On Dec. 3, 1864, Abraham Lincoln proposed putting God in the Constitution. Preparing to submit his annual address on the state of the union, the president drafted a paragraph suggesting the addition of language to the preamble “recognizing the Deity.” The proposal shocked his cabinet during a read-through. With his re-election secured and the political utility of such a move dubious, the most religiously skeptical president since Thomas Jefferson proposed blowing an irreparable God-size hole through the wall separating church and state. What was Lincoln thinking?
Recalling the meeting in his memoirs, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles wrote that the imprudent idea had been put in the president’s head “by certain religionists” – namely, the Covenanters. A tiny sect from Scotland that had resided in America since before the Revolution, they believed the Constitution contained two crippling moral flaws: its protection of slavery, and its failure to acknowledge God’s authority. With the Emancipation Proclamation poised to fix the one sin, they believed, why not correct the other? At their first meeting with Lincoln in late 1862 (it was much easier for citizens to get an audience with the president at the time), a group of influential Covenanters suggested doing just that.
In that first meeting, Abraham Lincoln was quintessentially Abraham Lincoln — by turns respectful, humorous and reflective. He regaled his guests with the rough-hewn ideas that became his second inaugural address. He observed that each side in the war prayed to the same God, read the same Bible and invoked divine favor against the other; perhaps, Lincoln suggested, the war would ultimately decide which nation God chose
The Covenanter ministers left their meeting emboldened. Thereafter they were instrumental in forming a coalition of denominations dedicated to acknowledging Christianity in the Constitution. This group, the National Reform Association, hoped to reference Jesus’ authority just after “We the People” and before “in order to form a more perfect Union.” They visited the president again in 1864 with an official request for action.
Lincoln is often remembered as a religious skeptic, at best, but throughout the war he showed exceptional shrewdness in wielding the political power of religion. As a young man, he openly scoffed at Christianity and once wrote an essay examining all the falsehoods contained in the Bible. Open heresy proved politically perilous; he lost his first bid for a congressional nomination amid accusations that Christians could not vote for him in good conscience.
From that experience, and from his active participation in grass-roots political organizing, Lincoln came to respect the ability of church networks to mobilize voters on moral issues. Thereafter, he used religion to great effect in his political career, casting his campaign platforms in stark moral terms, calling for more thanksgiving and fast days than any previous president and meeting constantly with clergy. Those ministers returned from their audiences at the White House preaching sermons that baptized the Union, the War and the president with religious purpose. Cultivating relationships with religious leaders paid dividends when Lincoln won re-election in a landslide.
Even so, the 16th president paid more than lip service to religion. Raised by a Bible-thumping mother in a hard-drinking culture, he somehow managed to reject and have sympathy for both. He was a moralist, a fatalist and prone to bouncing between soaring hope and sinking melancholy. For all these reasons, the president understood and reverenced religion better than many believers did, both as a political advantage and a safe harbor for troubled souls in the midst of storms. Lincoln’s own storms — the disintegration of the Union, the death of his young son Willie and regular wartime casualty reports — heightened his belief in Providence and shook the skepticism of his youth. A distant, impersonal sense of divinity was replaced by the president’s increasing conviction that God was concerned with the affairs of humanity. More important, Lincoln came to believe what he said in 1862 – that this inscrutable God might actually choose sides.
In contemplating a religious amendment, then, Lincoln brought to bear his own conflicted sense about God and America. The nation was at war both with itself and with what he believed remained its ultimate destiny to be an example of free government to the world. With the Emancipation Proclamation, and soon through the 13th Amendment, Lincoln christened the Civil War with the moral name of abolition. Perhaps, if only briefly, he considered that Reconstruction would need a higher calling as well. Americans, in the rubble of war, would share little in common besides enmity. They might yet find unity in rebuilding a nation that possessed a divine destiny.
But Lincoln the philosopher was also Lincoln the lawyer; such a move would open a Pandora’s box of divisive constitutional issues. The Cabinet’s very loud concerns were joined by some of his own. He struck the paragraph and it was never mentioned again.
By suggesting it at all, though, the president put on display, however briefly, the exceptional power of the Civil War to remake American society. Just 10 years before, most Americans might easily have conceived of a constitutional amendment invoking the name of God. Few would have predicted one eradicating slavery. Then the nation’s greatest crisis proved capable of taking slavery out of the national compact but not of putting God in it. High-profile campaigns to Christianize the Constitution continued well into the 20th century and even made their way into congressional committees. Still, they never came closer to realization than that one paragraph read aloud by Lincoln in a cabinet meeting. Those brief words bespoke the limits of religion and reform in American government at the nation’s most malleable moment.
Sources: “Diary of Gideon Welles, Vol. II”; John Alexander, “History of the National Reform Association”; Richard Carwardine, “Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power.”
Joseph S. Moore, an assistant professor of history at Gardner-Webb University, is the author of the forthcoming book “Covenanters and the American Republic.”