Lincoln: Still the Indispensable American

As we approach Abraham Lincoln’s 212th birthday this Friday, it’s worth pondering how our greatest president might have approached this fraught moment in American history, where the 2020 election, the second impeachment, and the pandemic seemed to have converged to raise our nation’s emotional temperature to a fever pitch.

When Lincoln took his first inaugural oath in March 1861, seven states had already seceded and were busily setting up a new government. Four more would follow over the next three months. South Carolina was preparing to fire on Fort Sumter and members of Congress were resigning in droves. Newspapers in Europe were predicting the demise of the young nation.

Lincoln’s first inaugural was a vigorous and lengthy policy document, making pledges to “hold, occupy, and possess” federal outposts including Fort Sumter. It walked gingerly around the slavery question, reiterating Lincoln’s anti-slavery sentiments while disclaiming any intent to end the terrible institution. And it made a ringing endorsement of the indissolubility of the Union.

But some of the Lincoln music was already there in his plaintive closing, a hand stretched out to the South across the political divide:

I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

The tragedy of the 1860s, of course, was that Lincoln spoke into a howling storm of emotion, jingoism, and political passion that made it impossible for the “better angels” to hold sway. The terrible destruction of the Civil War was the result. Four years later, a worn and tired Lincoln took the stage on the east front of the Capitol and delivered one of the most remarkable political documents of all time, his second inaugural address. It was short, barely 600 words, and its sole nod towards a discussion of either policy or then-current events came in the brief acknowledgement of the “progress of our arms,” which he hoped was “reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all.”

Lincoln never pretended that the cause of the bloody calamity that had befallen the nation was anything other than men’s greed and arrogance. He noted that four years earlier, even as he was speaking of peace, “insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy” the Union. Slavery, of course, was the heart of the issue: “All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war.” And it was to “strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest” that cause the insurgents to “rend the Union even by war.”

But like the prophet he was, Lincoln also saw that the terrible destruction of the war was its own kind of reckoning, more terrible than any politics could render. He would not lie about the causes of the war to save embarrassment, but neither would he engage in pointless denunciation: “It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged.” The war was a judgment on the nation and its misdeeds, its causes and effects ultimately unknowable, since “The Almighty has his own purposes.”

Finally, Lincoln moved towards his closing, offering the nation a way forward:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Again, Lincoln never swayed from his purpose, proceeding with “firmness in the right” as he understood it. But he also knew that after the terrible destruction of the Civil War, the only path for bleeding America was still to give way to the better angels, and bind up those wounds without malice, in charity. A century and a half later, he is still calling us to our better selves. What better time to listen?

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