The new president would do well to take a lesson from history’s greatest orator and remind his increasingly diverse constituents that we all share the same uniquely American principles.
Freshly sworn in after a contentious election, the new president stands to give his first inaugural address. Violence had begun to erupt immediately after the announcement of his victory, as a people who had been ideologically, culturally, and morally alienating themselves from one another were finally fracturing. “I am loth to close,” Abraham Lincoln ends that famous 1861 speech, knowing he would henceforth have limited opportunities to speak to a nation united. 160 years later, Americans appear to be watching similar scenes play out in their country yet again.
Although it may feel hyperbolic to compare President-elect Joseph Biden’s situation to Lincoln’s, the quarrelsome tenor of our times—the communication breakdown, the rejection of one another on moral grounds—is eerily similar. Mr. Biden has made it clear that he would like to pull us together. He has declared it a “time to heal” and, perhaps in reference to a line from Lincoln’s first speech as president, has said, “We are not enemies. We are Americans.” If Mr. Biden wants to be the glue that keeps America together, he could learn from Lincoln’s rhetoric—rhetoric honed during a political career dedicated to appealing to an ethos of unity and charity in his fellow man.
In all Lincoln’s political speeches and writings, his clearest calls for unity were made on the basis of either shared patriotic dedication to political institutions, or on the idea that there is a need for concessions to the political middle ground. Lincoln’s most full-throated argument for the former came at his famous 1838 Lyceum Address. In it, he observes that the natural fortress provided by the Atlantic and Pacific means that the United States “must live through all time, or die by suicide.” The potential suicide of our country, he predicted, would happen at the hands of a “mobocratic spirit,” because the laws of a free democracy can only be “by the people and for the people” as long as the people are in favor of them. If American citizens don’t believe in the importance of the rule of law, the government itself “may effectually be broken down and destroyed.”
What made this speech astonishing was not that Lincoln argued for faith in the laws of the land, but how he argued for it:
Let reverence for the laws, be breathed by every American mother, to the lisping babe, that prattles on her lap—let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges;—let it be written in Primmers, spelling books, and Almanacs;—let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice. And, in short, let it become the political religion of the nation; and let the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the grave and the gay, of all sexes and tongues, and colors and conditions, sacrifice unceasingly on its altars.
To combat the pseudo-religious fervor of the mob, Lincoln called for a religion of civic obedience. Those who understand the importance of the first of the Ten Commandments, and those who have seen the dangers of statism, might shudder at the thought.
Though he would soon abandon this sort of language, young Lincoln saw a civic religion dedicated to just laws as the key component for keeping the foundations of American democracy in place. Religion had brought humanity the gift of charity, and perhaps Lincoln thought that by copying elements of religious devotion, he could create a sense of civic charity for his fracturing nation. As America continued to come apart, Lincoln would never let go of his idea that we can find unity in our common laws, and perhaps even find kindness for one another in our shared and sacred history.
But even Lincoln’s obsession with civic virtue is dwarfed by his enthusiasm for compromise. Though The Great Emancipator no longer enjoys a reputation as a political moderate, throughout his life—whether as a Whig or a Republican—Lincoln always kept his feet firmly planted on the political middle ground. This disposition was most important in Lincoln’s stance on the issue of slavery. In a eulogy of the legendary “Great Compromiser,” Henry Clay, Lincoln complimented his late political mentor for opposition to “both extremes” on the issue. To be sure, Lincoln held a similar standpoint as his Kentuckian colleague. Until the very moment of emancipation, Lincoln was opposed to abolition—but he never supported the expansion of slavery. The idea was that either extreme, abolition or expansion, would completely alienate and further radicalize a large group of Americans. As he famously put it in his speech on the Kansas–Nebraska Act in Peoria, Illinois, “much as I hate slavery, I would consent to the extension of it rather than see the Union dissolved, just as I would consent to any great evil, to avoid a greater one.”
In Peoria, Lincoln’s efforts to be charitable to all sides led to certain concessions that would haunt his legacy for all time. Speaking of the possibility of freeing slaves, he asked, “What next? Free them, and make them politically and socially our equals? My own feelings will not admit of this.” It was one of many olive branches to Southerners that he claimed to have “no prejudice against…. They are just what we would be in their situation.” Charity by concession turns out to have its downsides, and sometimes when we allow our moral fibers to be tugged in all directions, we return to find them tattered and frayed.
His first inaugural is an amalgamation of both of these approaches, appealing to unity and charity. He spends much of the speech affirming that he stood firmly in the political middle, and outlining how laws and political institutions would limit his power. And he appealed both the patriotism and the kindness of his audience, as in the excerpt later echoed by Joe Biden, “We are not enemies, but friends.”
Mr. Biden would do well to take a lesson from history’s greatest orator—though of course we must remember that despite Lincoln’s greatest efforts, the house remained divided and could not stand. Perhaps he had the right formula but was simply too late to save a country that was already on the brink of war. But four bloodstained years later, when Lincoln would be called upon to give another inaugural address, he would once again call to unify and heal the soul of his broken country. This time, however, he would use very different rhetoric.
In his second inaugural, Lincoln did not talk much about politics, or about the distasteful medicine of political compromise. He abandoned the window dressings of political religion and fearlessly brought up the true genesis of human charity: “Both (sides) read the same Bible and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other.” Lincoln was addressing a broken, angry, and wounded America, and he asked them to embrace charity and reject malice. To do this he needed to invoke real religion, because reason alone will always fall short of the mark when it comes to matters of the soul.
Mr. Biden should heed early Lincoln’s politics and rhetoric. He can keep us together by staying the course along a moderate policy agenda and would do well to remind his increasingly diverse constituents that we all share the same uniquely American principles. Even though it may at times fall short, the rhetoric of early Lincoln is the best study we have for techniques of unity at a time of turmoil. But Mr. Biden should also learn from early Lincoln’s naivete as corrected by later Lincoln in his second inaugural: Civics can never be a stand in for ethics.
It is probably no longer a good idea to try to bring Americans together under Christianity, but the Abrahamic principles of charity, piety, and love of one’s neighbor still flourish across the country. Joe Biden could unite us through our charitable nature toward the rest of the world, as global recovery from the pandemic demands American leadership. He could unite us through our compassion for one another, since Americans seem almost universally tired of hating one another. In any case, a President Biden should lead America “with malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right.”
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The featured image combines a photograph of Joe Biden in Charleston, South Carolina in December 2015 with one of Abraham Lincoln taken on February 27, 1860 in New York City by Mathew Brady, the day of his famous Cooper Union speech. Both images are in the public domain and appear here courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.