The President Who Died for Us

By Richard Wightman Fox, the author of "Jesus in America: Personal Savior, Cultural Hero, National Obsession," is writing a book about the aftermath of Lincoln's assassination (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 14/04/06):

THIS year, Good Friday, the day commemorating Christ's crucifixion, falls on April 14, as it did in 1865. On that evening, in the balcony box of Ford's Theater in Washington, John Wilkes Booth fired a handmade .41-caliber derringer ball into the back of Abraham Lincoln's head.

In the days that followed Lincoln's death, his mourning compatriots rushed to compare him to Jesus, Moses and George Washington.

Despite the Good Friday coincidence, the Jesus parallel was not an obvious one for 19th-century Americans to make. The Protestant population, then as now, included a vigilant evangelical minority who thought that Jesus, sinless on earth, was defamed every time ordinary sinners presumed to imitate him. No mere mortal could be put beside Jesus on a moral balance scale.

But Honest Abe overwhelmed the usual evangelical reticence — by April 1865 the majority of Northerners and Southern blacks took him as no ordinary person. He had been offering his body and soul all through the war and his final sacrifice, providentially appointed for Good Friday, showed that God had surely marked him for sacred service.

At a mass assembly in Manhattan five hours after Lincoln's death, James A. Garfield — the Ohio congressman who would become the second assassinated president 16 years later — voiced the common hesitancy, then went on to claim the analogy: "It may be almost impious to say it, but it does seem that Lincoln's death parallels that of the Son of God."

Jesus had saved humanity, or at least some portion of it, from eternal damnation. Lincoln had saved the nation from the civic equivalent of damnation: the dissolution that had always bedeviled republics. "Jesus Christ died for the world," said the Rev. C. B. Crane in Hartford. "Abraham Lincoln died for his country."

The small minority of Jews and Catholics, equally awed by Lincoln's bodily sacrifice, joined Protestants in hailing the president's uncommon virtues: forgiveness, mercy, defense of the poor and the oppressed. Catholics joined Protestants in noting his Christ-like habits of brooding in private and keeping his own counsel.

Nearly everyone joined in heralding Lincoln's phrase "with malice toward none, with charity for all," which Christian mourners hailed as the heart of the Gospel. Those words from his second inaugural address, delivered just six weeks before his death, turned up on hand-scrawled banners all over the Union. People mounted them, along with black-bordered flags and photographs of Lincoln, in the windows of their homes and shops.

Thomas Nast's 1866 painting "President Lincoln Entering Richmond" (commemorating his surprise stroll into the capital of the Confederacy on April 4, 1865, shortly after Robert E. Lee's retreat) reinforced the sentiment: Lincoln shepherded his people just as Jesus did. The president walked into Richmond before Holy Week the way Jesus rode into Jerusalem before Passover: humbly, not triumphantly. Both men were enveloped by exuberant admirers.

Most American Christians turned to the Jesus analogy because they realized how much they loved Lincoln. They took his loss as personal, often comparing it to a death in the family. Many felt attached to Lincoln almost as they felt attached to Jesus. The striving rail-splitter from Illinois and the simple carpenter from Nazareth resembled them, the people. In contrast, while still heroic, Washington seemed more distant, even aloof.

Yet calculation as well as veneration entered the campaign to sanctify Lincoln. Radical Republicans revealed a political reason for comparing Lincoln to Jesus. Trying to explain why a rational Providence had permitted Lincoln to die, they decided that the savior of the nation had proved himself too Christ-like, too softhearted, too "womanly," for the necessarily punitive job of "reconstructing" the postwar South. God in his wisdom had put Andrew Johnson in place for the messy task of enacting justice.

Many Protestants also displayed a religious motive for emphasizing the resemblance between Lincoln and Christ. They made the president a virtual holy man because they wished retroactively to make him a morally impeccable and believing Christian. They considered theater-going, a favorite pastime of the president, as morally dubious; his choice of the stage for recreation on this day of crucifixion made them sick at heart.

And Lincoln, who after 1862 had spoken repeatedly of his dependence on God and Providence, had never referred much to Jesus. The barrage of Jesus comparisons offered a camouflaging aura of piety for a man who had enjoyed lowbrow, off-color humor as much as play-acting.

Seven score and one years have passed since Good Friday 1865, and Lincoln has always remained his own man. In his final years, he had set his own course by balancing a pressing sense of the rule of Providence with a persistent belief in the power of reason. Still, he can — and should — stand as historic demonstration that a republican hero's sacrifice for the people comes very close to Christ's ideals of self-denial and self-giving.