Civil War History 50.2 (2004) 196-198
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In his book, Lincoln's Quest for Equality, Carl Wieck argues that Theodore Parker, an important antebellum abolitionist minister, "exerted pivotal but almost unperceived influence on Lincoln's thought and moral development . . . revealing that Lincoln had considerably stronger ties to abolitionism than has previously been suggested" (3). Moreover, Wieck, an emeritus researcher at the University of Tampere in Finland, asserts that Parker had a greater influence than did Daniel Webster on Lincoln in formulating his ideas in his struggle against slavery. [End Page 196]
In considering his book, one must remember that Wieck's task of tracing the intellectual influences upon Lincoln's thought is a difficult one. To prove his thesis, Wieck primarily relies on the correspondence of Parker with William Herndon, Lincoln's law partner. As a committed abolitionist, Herndon often shared radical literature—including Parker's writings—with Lincoln. In support of his thesis, Wieck makes much of similarities in phraseology and argument between Parker's sermons and Lincoln's speeches, especially in his House Divided Speech and the Gettysburg Address. Moreover, it is probable that while riding the circuit Lincoln had carried with him a pair of Parker's speeches on slavery.
Despite this evidence, Wieck concedes that Herndon, although a great admirer of Parker, does not assert in his biography the central influence of Parker on Lincoln. Instead, Herndon believed that Lincoln was influenced by many different persons, the foremost of whom were Webster and Henry Clay. To his credit, Wieck addresses this difficulty, but in so doing undermines his thesis, for the evidence demonstrates that Lincoln's thought on slavery was much closer to the two great Whig leaders' than to Parker's. The influence of Webster and Clay is most evident in Lincoln's insistence that Southern constitutional rights—including property in slaves—be protected.
Another way to test Wieck's thesis is to consider whether Lincoln's exposure to Parker in any way changed the course he pursued thereafter. Moreover, if a change is detected, one must then calculate how much of this transformation can be attributed to Parker and not to others. For instance, Wieck asserts it is self-evident that Parker's "emphasis on a humanity common to all" made Lincoln more sensitive to the humanity of slaves (178). However, it should be remembered that from an early age Lincoln hated slavery and was sympathetic to the bondman's plight. As a statesman, however, Lincoln never adopted Parker's abolitionist policies. Instead, even after his exposure to Parker's sermons and thought, Lincoln stubbornly pursued a conservative and cautious approach in seeking slavery's end. Even during the Civil War, when one might expect him to take a more radical approach, Lincoln waited for more than a year to proclaim the emancipation of all slaves in regions still in rebellion, and this only after other policies had failed. This reluctance to take vigorous and direct action against slavery demonstrates that Parker had little real influence on Lincoln after all.
While other scholars, foremost of whom are Harry V. Jaffa and Garry Wills, provide greater insights into influences upon Lincoln's thought, Wieck demonstrates the importance of Parker and other northern abolitionists and [End Page 197] reformers with whom Lincoln as president often disagreed on slavery policy. Moreover, Wieck reveals that Parker, rather than being an obsessed fanatic, recognized that as a politician Lincoln must consider popular opinion in deciding his course of action. One suspects, however, that if somehow he could be asked about his influence on Lincoln, Parker himself would have described it as marginal at best.
Dennis K. Boman