Abraham Lincoln’s merciful Christmas letter, history is frequently debated.
Abraham Lincoln is consistently ranked as the greatest American president. But at the same time his place in history is frequently debated for a variety of contrasting reasons:
Constitutional scholars claim that Lincoln’s actions during the Civil War were so drastic that he consolidated authority in the executive branch of government illegally, upsetting the balance of powers.
Religionists say that Lincoln was no Christian because he joined no church.
And Christmas historians frequently dismiss Abraham Lincoln as one of the least inclined of American presidents to celebrate Christmas. After all, Lincoln did not have a Christmas tree, did not send out Christmas cards and every Christmas day in the White House during Lincoln’s administration was a work day.
In fact, while in Congress, Lincoln voted against making Christmas a holiday – all but labeling him a Scrooge for the ages by lazy historians.
We will leave the arguments of religion and constitutional theory to the experts. But on the topic of Christmas we proudly claim Lincoln one of our own – a legend the likes of Dickens.
The world just sees Lincoln and Christmas completely wrong.
To understand Lincoln’s journey with Christmas one must understand the circumstances of Christmas in America at the time, the natural course of spiritual journey for any individual, the trial and tragedies of the Civil War and the written record of Lincoln in his own words.
Christmas in the 1840s exploded in American culture. It was driven by a quickly changing media machine made possible by emerging technology that improved newspaper presentation and circulation and the telegraph that made news move lightning fast. Drawn images started to become part of publishing, both in newsprint and in magazines. When Queen Victoria advanced the tradition of the Christmas tree it was only when a published drawing showing her decorating her tree caused the tradition to catch fire in the United States.
Such trends of Christmas – along with Christmas cards, Christmas carols, Dickens himself as well as Clement Clark Moore’s poem A Visit from Saint Nicholas – combined to unify Christmas as more than just a day of family feasting or church going for the American public.
Christmas was, for lack of a better term, a fad in the 1840s and 1850s.
The famous vote that Lincoln took against Christmas came in his term in the state legislature in Illinois. It was a vote he took more on principle than in opposition to Christmas. As a public servant, Lincoln felt state workers did not need another paid day off that regular folks themselves would not receive. While the vote did a lot at the time to promote the later use of “Honest Abe” in campaign slogans it did little to save Lincoln from being criticized as a Scrooge.
Lincoln’s spiritual nature is hotly debated. This is due in large part to his one-time law partner, William Herndon. A story, perhaps true or perhaps not, is told of a group of former slaves from Maryland who presented Lincoln with a Bible. Lincoln was so moved that he allegedly said: “In regard to this great book, I have but to say, it is the best gift God has given to man. All the good the Saviour gave to the world was communicated through this book. But for it we could not know right from wrong. All things most desirable for man’s welfare, here and hereafter, are to be found portrayed in it”.
Herndon heard that story and flipped his lid. “I am aware of the fraud committed on Mr. Lincoln in reporting some insane remarks supposed to have been made by him, in 1864, on the presentation of a Bible to him by the colored people of Baltimore. No sane man ever uttered such folly, and no sane man will ever believe it.”
How did Lincoln come to question the existence of God?
Lincoln was raised by the Bible and, in fact, learned to read the language from its pages. It is said that as president he knew the Bible better than any man previously who had held the office. But in his youth and later during his formative adult years Lincoln received no formal religious training and attended no church.
Herndon and Lincoln were law partners before Lincoln’s political career. They were close and knew each other well – as younger men. Lincoln was nearly a decade older and was more of a mentor than a partner to Herndon. In his time, Herndon was considered radical because his anti-slavery attitudes were considered seditious in the 1840s. While he no doubt helped shape Lincoln’s views on slavery there is no denying that Lincoln shaped Herndon’s perceptions of Lincoln’s spirituality. While partners in the 1830s Lincoln was in his 30s and Herndon in his 20s – they were young men, unmarried, and trained in the law. That they debated issues such as slavery and the existence of God cannot be doubted.
But the Lincoln of the 1830s was far different than the Lincoln of the Civil War era. One has to wonder what Herndon thought when Lincoln, as president, issued a proclamation with this language:
“The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consiousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.”
