Richard Wrightman Fox: The President Who Died for Us

Roundup: Talking About History

[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.]

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."...

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.

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Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs - 4/15/2006

Prince William of Orange ("William the Silent") led his country towards independence from Hapsburg rule but was assassinated in 1584. A sentiment regarding his life and death similar to that mentioned about Lincoln was expressed by the placement of the prince's tomb on the former location of the high altar in the Nieuwe Kerk in Delft, a medieval church that ten years earlier had become Calvinist and had been stripped of its Catholic furnishings (including the high altar, site of the ritual re-enactment of Christ's sacrifice). Following that example, later Dutch national heroes were also interred on the sites of other churches' high altars in recognition of the importance of their self-sacrifice for the preservation of Dutch society (commonly self-identified God's elect).