Abraham Lincoln, a politician much reviled in life, became something of a saint upon his death 150 years ago.
The surrender of the Confederacy at Appomattox, just five days before Lincoln’s April 14 appearance at Ford’s Theatre, relieved the country of a terrible burden. Still, prolonged suffering, widespread destruction and more than 600,000 war deaths left deep (and abiding) recriminations on both sides of the Mason-Dixon. More terrors were to come.
Lincoln, who bore the awesome responsibility of prosecuting the war, earned no small amount of contempt for his service. He was demonized in the South. In the North, some blamed him for pushing too hard, others for not pushing hard enough, toward victory. Likewise, he was deemed simultaneously too solicitous of black rights and insufficiently committed to their freedom.
A white supremacist rendered such arguments moot. In murdering Lincoln the politician, John Wilkes Booth sanctified Lincoln the savior. The assassination took place on Good Friday, giving a country steeped in Christian themes a ready template: Lincoln had paid for the nation’s sins with his life.
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Lincoln’s almost preternatural lack of malice – even while waging total war – reinforced the Christian drama of his death. But like a wayward people falling short of a divine assignment, Americans failed to make good on their savior’s sacrifice. The new birth of freedom Lincoln had promised was suffocated in the cradle.
At Gettysburg, Lincoln reached back four score and seven to retrieve the spiritual foundation of American equality in the Declaration of Independence. It proved to be a highly unstable rock on which to build. “All men are created equal” is a plain phrase. But for generations of blacks, Chinese, women and others after the Civil War its language resisted comprehension.
As news of Lincoln’s death trickled out across Easter 1865, America’s civic faith and its predominant religious faith aligned. A century later, the April assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. – a man possessed of Lincoln-esque levels of eloquence, patience and strategic insight – resurrected the narrative of paschal sacrifice.
King’s death, the day after his prophecy of it, also produced mystery and awe. It created another American saint seemingly straddling secular and sacred. But once again, equality failed to issue from the heavens or arrive by celestial chariot. It remained, as ever, a fight for the living.
Francis Wilkinson writes on politics and domestic policy for Bloomberg View.