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New book links Lincoln’s and Jefferson’s presidential leadership to religious ideals

This President’s Day, a book by a Brigham Young University political scientist reveals that Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln relied on religious morals to guide their political careers.

Analyzing a number of America’s foundational documents and speeches, including an early draft of the Declaration of Independence and numerous presidential inaugural addresses, BYU professor Matthew Holland finds a surprisingly large number of references to biblical notions of charity.

“Bonds of Affection,” a new book written by Holland, looks at the relationship between Christian ideals of charity and American political thought and culture. He concludes that the history of American politics is more deeply rooted in religious ideals than once believed.

“It was an important story about American political development that had never been told, and I thought it needed to be told,” Holland said.

Analyzing written documents and presidential speeches, Holland reveals the change in heart that Jefferson experienced over time concerning his views on Christianity’s role in politics. When drafting the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson resisted the opinions of his colleagues at the Continental Congress about the religious tones that they later infused in the final draft.

However, Holland shows that over time Jefferson developed a much more sympathetic attitude to Christian doctrine. These sympathies are seen in his first inaugural address, which some scholars consider to be his most important speech. He concludes his speech with a prayer-like phrase, saying, “And may that Infinite Power which rules the destinies of the universe lead our councils to what is best and give them a favorable issue for your peace and prosperity.”

Looking to another revered American president, Abraham Lincoln, Holland finds another instance of a leader drawing upon religious ideals at a critical point in American history.

“Civic charity set a real tone to both their presidencies, especially Lincoln’s,” Holland said. “I think he worked especially hard to be charitable to all parties and he had plenty of antagonists on his own side, let alone his antagonists in the South.”

In one of the texts he analyzed, Holland reveals that Lincoln’s second inaugural address is full of biblical references. The brief 703-word speech contains more than a dozen references to God. Reflecting on the conflict of the Civil War, Lincoln said, “Yet if God wills that it continue, … the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.”

Holland asserts that while engaged in the Civil War, Lincoln worked constantly to combat hatred, exemplifying ideals of charity and affection. His second inaugural address was the seminal statement that exemplified this philosophy. In the closing paragraph of his speech Lincoln said, “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right; as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind the nation’s wounds.”

“Holland offers a fresh new reading of standard Lincoln texts, especially of the Second Inaugural…His argument for ‘civic charity’ in public life will challenge Lincoln scholars to think again about accommodations between the secular and the sacred in the meaning and intent of Lincoln’s words,” said Bryon Andreasen, a research historian at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

Holland’s analysis and reflection on American political thought offers a unique look at early presidents and the ideals they espoused to form ties that would bind the country together. “Bonds of Affection” is published by Georgetown University Press.

“‘Bonds of Affection’ is an exemplary piece of scholarship,” said Robert George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, Princeton University. “It is thoughtfully conceived and rigorously argued. Readers will be impressed by the exceptional breadth and depth of knowledge displayed, as well as by the author’s philosophical sophistication and interpretive skills.”

Writer: Jessica Witt

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