Lincoln and Not-Lincoln

A few paragraphs of Charles Gibson’s interview with Sarah Palin have been released early, and in them she invokes Lincoln:

GIBSON: You said recently, in your old church, “Our national leaders are sending U.S. soldiers on a task that is from God.” Are we fighting a holy war?

PALIN: You know, I don’t know if that was my exact quote.

GIBSON: Exact words.

PALIN: But the reference there is a repeat of Abraham Lincoln’s words when he said—first, he suggested never presume to know what God’s will is, and I would never presume to know God’s will or to speak God’s words. But what Abraham Lincoln had said, and that’s a repeat in my comments, was let us not pray that God is on our side in a war or any other time, but let us pray that we are on God’s side. That’s what that comment was all about, Charlie.

According to a widely distributed video of Palin’s remarks to the Wasilla Assembly of God church—there’s a transcript, link, and forensic appraisal here—she said, “Our leaders, our national leaders, are sending them out on a task that is from God.” She continued: “That’s what we have to make sure that we’re praying for, that there is a plan and that that plan is God’s plan.”

I suspect that she objects to Gibson’s quotation not because it’s inaccurate but because it doesn’t include this second sentence, about praying that “that plan is God’s plan.” It is this sentence which she would like to believe echoes Lincoln.

The first interpretive crux to resolve here is which passage by Lincoln Palin has in mind. The first that occurred to me was his “Meditation on the Divine Will”:

The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be wrong. God can not be for, and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party—and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect His purpose. I am almost ready to say this is probably true—that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet. By his mere quiet power, on the minds of the now contestants, He could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest. Yet the contest began. And having begun He could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds. (c. early September 1862).

The line of thought is one that recurs in Lincoln. She may equally have been thinking of the First Inaugural Address:

In our present differences, is either party without faith of being in the right? If the Almighty Ruler of nations, with his eternal truth and justice, be on your side of the North, or on yours of the South, that truth, and that justice, will surely prevail, by the judgment of this great tribunal, the American people. (4 March 1861)

And there’s something of the same idea in the Second Inaugural:

Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. . . . The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. (4 March 1865)

The trouble is, in none of these passages does Lincoln pray to be on God’s side. God seems, rather, to have a side all his own, unknowable to human beings. There’s a touch of irony in the way Lincoln presents the paradox of two faith-filled groups at war with one another. And the irony is even stronger in less familiar Lincoln texts. In his “Reply to Chicago Emancipation Memorial, Washington, D.C.,” Lincoln grew almost caustic about Christians who were sure that God wished, or didn’t wish, for the emancipation of slaves:

I am approached with the most opposite opinions and advice, and that by religious men, who are equally certain that they represent the Divine will. I am sure that either the one or the other class is mistaken in that belief, and perhaps in some respects both. I hope it will not be irreverent for me to say that if it is probable that God would reveal his will to others, on a point so connected with my duty, it might be supposed he would reveal it directly to me. (13 September 1862)

Thinking about God’s will and human intentions a few years before he became President, Lincoln went so far as to ridicule an imaginary reverend who tried to pray his way into agreement with God on the question of slavery:

Certainly there is no contending against the Will of God; but still there is some difficulty in ascertaining, and applying it, to particular cases. For instance we will suppose the Rev. Dr. Ross has a slave named Sambo, and the question is “Is it the Will of God that Sambo shall remain a slave, or be set free?” The Almighty gives no audible answer to the question, and his revelation—the Bible—gives none—or, at most, none but such as admits of a squabble, as to its meaning. So, at last, it comes to this, that Dr. Ross is to decide the question. And while he considers it, he sits in the shade, with gloves on his hands, and subsists on the bread that Sambo is earning in the burning sun. (1858?)

It doesn’t seem likely that Palin has this ironic Lincoln in mind. So who is she thinking of? Her Lincoln, fortuitously, seems to have been channeled by Pat Buchanan on the September 8 episode of The Rachel Maddow Show, during a discussion of the same speech to the Wasilla Assembly of God:

MADDOW: She’s not praying that the war be part of God’s plan.

BUCHANAN: Oh, yes, she is.

MADDOW: She’s asserting that the war is part of God’s plan.

BUCHANAN: No, no. She did not say this war is God’s plan. Look at it again—

MADDOW: She’s asserting that God has a plan for the war just as God has a plan for the pipeline.

BUCHANAN: Just like Lincoln said, “Look, let us pray that we are on God’s side.”

There is a bit of mystery here. Either Buchanan is a mind-reader, or he and the Palin-McCain campaign have been in touch. Further Googling reveals that Buchanan and/or the Palin-McCain backup team seem to be thinking of an unsourced anecdote that circulates on the Internet in a dozen versions, about a supposed encounter between a Northerner, who hopes God is on his side, and Lincoln, who hopes the North is on God’s side. Maybe a source for the anecdote will turn up, but I don’t recall having read of it before today. (It doesn’t seem to be in the Google Books scan of Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, a scholarly compendium of everything that Lincoln’s contemporaries remember him to have said.) The earliest telling of the anecdote that I could find in Google Books dates from 1943; my guess is that it’s a mid-twentieth-century fabrication.

The hard truth is, Lincoln didn’t think God spoke to human beings, whether they prayed or not, in such a way as to tell them what to do on Earth. He thought the Bible gave no guidance on worldly matters—or at least “none but such as admits of a squabble.” And the quaint anecdote that Palin cites, though one can see how some of the thoughts in the Second Inaugural gave rise to it, gets Lincoln slightly but tellingly wrong. There isn’t practically much difference between praying that God is on your side and praying that you are on God’s side, unless you’re willing to change sides, and Lincoln, for one, felt he had little choice in the side he finally took. What he was saying in the passages quoted above—the ones actually by him, that is—was darker. He was suggesting that God’s will may not have any relationship to human will at all. Thinking that it did—even, perhaps, thinking that it could—might be mere delusion. That sort of delusion happens to have governed the White House recently; one hopes that it won’t still govern it next year.

