Washington Examiner - Editorial
Back when this nation rightly celebrated not an amorphous Presidents Day but instead feted the individual birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, the holidays gave us something to emulate rather than just an excuse not to work. In that spirit, we look to Lincoln today for wisdom.
Indeed, Lincoln is a particularly appropriate model in these times of national discord. While of course we don’t face a civil war, we did experience an assault on our Capitol just last month, followed by a divisive impeachment trial this month. And while Lincoln presided over the Civil War, his goal was to maintain, not divide, the union. Before and during the war, and especially as it was ending, he consistently urged not just unity, but understanding and forgiveness.
Lincoln’s entire first inaugural address was an olive branch to the South and a plea for continuing union. He ended by saying, “We are not enemies but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.”
This was not a momentary bit of prettified speechifying. It was a repeated theme throughout Lincoln’s public life. “I don’t like that man; I must get to know him better.” And “I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice.” And “I am not concerned that you have fallen — I am concerned that you arise.” And “the loss of enemies does not compensate for the loss of friends.” And so on.
It was as the war drew to a close, however, that Lincoln’s earlier nostrums were put to the test. The North had won, the union was preserved, but after four years of brutal war, the Yankee cries for vengeance and additional penalties for the Confederates were loud. Lincoln rejected those calls. His second inaugural address laid out the attitude with which he intended to pursue post-war reunification.
“With malice toward none with charity for all,” he famously said, he pledged “to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan.” This was entirely consonant with the actual policy that he had laid out more than a year earlier, even as the war raged savagely and murderous feelings ran ever higher. His plan called for a pardon and the full restoration of property to all the rank and file of the Confederate Army, and it set easy terms for the readmittance of states to the union.
All of us should learn from Lincoln’s magnanimity and, of course, from his reverence for union and the Constitution. He insisted that, above all, the Constitution must hold because it was the greatest bulwark for liberty. In the closing lines of his first inaugural address, Lincoln noted his “most solemn” oath to “preserve, protect and defend” the Constitution — and that the “chorus of the union” surely would “again [be] touched” by “the better angels of our nature.”
The “better angels” line is very commonly quoted. Its commonness, though, should not diminish its importance. In eloquent words made common by use, we can find not just commonness, but commonality. As we celebrate Lincoln’s birthday, let us strive to do the same.