REFLECTING ON LINCOLN’S OBSERVATION
At the risk of sounding sesquipedalian, April 2011 was the sesquicentennial of the bombardment of the federal troops occupying Fort Sumter that effectively began the American Civil War. The ensuing hostilities resulted in more deaths and casualties than all other American wars combined. Historians debate the consequences of the Civil War to this day. Some argue that the Civil War was the necessary corrective to the flawed constitution adopted by the Founding Fathers; a compromise constitution that never solved the problem of slavery but merely forestalled is resolution. Some argue that the Civil War had the unintended consequences of launching the United States into the modern period with subsequent urbanization and industrialization. Others argue that the Civil War served ultimately to emphasize the “United” rather than the “States,” the expressed intent of President Abraham Lincoln.
The Civil War produced its share of heroes. Generals Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and others among the Confederates and General U. S. Grant and William T. Sherman for the Federalists made their military reputations. Frederick Douglas elevated the cause of abolition through his dignified manner and literate positions. But undoubtedly it was Abraham Lincoln who emerged as the principled yet conflicted, battle-worn yet intrepid, compassionate and resolute hero of the Civil War. While the emancipation of the slaves was not his original concern, it is for this that he is most remembered – or reviled.
When Lincoln was campaigning in Illinois in 1858, he articulated what he believed to be the central distinction between him and his opponent Stephen Douglas:
“A house divided against itself cannot stand.” I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.
It was a speech as prescient as it was political. His educated audience – at least to the churchgoers and Bible readers – knew Lincoln was quoting directly from Christian scripture. The Book of Matthew (12:25) says: “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand.” But what they – and few today – know was that what appears in Matthew actually comes from the Jewish tradition. And the author of Matthew was conditioned by that tradition.
One of the Minor Tractates of the Talmud (Derekh Eretz Zuta 9), dating to a period about the time of the composition of Matthew, if not earlier, teaches: “A house conflicted with controversy is doomed to destruction; and a synagogue rife with controversy shall be cut asunder.” The difference between the two is that the Talmud focuses on strife within the religious sphere (the academy and the synagogue) while Matthew extends it to the public sphere (the kingdom and the city). There is little to suggest that Lincoln would have been aware of an arcane reference in the Talmud. And even so, the version in Matthew was more apposite for Lincoln’s purposes. But what is noteworthy is that his theme – concern for a festering conflict – is one that finds its roots in Judaism.
Conflict is not new to Jews; neither is it new to other nations. What is needed are statesmen of Lincoln’s stature who will dare to resolve them.