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2011 is becoming a kind of political Rorschach Test; which of its myriad anniversaries you celebrate most says a lot about who you are and what you believe.  While the swearing in of JFK 50 years ago conjures up what might have been, Ronald Reagan's 100th birthday commemorates what never was.  And the 150th anniversary of the birth of the Confederacy glorifies what never should have been.

But as this time of war, economic hardship and partisan cleavage, I choose Lincoln.

150 years ago today, Abraham Lincoln took the oath office on the verge of civil war.  In his First Inaugural, Lincoln's pleas for national unity were spoken, as Barack Obama reminded Americans on election night 2008, "to a nation far more divided than ours."

In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The Government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the Government, while I shall have the most solemn one to "preserve, protect, and defend it."

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.

If Lincoln's Gettysburg Address was the speech that "remade America," his Second Inaugural 146 years ago today may have been his greatest.  Perhaps the greatest speech in American political history.  Because while Gettysburg gave the sacrifice of the Civil War meaning by seeking the redemption of the promises of the Declaration of Independence, the Second Inaugural was a call for national unity unmatched then or since. Even as the fighting still raged, Lincoln pleaded with North and South alike for the reconciliation that must come.

In its entirety, here are all 626 words of the Second Inaugural Address of Abraham Lincoln delivered on March 4, 1865.

Fellow Countrymen:

At this second appearing to take the oath of the Presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement somewhat in detail of a course to be pursued seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself, and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.

On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war--seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.

One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. 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. "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? 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.

Perhaps now more than any time since they were delivered, Americans should reflect on Lincoln's words.

As Ronald Brownstein wrote in the National Journal last week, Congress is now more polarized than in 30 years, with "overlap between the parties is disappearing."  In the drive for political power and television ratings, Americans are pitted against each other; those who are gay, Muslim, immigrants or union members (just to name a few targeted groups) are vilified.  At a time of deep poverty, record income inequality and staggering deficits, some push for yet more tax cut windfalls for those needing them least.  And though The Civil War - and the loss of 620,000 Americans lives - should have put an end to it for all times, casual talk of states rights, nullification and secession passes the lips of leaders of the Party of Lincoln.

Abraham Lincoln didn't live to realize his dream of healing and national reconciliation.  (That "what might have been" - how Reconstruction, Jim Crow and the trajectory of American history might have been altered - is a discussion for another day.)  But with their celebrations of the Confederacy and reduction of slavery to "a nit," many of the Great Emancipator's Republican heirs have turned their back on his message and his spirit.

Not me.  On the anniversaries of his great Inaugural Addresses, I choose Lincoln.

* Crossposted at Perrspectives *

UPDATE: President Obama issued a proclamation marking the anniversaries, declaring, "Through simple eloquence and humble leadership marked by profound wisdom -- both on his Inauguration Day and throughout the coming conflict -- President Lincoln charted a course to transcend our discord and bind the wounds of a severed country."

Originally posted to Jon Perr on Fri Mar 04, 2011 at 11:00 AM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  there's a reason why historians always rank him (3+ / 0-)

    the greatest president.

  •  I wish the Rescums would quit dirtying (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    yella dawg

    Old Abe's name with the"Party of Lincoln" thing. Lincoln would not be accepted into today's GOP. That is a hell-uv-a speech, no doubt. Wherever he is right now, Mr. Lincoln is probably observing our present conflict with much interest.  As nations go we are young. Growing pains perhaps in the journey to attain that "more perfect Union?"

    If voting made any difference it would be illegal- Philip Berrigan

    by Mighty Ike on Fri Mar 04, 2011 at 02:35:59 PM PST

  •  Lincoln (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    I have a copy of the Gettysburg Address hanging in our house.  I hope to get to Springfield someday to pay my respects to our greatest President.  Thanks for remembering him and his words.

  •  Thanks A A, great to see President Obama... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ybruti, Larsstephens

    issue a proclamation in memory of Pres. Lincoln's enduring words.

    To do everything I can to make sure our economy is growing, creating jobs, and strengthening our middle class. That's my resolution for the coming year.

    by BarackStarObama on Fri Mar 04, 2011 at 04:36:47 PM PST

  •  Great Post (3+ / 0-)

    It is altogether fitting and proper that you should praise Lincoln this way. The second inaugural is a miracle of both rhetoric and wisdom.

    What I love about Lincoln is his dogmatic reading of the Declaration of Independence. For Lincoln, the Declaration is the American identity at our very core, and "All men are created equal" is a standard for us to try to attain. Those who strive for liberation and equality--as Lincoln did, and Susan B. Anthony, and Martin Luther King, and union organizers and community organizers and school teachers et al.--therefore do not come to destroy the law but to fulfill it.

    "All men are created equal" also accommodates every immigrant to this country regardless of nationality: they can claim America for themselves, "as though they were blood of the blood and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that declaration."

    The above quote comes from Lincoln's speech in Chicago on July 10, 1858, which spells out this vision quite explicitly.

  •  "With the thoughts I'd be thinkin', (0+ / 0-)

    I could be another Lincoln, If I only had a brain".

    Lyricist Yip Harburg wrote those words for the Tin Woodsman in the 1939 MGM production of "The Wizard of Oz".

    Granted, there aren't many names that rhyme with "Thinking" but it still conveys the nation's deep respect for Lincoln's intellect and our admiration for his wordcraft. Harburg, btw, was a committed socialist & pacifist (and later blacklisted).

    Adam Gopnik's book "Angels and Ages" compares Lincoln's intellect to that of Charles Darwin's. It is only coincidence that the two men were born on the same day, but Gopnik argues that each man's work made rational thinking commonplace, rather than the specialty of academics and philosophers.

    Darwin's "Origin of Species" was written for a popular audience. Knowing it would be controversial, Darwin built the case for evolution as carefully as any lawyer prepares a court case. In doing so, he taught his readers how to use reason and scientific evidence to reach rational conclusions.

    Lincoln's intellect was shaped by the study and practice of law. Many lawyers had entered politics before him, but none as self-taught as he. Lincoln had no gift for authority and persuasion. Instead, he brought the method of legal reasoning to his political speech, carefully crafting his arguments on constitutional principle rather than historic precedent.  He appealed to moral principle - often using the language of the Bible - with the same relentless logic.

    Both men were born into a generation whose sense of possibility was still very constrained by obedience to the "truth" of authority and tradition. Each man's contributions to history empowered the next generation to seek truth by the discovery of fact and the application of reason.

    Have you noticed?
    Politicians who promise LESS government
    only deliver BAD government.

    by jjohnjj on Fri Mar 04, 2011 at 07:33:24 PM PST

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