For The Fourth Of July, With Apologies To Mark Twain
For decades, it was an honored tradition in small towns and cities that some elected or worthy, would, on the 4th of July, get up and make a stem-winder of speech. Often these things would go on at length in the summer heat, flies buzzing around half torpid (and often half-tipsy) listeners.
Mark Twain was called upon to make one in 1886 in Keokuk, Iowa. After a parade, fireworks display, musical interludes, reading of the Declaration of Independence, more music, invocation, main speaker (who kindly limited his remarks to 30 minutes) Twain got up in all his white-ducked white hatted Twainness and was, well, Mark Twain. In 405 words.
For this 4th of July, I want to confirm that I look nothing like Hal Holbrook. Nor am I particularly droll, so, I am going to fall back on one of the more prosaic aspects of 4th of July Speeches, and bore the heck out of people. I am going to talk about Abraham Lincoln, and, more specifically, his Second Inaugural, and with apologies, I am going to use more than 405 words
Lincoln, on the other hand, had a gift for clarity and eloquent simplicity. At Gettysburg, in less than 300 words, he reframed the principles of the Declaration of Independence to include all. In his Second Inaugural Address, in 700 words, he reaffirmed us as a nation, as one people.
The Second Inaugural is remembered today primarily for its majestic final paragraph “with malice towards none,” a phrase that has come to define Lincoln himself. A closer reading, however, reveals perhaps the best definition of America in its role as a just nation, firm, but compassionate, and mindful of its broader responsibilities.
The Address begins in the most prosaic manner. “At this second appearing to take the oath of the presidential office, there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement, somewhat in detail, of a course to be pursued, seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention, and engrosses the enerergies [sic ] of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself; and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.”
How perfunctory this section is, how lacking in grandeur. March 5, 1865, and after four years of being lampooned as an ignoramus and a gorilla in the North, and vilified in the South, after 600,000 deaths, after despairing of re-election in the summer of 1864, Lincoln has been propelled by military victories to an electoral landslide. The Union armies are triumphant virtually everywhere. Vast swaths of the South have been conquered; crops destroyed, industrial and military installations lie in ruins. The great Confederate Generals now lead ghost armies. In a few weeks time, the government of Jefferson Davis will be in full flight, and Lincoln himself will enter Richmond, the capitol. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox will follow shortly after.
And yet, as he stands at the summit, at the culmination of four years of bloody battles, of immense sacrifice, of his own personal political vindication, Lincoln tone is measured and uncelebratory. He does not recall glorious victories, heroic actions. He mentions no one by name-not even Grant or Sherman. Instead, he returns to his First Inaugural, and retraces the steps that brought the nation to the brink of war. “On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago, all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil-war. All dreaded it---all sought to avert it.”
How different it is, when the leader of the victorious side acknowledges that neither party wanted war. And yet, Lincoln is not, and never will be, ready to acknowledge moral equivalence. “Both parties deprecated war; 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.”
It is an essential part of Lincoln’s genius, both as a leader, and as a communicator, that he never condescends to his audience. He addresses his listeners with simplicity of language, but a layered, textured content that reflects the moral complexities in the conflict. Lincoln’s rhythms are those of the Bible and Shakespeare. He has an intuitive understanding of the tragic hero, the imperfect mortal who makes an incorrect choice. He sees both North and South in that context. He affirms that the South chose war, but he does not demonize the Confederacy, he sees commonality instead. Circumstances of geography and economy have separated them, but “Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other”
Can both North and South have God on their sides? Can slave-owners possibly claim moral supremacy? “It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged.”
It is an extraordinary statement, since the answer, to our modern sensibilities, seems self-evident. But Lincoln, however deeply felt his moral convictions, is not willing to take that step. He recognizes that as a people, whether they owned slaves or not, Americans of both the North and the South have been complicit in slavery. He himself has been accommodative, his “government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it….” His initial war aim was the reconstitution of the Union, not freedom for the bondsman.
For Lincoln, an essential point. While the war “came” over the dissolution of the Union, its moral clarity and force emerges from its root cause, the existence of slavery. Yet Lincoln does not claim this ground for himself. He has already acknowledged that neither side planned for emancipation. “Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding.”
Regardless of its role of conqueror, and liberator, the North has, in Lincoln’s construct, no moral right to vengeance. God has not chosen North over South. “The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.”
That purpose is not the victory of one people over another, it is not the political reconstruction of the Union, it is the righting of an ancient wrong, and the wrongdoers are not confined to one region. “He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came….”
The rendering of an account, vengeance, if there is to be any, is permitted only the morally blameless, the slave; “Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ``the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.''
The blood already drawn by the sword is drawn from all, mere partial recompense for the centuries of wrong done to bondsman. If that is insufficient, the end of the war is not a forgone conclusion. Lincoln does not turn a blind eye to history, including his own and that of his people. He knows that many of the men he admired, indeed, many of the nation’s founders were slave-owners, even the Northerners. This communality of guilt is an essential first step towards re-uniting the Union, a first step towards consensus.
Despite this uncertainty, despite Lincoln’s own innate caution and deep misgivings, he knows the end is near. This, of course, leads to the majesty of the final paragraph: “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 a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”
He says, “let us strive on to finish the work we are in.” Here is an essential ambiguity, and one, which, I believe, goes to the heart of Lincoln’s sense of history and duty. What is “the work”? Is it to win the war? At first blush, that is the logical conclusion. And yet, he uses a semi-colon instead of a comma. He defines “the work.” To finish the work, we must “bind up the nation’s wounds”; we must restore the Union. We must “care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan.” Just as he had acknowledged the North’s complicity, he now embraces the South. Lincoln makes no distinction between either Northern and Southern soldiers, or Northern and Southern non-combatants. It is the duty of the victor to care for both.
Finally, Lincoln speaks to an even larger imperative, greater than either military success or political goals. We must “do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”
Not merely the cessation of war, but a just and lasting peace. Lincoln wants reconciliation, he wants to restore true nationhood, and that can only be achieved with a fair peace. He knows the roles of conqueror and conquered are incompatible with this goal, and the broader aim of having the United States resume its place among nations.
The tragedy, of course, is that Lincoln will not live to see either peace, or Reconstruction, and that, with his death; it will take an entirely different turn. Yet his vision has, on occasion, informed future Presidents. Many of our greatest triumphs have been marked by great generosity; Hoover’s work in the European recovery after World War I, the Marshall Plan. This was not all altruism, but it identified a future beyond just victor and vanquished. This generosity, along with our democracy, is what marks us as a great people. We still are.
And on that note, I will return to Mark Twain in 1886, “I know that the man who makes the last speech on an occasion like this has the best of the other speakers, as he has the last word to say, which falls like a balm on the audience--though this audience has not been bored to-day--and though I can't say that last word, I will do the next best thing I can, and that is to sit down."
Enjoy the 4th.