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The Wartime Faith of Washington, Lincoln, and Roosevelt

An excerpt from a speech by David M. Abshire at the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church
New York City, April 23, 2003

Full speech published in Vital Speeches of the Day
(Vol. 69, Issue 17, June 15, 2003)

My role tonight is to reflect on the story of three great American Presidents—George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt—and what their faith in time of war might say to us today.  Similarities in how each man dealt with the mystery of God in his faith and work while leading our country through its greatest wars makes these three Presidents especially compelling.

Abraham Lincoln.  Lincoln made history moving forward.  But as English historian C.V. Wedgwood notes, history is written backwards, while lived forward.  Moving forward, the path is filled with ambiguities, calculations, and risks, especially when in the fog of war.  When writing history backwards, these factors are frequently obscured and the way often seems easy and predetermined, since the fog of war has lifted

The day after Lincoln’s inauguration, he was presented with the ultimatum on Fr. Sumter.  This one-time three-week-long captain in the Black Hawk War, who had never fired a shot in combat, sat with his Cabinet members.  They were against attempting to reinforce Sumter.  They were backed by the hero of the Mexican War, General Winfield Scott.  The green Captain Lincoln made the first move to save the Union by overriding the general and the Cabinet, and promptly ordered reinforcement.

Along with this decisive move, he made clear that this was a war waged to save the Union, not to emancipate slaves.  The latter, as an immediate war objective, would have lost the Border States and the Democrats in the North, and indeed thereby lost the war.  Frederick Douglas and many other abolitionists pilloried this author of the “Housed Divided” speech as duplicitous, hypocritical, and a moral relativist.

But as a great war leader, Lincoln knew the importance of timing, of mixing realism with idealism, and of the danger of a moral absolute taken out of context.  Brilliantly timed, after the 1862 victory of Antietam, he could safely move toward emancipation, recruit 180,000 black troops in the process, and also win over Europe from the Confederacy.  He had moved from saving the Union to freeing the slaves, and indeed had prepared the way to what has aptly been called the Second American Revolution by Professor James McPherson.

It took faith to negotiate these narrow and perilous passages.  Unlike President McKinley, who felt he had a direct message from God to go to war with Spain, Lincoln never assumed he was in lock step with God, nor that the Almighty divinely directed all he did.  Rather, he was a constant inquirer and aware of his fallibility.  His second inaugural address is filled with the subjective, “If God wills . . .”  Both sides, he noted, read the same Bible and the prayers of both would not be answered fully, for the Almighty has his own purposes.  Lincoln, who was a true genius in so many ways, never confused himself with the Almighty.

George Washington.  If Lincoln saved the country once, Washington did so three times: in the Revolutionary War, at the Constitutional Convention, and as President.  Unlike Lincoln, Washington was not a genius and he made some bad mistakes.  But he learned from them. 

As a young 21-year-old Lt. Colonel in the colonial forces, Washington constantly bickered with Governor Dinwiddie over his pay not being equal to that of British regulars.  He had been a hotshot surveyor before that and had made good money.  He, to be frank, had become something of a horse’s ass. 

He was sent on a mission toward modern-day Pittsburgh, encamped in the mountains at a vulnerable place called Great Meadows, and built “Ft. Necessity.”  He was surprised and forced to surrender to the French and Indians, and subsequently was written up in the Times of London as a disgrace to the colonial service.  A cocky Washington learned from this devastating experience, not only a new modesty, but also a new unconventional way of warfare.  Later, fighting General Braddock, he survived showers of bullets, and someway felt he must be under the “miraculous care of Providence” as bullets tore his clothes and killed the horses under him.

More than three decades later, when this same yet quite different Washington took command of the Continental Army, the one who had argued with Governor Dinwiddie over adequate pay refused to take any pay whatsoever.  He was a good horseman and a superb tactical field-commander, but was never a brilliant strategist.  He had a rough ride as a commander who lost more battles than he won when only one-third of the Americans enthusiastically supported the war.  And yet the losing general who won the war had an extraordinary bulwark of character in a world he believed to be designed by Providence.  This same bulwark of character saved the Constitutional Convention, which produced a Constitution in which the powers of the Presidency were described with Washington in mind.

Living history forward, the writers of the final draft of the Constitution considered it an imperfect document.  Writing history backwards, it was considered the “Miracle at Philadelphia,” as Catherine Drinker Bowen labeled her book.  Like Lincoln, Washington believed that America “was the last best hope.”  Washington believed that the American experiment was exceptional.  “The eyes of the world” were upon us and we found ourselves in a “time to establish or ruin . . . our national character forever.”  Lincoln believed we were “God’s almost chosen people.”  Washington said, “Heaven crowned” this nation.

