The nation has been more deeply divided than today. But the election nearly completed confirms considerable depth and breadth of division.
When Lincoln gave his second inaugural address the nation was still engaged in a great civil war. Appomattox was yet a month away and what a long month it would be.
The resolution of our political — cultural and economic — conflict is much farther from resolution. We should hope, pray, and work to avoid assassination, martial law, and a century-long, still simmering struggle of citizenship bestowed but betrayed. Can we do better than our great-grandfathers?
President Lincoln gave his Second Inaugural Address on March 4, 1865. On April 14, Good Friday, he was shot. Regarding the Second Inaugural and prospects for the war’s conclusion, Garry Wills has written, “The problems were endless, and the very norms for discussing them were still to be agreed on.” This was the context Lincoln was attempting to shape with his words:
Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. 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 prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes… Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
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.
I hope you hear echoes relevant to our present division. Garry Wills — writing over a decade ago — helps to cross times’ chasm:
The Second Inaugural was meant, with great daring, to spell out a principle of not acting on principle. In the nation’s murky situation all principles — except this one of forgoing principle — were compromised…
The problem with compromise on this scale is that it seems morally neutral, open even to injustices if they work. Answering that objection was the task Lincoln set himself in the Second Inaugural. Everything said there was meant to prove that pragmatism was, in this situation, not only moral but pious. Men could not pretend to have God’s adjudicating powers. People had acted for mixed motives on all sides of the civil conflict just past. The perfectly calibrated punishment or reward for each leader, each soldier, each state, could not be incorporated into a single political disposition of the problems…
Abstract principle can lead to the attitude Fiat iustitia, ruat coelum — “Justice be done, though it bring down the cosmos.” Lincoln had learned to have a modest view of his ability to know what ultimate justice was, and to hesitate before bringing down the whole nation in its pursuit.
Lincoln offered his second inaugural to a nation convulsed by questions of freedom or slavery, union or disunion, progress or poverty. Many might characterize our current situation in similarly Manichean terms. Most did not know what to do with the speech. Even a friendly newspaper, The New York Herald, reported:
It was not strictly an inaugural address…. It was more like a valedictory…. Negroes ejaculated “bress de Lord” in a low murmur at the end of almost every sentence. Beyond this there was no cheering of any consequence. Even the soldiers did not hurrah much.
We can never know what Lincoln might have actually done. Six weeks later he was dead. We do not have the benefit of his practical example. He was a shrewd politician who, had he lived, might be less personally revered but whose leadership could have bequeathed a nation more just than what emerged without him.
We are left with the awful aftermath of Lincoln’s absence and his words.
As I consider the election results and the terrible troubles with which the nation must grapple, I am struck by Lincoln’s humility regarding political purpose or specific policies and his absolute conviction regarding how we must struggle to shape purpose and policy: “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…”
Read those words again. Recognize the internal paradox, practical process, and proclamation of ultimate purpose.