What kind of leader does a country need when its citizens are polarized, their divergent views fanned by politicians and media? Can an individual reverse such a hostile mood and begin a healing process?
In today’s divisive rhetoric, we often forget that our country was just as passionately divided once before, and it took a civil war to resolve our differences. The leader who led our nation back into union offers us today a model of how to reach across the divisions.
“We are not enemies but friends,” Abraham Lincoln stated in his first inaugural address, reaching out to the seceding southern states. “Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.”
He appealed to their shared past. “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.”
Throughout his two terms as President, Lincoln’s speeches, his letters, and his actions reaffirmed the higher mission of the nation. We were a beacon of democracy, he pointed out, and the world was watching our example. A splintered nation would only show that a democracy could not resolve internal differences—just pack up and leave if you disagree.
“Our popular government has often been called an experiment. Two points in it, our people have already settled—the successful establishing, and the successful administering of it. One still remains—its successful maintenanceagainst a formidable [internal] attempt to overthrow it.”
Lincoln took every opportunity to reach out to the people to understand the importance of the war being waged. He visited troops, reminding them of the importance of their service. He wrote editorials to newspapers to explain his goals and make clear his priorities. And he accepted every opportunity to speak to the public.
Thus he came to Gettysburg, two years into a civil war, to honor the men lost in one of the bloodiest battles of the war. His words reminded those standing by the new cemetery on a cold November day that they had an obligation to take up the mantle of the warriors lost in battle and to re-connect to the values of the founding fathers.
“It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.”
The words he spoke that day were not, as is sometimes mistakenly stated, written on the back of an envelope. These were words he had written and spoken again and again, in his efforts to unite the nation by reminding people of their higher purpose.
In 1861 in New Jersey, he said: ”There must have been something more than common that those men struggled for... that something that held out a great promise to all the people of the world to all time to come.”
In Gettysburg, we celebrate the anniversary of that famous address on November 19—Remembrance Day—with full honors: military band, speeches, parades, a re-creation of Lincoln’s speech. For me, a child of immigrant parents, the most moving part of the day is the swearing in of new citizens from every part of the world, ready to become part of a nation that offers “a great promise to all the people of the world to all time to come.”
Surely Lincoln’s example can inspire us today to work for the higher view of our nation, what he called “the last best hope of earth.”