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.
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.
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."