Believing in the Better Angels of Our Nature: Lessons from Abe Lincoln and Bill Murray

The huge crowd swelled and pulsed with tension at the inauguration.

At the close of his First Inaugural Address, President Abraham Lincoln made a difficult choice to depart from the vitriol that dominated the national discourse, and, instead, leave his troubled, divided nation with a message of reconciliation.   This was not a politically expedient decision.  War appeared inevitable.  Both sides had grown tired of each other’s rhetoric that often demonized the other and invoked God’s blessing on their cause.   Many in Lincoln’s own party believed that the South deserved to be crushed for the immorality of slavery and wanted him to set a stern tone with his address that any secession talk was an act of treason.  Many Southerners and southern sympathizers believed that the North wanted to destroy the Southern way of life, that the Constitution was on their side, and that their culture was more Godly than that of the increasingly diverse North.  Influential leaders of each side had expressed no intention to back down from the coming fight, and, perhaps more importantly, each felt that the conflict was worth fighting.

Thus, the scene at his first inauguration was fraught with emotional and moral tension.  Minds and ears were straining to hear the drum beats of war or the weak words of appeasement.  Instead, Lincoln offered the words of a brother, father, son and friend.  He didn’t call his opponents names or question their humanity.  Instead, he appealed to that part of each of them that could look into each other and see the best that they had to offer — to see the beauty, and the decency, and the love that they possessed despite their differences.  He appealed to that part that desperately desired to resolve the conflict because avoiding war was the best solution for everyone, even if it meant compromising and sacrificing and accommodating those who thought decidedly different.  He concluded his speech by saying:

“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.”

It was a political risky move, no doubt.  It would have been far easier to “show strength” by casting those who wanted Civil War as Godless, immoral law breakers who deserved the punishment that they were to receive.  It would have been easier to demonize the south and to offer no quarter for militants. Instead, Lincoln chose the hard path — the path of reconciliation and recognition of the ties that bind us all.  Ultimately, of course, President Lincoln’s plea was not heeded.  Civil War ripped our nation apart.  Brother turned against brother and friends became foes.  But, this terrible result only makes his words ring more true — we must look upon our rivals with the grace that comes from the better angels of our nature.

Lincoln offers us a framework for resolving our differences as Americans.  He began by recognizing our shared identity.  We are all Americans.   We must not be enemies.  We must not hate each other.  We must remain friends.  We must not let our differences and disagreements break the bonds of affection that we all feel for this nation and for each other.  We are a melting pot.  We are diverse.  We hold different views and faiths and passions.  Inevitably, we will strongly disagree.  But we are all Americans.  President Lincoln understood this.  He appealed to it. He clung to it throughout the darkest hours of his Presidency.  I believe that it was this discipline to never take the easy way out by considering the seceding states or citizens “the enemy” that allowed our nation to endure the ravages of Civil War.   Disagreements and discord never led to demonizing his opponents.  I am so grateful that he left us this example.  I believe that we are one nation today because of his restraint.  I am very thankful for his restraint.

And so, 150 years later, we are a nation who has accomplished wonderful things, who has advanced notions of liberty, and decency, and compassion, and faith, who has welcomed the tired, poor and huddled masses to a better life, who has fought and died for those we do not know simply because it was right.  Today, we all – Democrat and Republican, Christian, Muslim, and Atheist, Red, Yellow, Black and White – are Americans.  We owe this, in large part, to President Lincoln’s never wavering belief that his generation, despite their enormous differences, were all Americans too.  It is my hope that we learn his lesson well — and well before the bonds of our affection snap from the weight of our collective indignation.

— David Davies, Editor-in-Chief

 

Of course, if President Lincoln doesn’t convince you, maybe Bill Murray will:

 

 

Editor’s Note:  Being able to write an article that quotes my favorite President and my favorite Actor is pretty much the reason I wanted to start this website — and, I have to tell you, it was every bit as satisfying as I thought it would be. 

About David Davies, Editor-in-Chief

David Davies is the Editor-in-Chief of Media Rostra. He is also a lawyer and a licensed minister, so he is basically distrusted by everyone on some level. He received his Political Science degree from the University of Tulsa and his Juris Doctor from the University of Arkansas. He is a former Assistant Attorney General for the State of Arkansas, a former "good athlete for his size," and current owner of The Law Offices of David Davies, PLLC -- an Estate Planning and Elder Law firm that has offices in Arkansas and Tennessee. He co-authored, with fellow editor, Aaron Brooks, the article entitled: “Exploring Student-Athlete Compensation: Why the NCAA Cannot Afford to Leave Athletes Uncompensated," in the University of Notre Dame’s Journal of College and University Law.

Comments

  1. Mitsu KuboNo Gravatar says:

    “…and well before the bonds of our affection snap from the weight of our collective indignation”  Love that quotation.