These are not words of a man who doubted the existence of God.
In fact, many of Lincoln’s public and private writings during his time as president are dominated with thoughts of the Divine.
Lincoln, of course, had been through a lot since leaving Herndon in Illinois. He lost a hotly contested race for the Senate, he served one term as a member of Congress, he got married and he ran for president against a crowded field of opponents and only took office after the United States was fractured. On a personal level he endured a high maintenance marriage and the tragic death of a young son that wrenched his soul and caused him to seek God like never before.
Death was a theme in his life that haunted him on many levels. As President it pained him to write letters to families of soldiers lost in the war. And he suffered from dreams, visions and premonitions about death, more often than not, his own demise.
For all his experiences Lincoln never had the opportunity to explore faith in a church while he was president. He occasionally attended a local congregation but his fame and notoriety prohibited much participation. Whether he made the connection to Christmas as a spiritual observance is not really known.
But Lincoln was not oblivious to Christmas or the significance that Christmas held for those around him.
While in office, Christmas was a time unlike other regular work days. In 1861 Lincoln hosted a Christmas party at the White House. In 1862 he spent Christmas visiting soldiers at area hospitals. In 1863 he visited Union soldiers with his son Tad, bearing Christmas gifts of books and clothing marked “From Tad Lincoln”.
Lincoln was not known to have adopted the emerging trends of Christmas trees or Christmas cards. This is easily explainable in that the White House was very much a public building frequently vandalized by souvenir-seekers during the Lincoln administration. A Christmas tree would have been an easy target in the busy halls of the White House. And Christmas cards were a frivolity considered inappropriate in times of war. Later presidents would embrace the Christmas tree and the sending of Christmas cards – but Lincoln lacked that luxury.
Lincoln was keenly aware of what Christmas meant to all Americans – both North and South. And he used Christmas and the symbolism of Santa Claus especially to great effect in prosecuting the war.
Christmas of 1863 saw the Union effort bearing down hard on the South with a blockade of goods. For months on end supplies were thin in the South as Lincoln strategized to squeeze the energy from the Confederate effort. He commissioned artist Thomas Nast to draw a picture of Santa Claus visiting Union Troops in the January 3, 1863 edition of the widely read Harper’s Weekly. The scarcity of goods and the high prices of store bought items caused Southern mothers to explain to their children that not even Santa Claus could break the Union blockade.
Lincoln instructed Nast to show Santa with Union troops as much as possible and the enduring images from 1863 and 1864 publications are largely credited with defining the image of the modern Santa Claus. Their affect was so profound that Lincoln one time claimed Santa was “the best recruiting sergeant the North ever had”.
1864 was an election year and Lincoln handily won all but three states and was re-elected. By the time the elections were held the Union had marched through the South and Christmas 1864 was marked by a decisive victory made memorable by a note from General Sherman to President Lincoln: “I beg to present you, as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah…”
In a heartfelt reply, Lincoln wrote: “Many, many thanks for your Christmas gift – the capture of Savannah…Please make my grateful acknowledgements to your whole army – officers and men.”
One of Thomas Nast’s most famous prints was one called The Union Christmas, which was printed on December 31, 1864 and depicts President Lincoln standing at a door, with him offering the cold and frostbitten Southern soldiers an invitation to rejoin the Union.
Another Nast creation from earlier that same month showed the Confederacy’s President Jefferson Davis and his problematic predicament. The illustration, entitled Lincoln’s Christmas Box to Jeff Davis, showed the choices the South’s leader by then had: “More war or peace and union?”
These interwoven bits of art, history, culture and military strategy show an American culture fully engaged in the celebration of Christmas – and President Abraham Lincoln was squarely in the middle of it all.
It was only five short years later, in 1870, that Christmas was finally recognized as a federal holiday.
Abraham Lincoln never contributed a poem, a song, or even a declaration on the subject of Christmas. In fact, no known quote about Christmas – other than his quip about Santa Claus being a recruiting tool for the North – exists from the mouth or pen of President Lincoln.
But Lincoln’s acknowledgement of Christmas and his use of the season both in media and military strategy speaks highly enough of his regard for the season and his thought of how others kept it.