A House Divided

by Valerie Andrews

Potriat of Lincoln, Alexander Gardner, Wikimedia Commons

Joe Biden comes to the presidency in one of the most polarized periods in American history.  What can he say or do to help us heal?  How can he address the hostility between red and blue states,  the rifts among family members, the growing fear and distrust many now feel toward their neighbors?  

This morning, I asked my friend Joseph Ellis, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, where he thinks Biden and his speechwriters should turn for inspiration to craft his message on inauguration day and set the tone for his first term. 

The answer: Not JFK, so eloquent in his call for unity during the Cold War (“But we shall also do our part to build a world of peace where the weak are safe and the strong are just.”) but Lincoln who spoke about issues of equality and injustice we face today—in early 1865. 

Lincoln’s second inaugural speech was given four years after another rebellion in the nation’s Capitol.  

 (Four years ago) while the inaugural address was being delivered from this place… insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war — seeking to dissolve the Union…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.

The president describes the moral and economic problems that led to the Civil War, a conflict that was in its final throes.  

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. 

Yet to come was Lee’s surrender to the Union Army at Appomattox on April 9.  

Lincoln acknowledges that both sides went into battle with a righteous anger. 

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.

He believes that the spirit of the times requires a new morality:  

If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which (God) now wills to remove….Fondly do we hope — fervently do we pray — that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away.

Yet he also fears that this war may cast a shadow over the Republic for years to come. 

Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’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.”

We know that Lincoln himself has felt the weight of judgement.  He has lost a son and inherited a fractured nation.  Yet at the end of this speech, he has the audacity to believe in Grace.  And where does it lie?  In our daily care for one another, in compassion for one another’s suffering.

With malice toward none; with charity for all…let us strive on to finish the work…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 achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.    

This inaugural address is a plea for a just and tolerant society.  Full of poetry and portent, it reads like a Greek tragedy.  But this president’s message is clear: If we fail to complete that evolution, we risk our moral standing and our chance to heal our nation’s soul.  

Valerie Andrews is the founder and managing editor of Reinventing Home: Culture Creativity Character.

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