UPDATE (Sept. 12): Harold Holzer has told the Boston Globe that he also believes Palin’s Lincoln quote to have been a fake: “‘I think there is no computing the precise Lincoln quote with her own quote,’ Holzer said. ‘Lincoln sought guidance from God, he didn’t tell people that God was guiding him. It is just different.'”

FURTHER UPDATE (Sept. 12): Today John McCain recited the same probably-fake Lincoln anecdote on the daytime television show The View, so perhaps it will soon flower into the full virulence of a meme.

Of more interest: This afternoon, I received an email from David Emery, who writes about urban legends at, and he reports finding an earlier telling of the anecdote. Near the end of the Proceedings of the Fifteenth Annual Convention of the Connecticut Temperance Union, Held in the First Congregational Church, Meriden, January 19, 1881, the anonymous author (perhaps the union’s secretary, J. N. Stearns?) wrote:

One of the best of the many good stories that are told of our Martyr President, runs as follows: At the close of a scientific convention in Washington, the members called upon the President. One of them said: “Mr. President, we trust during this time of trial in which the nation is engaged, God is on our side, and will give us victory.” The noble Lincoln replied: “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side. My great concern is to be on God’s side. For God is always right!”

On his blog, Emery also reports discovering that Barack Obama told the same probably-spurious anecdote on CNN on June 8, 2007, so I suppose that takes some of the wind of righteous indignation out of my sails. Oh well. Still, the thought of Palin quoting Lincoln remains for me personally rather itchy-making and preposterous, and reminds me of that Veronica Geng story that riffed on the idea that the words “Reagan” and “read Proust” are statistically unlikely to appear in the same sentence. Ascending from politics into scholarship, however, Emery’s discovery raises the question: Can anyone do better? Can anyone find the story being told while Lincoln was alive? I’m afraid that whether Obama told it or no, it still sounds fake to me. I should probably say that I don’t to my sorrow actually own a copy of Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, and I won’t feel safe about ruling it out until I’ve looked at the physical copy. Ideally someone like Douglas L. Wilson might notice this controversy and resolve it in 23 seconds or whatever it would take him.

STILL MORE: One of David Emery’s readers notes that Rev. Matthew Simpson, in his Funeral Address Delivered at the Burial of President Lincoln, 4 May 1865, writes:

To a minister who said he hoped the Lord was on our side, he replied that it gave him no concern whether the Lord was on our side or not, “For,” he added, “I know the Lord is always on the side of right;” and with deep feeling added, “But God is my witness that it is my constant anxiety and prayer that both myself and this nation should be on the Lord’s side.”

I have to admit, this begins to sound plausible. The anecdote is coming from someone who knew Lincoln, and knew him so well that he was chosen to give the elegy at his funeral. There also seems to be a touch of the authentic doubting Lincoln in the prefatory assertion that “it gave him no concern whether the Lord was on our side or not.” I’ll persist in believing that the anecdote doesn’t represent Lincoln as well as any of his writings on the subject do, and that if you want a politician who reads Lincoln, you can’t do better than Obama, but I think I have to concede that the anecdote itself could be authentic.

YET MORE, IN CLARIFICATION (Sept. 25): A reader argues that I take Palin’s words out of context when I quote her as having said, “Our leaders, our national leaders, are sending them out on a task that is from God.” She suggests that I ought to have quoted the whole sentence: “Pray for our military men and women who are striving to do what is right also for this country, that our leaders, our national leaders, are sending them out on a task that is from God.” She objects:

If I say, “I hope that I will get the job,” and I am quoted as saying “I will get the job,” it is an inaccurate quotation. A subordinate clause is being quoted without the information that shows it to be
contingent on something else. Charles Gibson would be right to say “exact words” in this case, too, but at the same time what he is saying is not at all what I meant when I said those words.

The objection is well put, and I see the point, though I don’t think I’m wrong to have quoted Palin above as I did. Palin’s wording is ambiguous, and I do say above that Gibson would have made Palin’s meaning clearer if he had also quoted the sentence that followed, which resolves the ambiguity.

If Palin had said simply, “Pray . . . that our leaders . . . are sending them out on a task that is from God,” her meaning would have been clear. But by adding that long intervening phrase (“for our military men and women who are striving to do what is right also for this country”), she made it easy for listeners to hear the word “them” as a mistaken addition. In other words, she made it easy for people to hear her as saying, “Pray for our military men and women, . . . that our leaders . . . are sending . . . out on a task that is from God.”

Gibson doesn’t seem to have heard the word “them” in Palin’s sentence, and it doesn’t appear in the Cogitamus transcript. This might be deliberate partisan obtuseness, but I’m inclined to think it’s a reasonable mishearing. I added the word back in when I quoted the Cogitamus transcript, because I heard it when I listened to the video and realized that it made her meaning a little more perspicuous.

However, to use the reader’s example, if I were to say, “I hope for the sake of my family and also my friends who have always been there for me and who understand me that I will get the job,” it wouldn’t be crazy for someone listening to think that the word “me” was a mistake and to hear me as having said that my family and friends understand that I will get the job. In fact, I would have meant to say I hope I get the job for the sake of my family and friends, who understand me. If I then went on to say, “That’s what I’m hoping for, that I won’t disappoint the people who understand me,” then it would be moderately unfair for someone not to figure out what I meant, and that’s roughly what I say in my post above—that Palin’s first sentence was ambiguous and that her second cleared up the ambiguity, and that she had a point in objecting to Gibson’s quote.

If only Palin had used the subjunctive, none of this would have happened.