Abraham Lincoln looms large in the history, memory and lore of the United States of America.
Since we are celebrating our President’s Day holiday, honoring George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, I thought it a good day to contemplate President Lincoln’s second inaugural address. In the excerpt below, he is pondering the civil war which had gripped the entire United States and ripped it apart.
Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. . . . 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. . . . 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.
Lincoln wrestled with what the civil war could mean for a nation in which most of the people were Christian, praying to the same God, reading the same bible, and in which both sides were invoking that same God’s aid against an enemy. What Lincoln knew was that God’s purposes are often mysteriously hidden from humans even when all are petitioning Him. He does seem to understand that the tragic and tremendous suffering of the civil war was serving some purpose, a necessary suffering perhaps to pay for the nation’s sins.
He hoped the civil war would bring a just and lasting peace to our nation and in our relationship with all other nations. A war to end all wars for Lincoln?
For me, his greatness lies in his agonizing over what sense to make of it all, and seeing in the war and in the victory ambiguity and pain that would continue for a time to come. As has been stated, one has to not only win the war, but more importantly win the peace that follows. The hard work does not end when the war does.
Our vision and understanding of events is very limited, and yet we have to make choices with long lasting consequences.
I do wish the current cast of candidates would think about what Lincoln slaved over (pardon the pun). The civil war may have been the price the nation paid for not ending slavery before a nation based in freedom began. But there also was a price to be paid for the war itself – how to unite the nation. Lincoln realized victory may have been won, but at what cost to the unity of the nation? Current candidates think only about their winning the nomination, but not at all about the terrible price that is paid in slaughtering their opponents. And unlike Lincoln who wrestled with how to preserve the unity and win the peace, today’s candidates care nothing for what collateral damage they cause on the nation – divisiveness, partisanship, polarity, and exclusion. They may imagine that their winning the presidency somehow magically undoes the damage, but it only feeds the endless political polarity and irreconcilable division in America. No candidate should be allowed to reach election day without showing his willingness to keep the union united. Lincoln showed remorse over the price of his victory. Our current candidates never seem to have any conscience about how their comments and attitudes rip the nation apart. They all should have to study Lincoln’s words and what a divided nation means.