|Cartoon of Charles Guiteau by Miriam Leslie, 1881.|
Melville’s Ahab cannot stop hunting the white whale, even as the quest takes the lives of his crew, his own sanity, and eventually the entire ship. Guiteau insisted that he was on a divine mission when he shot Garfield, because God wanted Garfield replaced.
The question of the relationship between God and society was central in American intellectual life in the early republic. America’s Puritan divines insisted that their followers must have a personal relationship with God, but then got around the problem of divinely inspired antisocial acts by insisting that anyone operating in unorthodox ways was conspiring not with God but with the Devil. By the antebellum years, the country’s writers—Hawthorne and Melville, especially—had picked up the theme of the tension between God and society and explored it in the emotionally charged pages of their books. In the 1850s this question exploded into politics, with leaders like William Henry Seward claiming that there was a “higher law” than the Constitution that required their allegiance.
Seward’s argument horrified Abraham Lincoln, who insisted that the nation was one of laws, and who fought the Civil War according to the Constitution. Both Lincoln’s adherence to the Constitution and the sheer carnage of the Civil War effectively ended the idea that American society could accommodate the actions of those who believed themselves divinely inspired. By the time Guiteau tried to justify his actions to a jury, he was a figure of derision and disgust.