What Lincoln Understood About UnityRoundup
tags: Abraham Lincoln, polarization, partisanship
Harold Holzer, director of Hunter College’s Roosevelt House, won the 2015 Lincoln Prize.
It’s been the worst of times and the best of times for Abraham Lincoln, whose 212th birthday we mark Feb. 12.
The San Francisco Board of Education recently voted to remove Lincoln’s name from a school, falsely suggesting he was hostile to indigenous people and indifferent to African-Americans. Earlier, Boston removed a bronze statue that celebrated Lincoln as a liberator, explaining that the accompanying figure of a Black man rising from his knees made modern viewers uneasy.
But earlier this year, Washington politicians eager to promote national unity began falling over each other quoting the “better angels of our nature” plea from Lincoln’s first inaugural address. On Jan. 6, rattled members of Congress from both sides of the aisle cited the phrase repeatedly as they tried to bring the nation back from the precipice of insurrection. Two weeks later, seeking a truce in America’s “uncivil war,” President Biden declared at his own inaugural that his “whole soul” was in the task, paraphrasing a comment Lincoln made as he prepared to sign his most famous executive order, the Emancipation Proclamation.
Quotation being the sincerest form of flattery, it is clear that Lincoln remains the greatest writer among our presidents. Harriet Beecher Stowe thought his words should “be inscribed in letters of gold.”
But surely Honest Abe, the author of soaring words in so many speeches and letters, would be the first to point out that the “better angels” catchphrase was not quite his own. In a way, one could even say it was made in New York — crafted not by Lincoln but by his incoming secretary of state, William H. Seward, who had served the Empire State as both governor and senator before agreeing to join Lincoln’s cabinet.
Originally, Lincoln had not planned to end his March 4, 1861, inaugural with a call for unity. His first draft concluded instead with a stark warning to the seven Southern states that had already seceded from the Union to defend slavery. “With you, and not with me, “is the solemn question of ‘Shall it be peace, or a sword?’ ”
The fact is, even the most eloquent calls for harmony seldom repair a house divided — not without the accompaniment of painful but unavoidable choices about national policy and purpose. Lincoln learned this just six weeks after summoning the “better angels,” when the Confederacy ignited war by attacking Fort Sumter.
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