Washington, while an Anglican and a vestryman, spent time as President talking to different religious groups, from the Baptists to the Jews of the synagogues of Rhode Island.  He understood that it was the freedom of religion in America that protected a very religious America.  His was the achievement of protecting diversity in the American experiment.  He believed a religious America was essential to good governance, and protection of religious diversity was essential to maintain a religious America.

What especially marked Washington, man of faith and humility, was how he freely let go of power.  As Professor Gordon Wood has written, this “stunned the world.”  After the war, the commander-in-chief turned in his sword to Congress.  He turned back the invitation to be a Cromwell when the chance arose at the Newberg Conspiracy, and he refused to run for a third term as President.  Self-restraint and self-denial were part of his faith.

Franklin Roosevelt.  F.D. Roosevelt was called “Feather Duster” Roosevelt by some detractor students at Harvard.  The young patrician from the Hudson Valley may have too-obviously felt that he was headed for the top—with his handsome bearing, athletic figure, and large ambition—to follow in the footsteps of his illustrious cousin, Theodore Roosevelt, to the White House itself.  But when polio struck him down in 1921, that career seemed washed up; Presidential ambitions were ended.  He became “Daddy of the Dead Legs,” as young Jimmy Roosevelt said.

Amazingly, stranger than fiction, the Daddy of the Dead Legs led us through the Great Depression and the Second World War, all from a wheel chair the public scarcely acknowledged.  Thus, this triumphant cripple could credibly say to a crippled America in 1933, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”  I think every Roosevelt biographer would admit that it was his great tragedy that gave birth to great triumph.  FDR, like Washington, believed that Providence acted in mysterious ways.

Besides his polio attack, Roosevelt’s greatest stress and depression came at the end of 1940 as he alarmingly watched Hitler’s gains.  As the leader of an unconcerned and isolationist America, Roosevelt felt suddenly like a political cripple as he painfully recalled how Woodrow Wilson had miserably failed with the Versailles Treaty ratification because he lacked the Congressional and popular support.  To make matters worse, FDR received in December 1940 a message, known as the “long letter,” from Winston Churchill stating that the UK couldn’t last.  Roosevelt did an emotional retreat for days, emerging only after a political epiphany produced a scheme for America to become the “arsenal of democracy.”  He clearly argued for the isolationists “to keep us out of the war” through the Lend-Lease Act.  Washington and Lincoln saved America.  Roosevelt saved Great Britain.

How did the cripple do it?  Certainly, a dogged characteristic in his rehabilitation from polio was his intense Christian faith.  He believed in a divine design, but like Lincoln did not believe he was so anointed as to be in lock step with God.  He understood the mysteries of that design.  Unlike Lincoln, he was a very conventional Episcopal Church member and he often said that the United States was a “Christian nation,” hardly politically correct today.  He believed almost playfully that the Lord would occasionally make small things happen to encourage him forward and build hope.

He, like Washington and Lincoln, believed the world depended upon us.  As he said in his final inaugural address, “The Almighty has blessed our land in many ways.  He has given our people stout hearts and strong arms. . . He has given to our country a faith that has become the hope of all peoples in an anguished world.  So we pray to Him now for a vision to see our way.”  With mighty allies led by America and the war moving in our favor, he humbly noted that we had to be citizens of the world, “members of the human community” and, quoting Emerson, stated, “The only way to have a friend is to be one.”

Transformational Leaders.  All three leaders had humility in many ways.   Roosevelt, the cripple, was the most egotistical, but still humble in his relationship with his God.  All three leaders held a sense of awe over the “outer circle,” which some call pure chance—where they did not control events—as contrasted to the “small circle” of their free will.  Looking back like the historian, each retroactively delegated to God’s goodness, not to themselves, the good things of the past and the great victories they had achieved.

From a historical and secular perspective, that “inner circle” of their free will and judgment was much bigger than they suspected.  I cannot imagine an American figure other than Washington saving this country in the Revolutionary War, an American other than Lincoln saving the Union, or an American other than Roosevelt saving England and sustaining America so well through depression and war.  Each believed in his oath to serve “to the best of my abilities.”  Their failures—Washington’s defeats, Lincoln’s setbacks, and Roosevelt’s Pearl Harbor blunder—were on God’s shoulders and beyond the best of their abilities.  Still, in retrospect and despite their protests to the contrary, they were not only actors, but transformational Presidents moving far beyond their greatest expectations.