Throughout the past four years, there have been numerous references made to the division in the United States being greater than at any time in history since the Civil War. I have made those references myself, choosing the words to emphasize how deep the division between Americans was growing. The purpose, at least from my standpoint, was not to be dramatic or inflammatory; rather, the comparison was used to provide a context reminding us just how devastating the effects can be of a nation that turns against itself resulting in the loss of lives of fellow citizens and a threat to the ability of our precious democracy continuing in a functional manner.
The events of January 6th have proven that the comparison to the times of the Civil War are becoming increasingly less literary as citizens of the U.S. and around the world witnessed something that many, if not most, of us never thought we would see. Angry people storming the Capitol building, ramming doors, breaking windows, climbing walls, flooding into the halls while calling for harm – or worse -- to be done to elected officials, by name. The intention of the crowd was undeniable; they were there to interfere, if not stop altogether, the House of Representatives and the United States Senate in taking the first step in the hallmark of democracy in our great nation: the peaceful transfer of power.
The justification, or lack thereof, of the actions of those angry rioters is not the focus of this week’s story. Why those individuals employed such tactics is a question that is still being hotly debated in families and among friends, in the press, on social media and, soon, on the floor of the House and the Senate. And there can be no doubt that people’s political perspectives will most certainly play an overshadowing role in how that motive is defined.
Neither is what they did the focus of this week’s thoughts, for, again, people will see the gravity, or lack thereof, of those actions through a lens that’s shaped by their feelings about the motive.
The focus of this week’s thoughts is, instead, geared toward taking sober stock of the current state of our country and what lessons history may teach us about this precarious and highly divisive, if not destructive, time.
In March 4, 1865, President Abraham was sworn in to a second term as President of the United States. Slightly less than four years earlier, the Civil War had broken out in the nation, leading to a long, protracted stretch of blood-soaked battlefields as brother fought against brother.
In September of 1864, just six months before his inauguration, Lincoln’s electability was far from a done deal. Fellow Republicans were threatening to withdraw their support and endorse a third party candidate while Democrats were rallying around a candidate who had previously commanded the entirety of the Union army and whose hesitation to attack the Confederate rebels had won him favor in the eyes of those who opposed the war.
But Sherman’s conquest of Atlanta turned the tide, reaffirming confidence in Lincoln’s ability to lead as Union forces won victory after victory, and the end of the Civil War was in sight.
Lincoln was ultimately successful in his bid for a second term, garnering 55% of the popular vote.
The atmosphere of that Inauguration Day in 1865 has been described as festive, and newspapers from the time describe celebrations in large cities and small towns throughout the north. On the grounds of the Capitol, it’s estimated that upwards of 50,000 people gathered together to witness Lincoln’s inauguration, including a huge number of victorious Union soldiers, many of whom were African American and had been allowed into the service as a result of the Emancipation Proclamation.
The inauguration ceremony began in the Senate chamber with swearing in Lincoln’s new vice president, Andrew Johnson, who – according to newspaper accounts from those who were present – appeared to be drunk.
After Johnson was sworn in, attendees in the Senate Chamber moved outside to the grounds of the Capitol where throngs of people were waiting to hear Lincoln’s address.
Grainy, slightly blurred photographs of Lincoln at the time bear testimony to what many historians have said; the war had taken its toll on the man, and its vestiges could be seen in his face ravaged by carrying the burden of a nation that had stood on the brink of destruction for four long years.
One can only imagine what was coursing through his mind as he looked out at the faces of the crowd before him. Yes, the Union appeared to be on the eve of victory. Yes, he had come through a bitter election. Yes, the overwhelming majority of those in attendance were supporters there to join in celebration.
But that crowd was comprised of only a part of the population of the nation. The war may have been drawing to a close, as it ultimately did just two months later, but the division that existed between the states was still very much alive, and the bitterness of a war where brother fought brother would not be quelled with the war’s end.
Lincoln faced the extraordinarily daunting task of governing a nation where a significant number of citizens viewed his presidency as conquest by an enemy, a feeling no doubt inflamed by those who refused to accept the outcome of both the election and the war, itself, and sought to stoke the fire.
To see such division was not new to Lincoln. Just four years before, at his first inauguration in 1861, he had addressed a nation already deeply divided but that was still just on the brink of war.
“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 loth 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.”
But his words, powerful as they were, were not powerful enough to avert the war. Just five weeks later, on April 12, 1861, Confederate troops fired on soldiers at Fort Sumter, an act that many describe as the beginning of the Civil War.
Over the next four years, the bloodiest conflict in American history took place on American soil while battles such as Shiloh, Antietam and Gettysburg shocked both those in the United States and those in foreign lands.
By the time the war ended, it’s estimated that 620,000 men died in the line of duty – equal to 2% of the entire population of the nation, at the time -- including tens of thousands who died in prisoner of war camps from disease and starvation. In today’s terms, the death toll would equal roughly six million lives lost to the battle between the states.
Although it’s mere speculation, one cannot help but think that the horror of such a deadly toll must have been on Lincoln’s mind as he addressed the crowd waiting to hear his second inaugural speech.
Instead of glorying in his personal victory in the election and the predicted victory in war, Lincoln defied expectations and chose a different approach.
He began by framing how the war began. “Both parties deprecated war,” he began, “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.”
In the paragraphs that followed, he did not shirk from naming the immorality of what caused the war – slavery – but still sought to remind those in attendance of the commonalities among citizens. “Each looked for an easier triumph and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and prayed to the same God and each invoked His aid against the other.”
The speech only lasted six or seven minutes, but Lincoln used the time to address both the cause of the conflict and its ultimate meaning. He then went on to close with words that still ring today.
Lincoln closed with a call for unity.
“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."
It's been told that his speech was met on that day with just a spattering of applause from those in attendance who wanted a victory speech, not one filled with reflection.
And there were some in attendance who refused to lay down their sword – both literally and figuratively – and who violently opposed the message of unity. One of those men was an unemployed actor by the name of John Wilkes Booth who would go on to assassinate President Lincoln roughly six weeks later on April 15th.
Despite delivering some of the most powerful speeches in American history, Lincoln’s words could not reach those who simply would not listen.
I don’t claim to be a historian; there are others far more educated than I who will undoubtedly find important details that I missed or criticize the words here for some misrepresentation.
But the purpose of this story is to simply encourage us – all of us – to remember what is at stake. The moment we see each other not as friends but as enemies, the moment we allow our passions to break the bonds of “affection”, the moment we strive to strike down the very institutions that form the heart and soul of this great nation instead of working to make them better, the moment we deliberately silence our “better angels”, we have not just lost the battle, we have lost a war where there are no victors.