Sunday, June 12, 2016

The worse angels of our nature

As Abraham Lincoln prepared to take charge of a deeply divided nation in March 1861, he asked several of his closest associates, including his secretary of state to be William Seward, to read his planned inaugural address, and give him their thoughts.

Seward sent Lincoln a new ending that considerably softened Lincoln's original conclusion ("Shall it be peace or sword?"), and which instead poetically invoked "the mystic chords" that bind all Americans together in shared destiny:
The mystic chords which proceeding from so many battle-fields and so many patriot graves pass through all the hearts and all the hearths in this broad continent of ours will yet again harmonize in their ancient music when breathed upon by the guardian angel of the nation.
 Lincoln accepted Seward's new closing paragraph, but made a small, yet extraordinarily significant, change in his words. Crossing out Seward's phrase “the guardian angel of the nation,” Lincoln wrote in the words we now all remember: “the better angels of our nature.”

It was to Lincoln a crucial reminder that America's greatness rested not in predestined divine favor or  any innate virtue, but rather in the constant struggle of us all to rise above our own all-too-human failings. Lincoln never for a moment forgot the frailty of human nature—nor how much the survival of a democracy depended on whether the mass of men, and their chosen leaders, could overcome their worst, yet all too natural, instincts toward hatred, division, selfishness, and exploitation of others.

Combustible rubbish ready to the torch of any one ambitious to illuminate his name. In Dr. Johnson's famous dictionary patriotism is defined as the last resort of a scoundrel. With all due respect to an enlightened but inferior lexicographer I beg to submit that it is the first.—Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary
There is an eerie echo between the narcissistic personal triumphalism of the man chosen to lead the Party of Lincoln this year and his jingoistic nationalistic triumphalism that his supporters so willingly and thoughtlessly embrace. As Lincoln so memorably reminded us, it was a test for every generation of Americans whether they, like the founders, could summon their better angels and keep alive the ideals that our nation—and indeed Lincoln's own Republican party—was founded upon: equality among men, respect for the law, liberty for all.