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Behind the veil: A study of human rights documents of creative/literary and political/legal writers in the age of Emerson and Lincoln

Mary Lee Moldenhauer, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


Abraham Lincoln brought the nation through a political, legal, and moral crisis, not only by practical management, but also by calling the people back to the Natural Law that had formed the theoretical basis of the Declaration of Independence. His accomplishment can be aptly compared to the function of the Old Testament high priest who annually went behind the veil into the Holy of Holies, carrying the sins of the people for expiation and renewing the connection between the people and the divine. Likewise, Lincoln worked out his conception of human rights (specifically tied to the slavery issue) in his writings and performed his “holy office” through his public statements. I compare his perceptions and rhetorical strategies with those of other political/legal writers. I analyze 19th-century creative writers who dealt with human rights (not necessarily slavery) using a technique in which surface features of conventional mores and ethics are problematized by an overarching level of meaning where the outcasts of society are accorded the dignity that convention denies them. In this way, writers broke down the defenses of readers who did not wish to be reminded of the plight of the oppressed or of their own complicity in the oppression, and enforced a recognition of a common humanity and a shared vulnerability to pain, evil, and punishment. Without claiming influence by the creative writers, I show that Lincoln took up this technique and combined it with the notion of Natural Law, viewed as the heart of the national political identity. The result, during the War, was a written (and then spoken) vision of national renewal through the recognition of guilt (both North and South), expiation through mutual suffering, and re-dedication to first principles. In addition, Lincoln adopted the role not of untouchable high priest but of a flawed and guilty representative of the people, like them in need of healing and renewal. ^

Subject Area

Biography|Religion, Biblical Studies|Literature, American|Language, General

Recommended Citation

Moldenhauer, Mary Lee, "Behind the veil: A study of human rights documents of creative/literary and political/legal writers in the age of Emerson and Lincoln" (2004). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI3147148.