Lincoln Defines America

A century and a half ago today, Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated for a second term as President of the United States. He then took the podium and gave his second inaugural address, the words of which are immortalized on the Lincoln Memorial today. He concluded: “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.”

1202201_VA_HQ_p1With this, Lincoln completed a process started many months before. He had defined the war in Gettysburg National Cemetery; now he defined the future peace. Two visions of America had met on the battlefield, and one (free, industrial, international, and continental) emerged ascendant. The nature of this country had changed. U.S. Grant, in his under-appreciated conclusion to his memoirs, describes how “In the early days of the country, before we had railroads, telegraphs, and steamboats . . . the States were each almost a separate nationality . . . But the country grew, rapid transit was established, and trade and commerce between the States got to be so much greater than before, that the power of the National government became more felt and recognized.” 

The United States may have been founded in 1776, but it was re-founded in 1865. As I told the Civil War Trust in 2012:  “To fully appreciate today’s United States, we must understand the events of 1861-65. The war (and its outgrowths in the form of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments) forever changed this country and shaped it to this day . . . the liberation of African-Americans in the Civil War ensured the freedoms for all races and sexes that exist today. Every person in the United States is affected by the Civil War, directly or indirectly, every day – something that should be remembered.”

Lincoln’s conclusion to his address is a manifesto for the new America. Here are his key points:

Finish the Work: Win the war and complete the Confederacy’s destruction.

Bind the Nation’s Wounds:  Put the country back together politically, economically, and socially. The South will again be part of the United States, and the country must move forward as one unit.

Malice Toward None, Charity For All: Unlike other nations that endured civil wars or internal rebellion and strife (Russia, Poland, England, France, among others) the ex-Confederates will not be executed, exiled, or otherwise demonized as traitors. (Lincoln’s attitude is almost unique in world history at the end of a civil war.)

Care for Him Who Has Borne the Battle, His Widows and Orphans:  Unlike previous American wars, national obligation to veterans does not end at mustering out. Today’s generations take this for granted, but in 1865 this was a radically new statement. (Lincoln’s words are on the Veterans Administration’s headquarters building in Washington.)

A Just and Lasting Peace With Ourselves and All Nations: The United States is now a continental and hemispheric power in a way it was not in 1861, and has a definite role to play on the world stage. As Grant wrote in 1885: “Our people have proven themselves to be the most formidable in war of any nationality . . . The war has made us a nation of great power and intelligence.”

This vision, coupled with the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, thus laid out a new America. This America was different from the fledgling coastal nation of the 18th Century, one George Washington warned to avoid foreign entanglements. Lincoln’s America was to be continental and hemispheric in outlook, tied together in unity, and a modern industrial power. These two identities (Washington versus Lincoln) still periodically compete for primacy in American politics and policy.

Lincoln’s basic ideas, expressed in his second inaugural address, have taken root and echo across the decades to this moment. Realizing Lincoln’s vision and promise remains a work in progress, however, and the work continues to mold this country in ways traceable back to 1865. Happy 150th, Lincoln’s America.

Top Image: Lincoln’s quote on a plaque outside VA Headquarters in Washington.


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