Why Lincoln Would Make a Terrible Candidate in 2012

Big Think: Was faith a driving factor in Lincoln’s agenda?

Eric Foner: I don’t think Lincoln could be a very good candidate for president nowadays. He was very unreligious. He never was a member of a church in his entire life. I don’t think he can run for president nowadays and with that on your resume. He didn’t, you know, he came to use religious language during the Civil War. He knew that this was a very religious country, but he explicitly said over and over again, we do not know God’s will. God may have his own purposes. You know, we’ve got to do the best we can.

Of course, we’ve gone much further today. Everybody knows God’s will today. Every politician has a direct pipeline to God who tells them, “Build a pipeline in Alaska or drill offshore,” you know. Lincoln didn’t use that kind of rhetoric, so it wasn’t religion that was driving Lincoln. I think what was really driving him was a very deep belief in democracy and in, you might call it social opportunity. He, himself, had been born, you know, in very modest circumstances and he believed that everybody ought to have this opportunity to rise in the social spectrum including blacks. He didn’t believe in equality in a modern sense. For most of his life, he said, “You know, I don’t think black people should have the right to vote, hold office, marry white people, no.” But on this one basic right which he called the right to the fruits of your labor, the right to work and benefit from your own work and to save and to advance, he thought black people were equal to whites in that respect. They should have the same opportunity and that’s why slavery was wrong.

Lincoln talked about slavery as a form of theft. It was stealing somebody’s labor and letting someone else appropriate it. And all the way through his life, he talked it. In his great second inaugural address in 1865 when he’s inaugurated for a second term, he talks about the 250 years of unrequited toil, [i.e.] unpaid labor. That’s what slavery was, unpaid labor. And he thought that was completely illegitimate. So, that’s really what’s driving him.

Now, of course, that doesn’t tell you how to get rid of slavery especially if you believe in the Union, you believe in the Constitution. You know, the abolitionists said, “Let’s just abolish slavery,” but there was no legal mechanism for doing that before the Civil War. Slavery was an institution for the States. It required cooperation by slave owners if you’re going to get rid of slavery. That’s why people like Lincoln [spoke] about paying them for their slaves. You know, the abolitionists said, “Pay them? This is illegitimate. This is not real property, human beings. If you pay them, you are sort of accepting the legitimacy of their right of property.” But, if you’re going to need the cooperation of slave owners, you’re going to have to give them something to, you know, for them to cooperate.

So, you know, it’s one thing. Lincoln hated slavery, and yet as a person fully embedded in the political system, he had to work within that system to think about ways of getting rid of slavery.


His agnosticism would make him a completely untenable candidate in modern times, especially within the Republican party.

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