the idea of how rampantly self-educated not only Lincoln basically was, but the colonists in general were. Mansfield makes the argument that the colonists were so ardently self-educated to prove that they could create a culture of their own separate from England.
It’s interesting. There’s a sense in which people of today automatically assume they are better educated and smarter than the people of yesteryear. In some ways, particularly moral ways, perhaps so. But in a fundamental educated way? I don’t know if that holds as much water as we egotistically like to think. Consider again, the notion of being self-taught in a plethora of subjects. Or scale it back further: Being self-taught into literacy itself. Or that many of the leading men of that day spoke multiple languages.
That Lincoln was able to emerge from a life of abject poverty and the brutishness in general of 19th century life to be as well-read, well-spoken and such a poetic writer as he is is a remarkable reflection upon the man himself.
I also didn’t know that Lincoln in his younger days kept an arm’s length from God and religion, particularly it seems as a manifestation of the fraught relationship he had with his father, who was religious. And not just an arm’s length, but as many people who are younger and still developing their ideologies and worldviews, he was vociferously and boisterously against the notion of religion. So much so that townsfolk where he lived thought of him as an infidel (an unbeliever). That makes it even more remarkable that Lincoln was able to rise in the ranks of political office, including to the highest office in the land. I’m not sure an open atheist could win the presidency today and it would have seemed a bigger ask of yesteryear. Sure, the skeptic and cynic in you could, as I did, initially think he achieved high office because Lincoln altered his views on God to better align with the voting public, but I believe Mansfield makes a convincing case that Lincoln’s views on God and religion genuinely evolved over his lifetime. At minimum, Lincoln went from being a vocal hater of religion to someone who spoke about God’s influence.
So, I came for Mansfield’s examination of Lincoln’s relationship with God and I stayed for that, but also, I was most fascinated by Mansfield’s details on Lincoln’s bouts with clinical depression or, as Lincoln called it, “hypo.” And yes, you guessed it, yet again, 19th century medicine enters the room with the catch-all solution to any ailment, including Lincoln’s depression: Bloodletting.
Anyhow, Lincoln went through a lot. Not that one needs to “go through a lot” to be clinically depressed, but it certainly doesn’t help the depression issues when your mother dies at nine-years-old, your father thinks academics are dumb and your son dies at a young age, too. At various times, Lincoln even contemplated suicide, so much so that his closest friends and family hid razors from him.
The only area where I had some eyebrow-raising skepticism was actually the beginning of the book when Mansfield recounted Lincoln’s purported last words before being assassinated by John Wilkes Booth. Those final words, which had to do with visiting the Holy Land, came from Lincoln’s wife and first lady, Mary Todd Lincoln. The only issue there is she recounted it nearly two decades after the assassination. Later, Mansfield will dismiss an accounting of Lincoln’s life that was told decades later. So, such an inconsistency bugged me.
Nonetheless, again, I thought Mansfield presented a compelling book about the life of Lincoln. I fully believe that someone could start out hostile to God and religion and then through time and experience, come back to a better relationship with each. After all, we’re not just talking about God, but I think a lot of Lincoln’s hostilities were for the institution of religion; the hustlers and grifters of his day.
I didn’t take notes on this audiobook, as I didn’t want to burden myself with that, as I had with previous audiobooks and television reviews. But I did jot down one particular line Mansfield uses to describe purported atheists like Lincoln, “There is no God and I hate him.” I feel that perfectly describes Lincoln’s relationship. He didn’t disbelief God; he hated him for the way he (Lincoln) was and the way the world was.
If you’re also into presidential history or history in general or obviously, religion, then I would recommend this book. I’m certain you will walk away learning something new about Lincoln. Lincoln’s oratory skills, his desire to save the Union, and his freeing of the slaves via the Emancipation Proclamation, as well as his assassination, are the well-known highlights, but as Mansfield rightly points out, Lincoln’s relationship to God is not as well-known or taught.
Mansfield’s book is a nice contribution to making that relationship more known.