Thursday, November 14, 2013

More on Assassinations (Because Randall Got Me Started)

Heather Cox Richardson

Cartoon of Charles Guiteau by Miriam Leslie, 1881.
Today is a curious anniversary. On November 14, 1851, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick went into print. Thirty years later, November 14, 1881, was the first day of the trial of Charles Guiteau, the man who shot President James Garfield. Although at first these two events seem entirely unrelated, in fact they explored the same profound American theme: How can a society succeed when its people act according to the dictates of divine inspiration?

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.


Unknown said...

I am not sure that I agree with the notion that Ahab was on a divine mission. Perhaps diabolic is more accurate. Of course, there is always a very thin line between the two, isn't there?

hcr said...

Yeah. That's what I was trying to get at. You teach literature; you get it. How do you reconcile individual inspiration with social norms? Melville answered that brilliantly in Billy Budd, but for today, I liked that Moby Dick and Guiteau (who was clearly delusional) happened to coincide.

Randall said...

Will be delving into a related topic in the spring. Have to teach a lecture and seminar on Lincoln's religious views. Should be interesting. Plenty written on it, so, I've got my work cut out for me.

Lisa Clark Diller said...

These are deeper waters than I dare tread into, but wow, this is fascinating. Is this something to do with nation-states taking on the mantle of civil religion for themselves? So no one can individually think of themselves as prophets vis-a-vis the king/state? Now religious sentiment should not provoke anything that undermines the civility of the public sphere? Maybe I've been reading too much sociology....
Yet again, post- Reconstruction nineteenth century tantalizes me and reminds me of how completely ignorant I am of these decades.