There have been few darker hours in our country’s history than March 4, 1861, the date of Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address. Seven states had already seceded from the Union and armed conflict loomed. While denouncing secession as anarchy, Lincoln’s address was largely a call for reconciliation. Desperately hoping to avoid the coming conflict, Lincoln ended the speech with an eloquent and impassioned plea:
I am loath 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.
Yet, as Lincoln himself later put it, the war came. It was a terrible war, its brutality magnified by the use of new mechanized armaments and devices. By the time the war ended, over 700,000 soldiers had been killed. The war was drawing to a close in March 1865, when the time came for Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. Rather than sounding a triumphalist theme or calling for retribution, Lincoln again pled for reconciliation, as well as for healing and peace. His address ended with one of the finest paragraphs ever written in the English language:
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.
I have had occasion to reflect on Lincoln’s words in recent months. Lincoln’s two inaugural addresses as much as any other action of any President show how a great leader leads. In his first address, Lincoln’s appeal to the “better angels of our nature” urged all to recall and preserve what made the Union great and worth preserving. In his second address, with its invocation not of retribution or score-settling, but rather of “malice toward none” and “charity for all,” Lincoln communicated what would be required after the terrible ordeal to make America great again.
For the country’s sake, one can only hope that among our nation’s current generation of leaders there are at least some who recall Lincoln’s words invoking “the better angels of our natures” and calling us to “do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” These words are as relevant now as when Lincoln first said them. As long as we remember them, we will have a Union worthy of preserving. It is only if we forget them that our Union will no longer be worthy of being called great.
More Thoughts about a Great Leader’s Words: Ronald C. White, Jr.’s literary biography of Abraham Lincoln entitled The Eloquent President (here), tells the interesting story of how Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address came to be.
One of the more interesting details about the stirring final paragraph of Lincoln’s speech is that it was the result of an unlikely collaboration between Lincoln and his Secretary of State, William Seward. As well-told in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s excellent book, Team of Rivals, Lincoln and Seward would go on to become political allies and close friends, but at the outset of Lincoln’s presidency, they were political rivals who hardly knew each other and who had never worked together. Lincoln set aside his ego and not only asked Seward to review his draft speech, but he adopted most of Seward’s suggestions.
The most fascinating part of this collaboration is how Lincoln adopted Seward’s suggestions. White’s book puts Seward’s suggestions and Lincoln’s final text in side by side columns, which highlights how Lincoln transformed Seward’s proposed language, sometimes in subtle, sometimes in powerful ways. For example, Seward did indeed suggest the phrase “mystic chords” but Lincoln rendered the phrase as “mystic chords of memory.” Seward suggested “the guardian angel of the nation,” which Lincoln changed into “the better angels of our nature.” Lincoln turned Seward’s well-intentioned prose into meaningful, musical poetry, with words that still resonate and inspire.
The transformative power of Lincoln’s use of language was not lost on Seward; he came to appreciate the power of Lincoln’s words perhaps as much as anyone. Though Seward presumed to make six pages of suggestions to Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address, his presumptions changed as he came to know Lincoln better. Three years later, when asked if he had helped Lincoln write the Gettysburg Address, Seward said, “No one but Abraham Lincoln could have made that address.”
In our time, the Gettysburg Address, the Emancipation Proclamation, and even Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address may all be better remembered than the speech Lincoln delivered at his first inauguration. Lincoln’s words in his other speeches are indeed memorable. But it seems to me that in our time, as throughout our history, the mystic chords of memory unite us to our past and to our aspirations now more than ever, and the prayerful hope for the influence of the better angels of our nature remain as strong now as ever.
Lincoln’s words remind us that our nation’s history includes days that were darker indeed, but even in those desperate times, we never lost hope and we did persevere — as Lincoln might have said, with God’s help.
Right-Mindfulness for Survival in These Times: And for our final reading today, friends, we draw our text from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, Chapter 4, Verse 8:
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.