It would be reckless for the American people to underestimate the seriousness of the cultural and public health challenges facing the United States. The “cancel culture” movement that is entwined with the recent civil unrest is especially worrisome since it advances a narrative of the United States that challenges the integrity of the American Founding, including its principal achievement, our constitutional republic.
Mastering these challenges will require serious reflection on how we arrived at where find ourselves today and what it will take to protect the vital interests of the nation.
This nation has faced and mastered extraordinary challenges in the past, and that should provide some measure of comfort — but it should be a sober and not an exuberant form of comfort. Among these extraordinary challenges, none has been greater than the crisis created by the Civil War.
As we grapple with the challenges confronting the nation in this election year, we would be well advised to draw inspiration from Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, a short and decidedly melancholy set of reflections on the state of the country as the Civil War was coming to an end.
Lincoln spoke to the American people in March 1865 as their president, but also as a pastor. No other inaugural address comes so close to being a sermon.
For Lincoln, the terrible pain of the Civil War represented the punishment visited on the American people by a “righteous” God. To be indignant about the harsh punishment that the nation brought upon itself would be to challenge “the judgments of the Lord.” Lincoln counseled the American people to be forgiving, to go forward with “malice toward none” and “with charity for all.”
Lincoln employed cold, hard reasoning in his assessment of the state of the nation as the Civil War was coming to an end as well as in his reflections on the special character of the republic bequeathed to us by the Founders. What he never does in his inaugural address is to take back an earlier assertion that there was something so special, even if not perfect, about our experiment in democratic-republican government that the “Almighty” must have ordained the American Founding.
Lincoln, drawing in part on his familiarity with William Shakespeare, believed that human actions such as the Founding can be exceptional, even when they are not perfect. Perfection is not to be expected of fallible and imperfect beings. Shakespeare saw human existence as inherently tragic, and Lincoln did as well. This is an important teaching.
Lincoln never wavered in his conviction that the establishment of a political community rooted in a reasoned commitment to human liberty and equality was an exceptional historical event, even if the full enjoyment of those principles by all persons was initially incomplete.
What other nation at the end of the 18th century had a civic culture rooted in a serious commitment to the rule of law and religious freedom, policy-making based on deliberation and coalition-building, and incentives for human exertion and achievement in the form of protection for expression, associational freedom and property rights?
The same reasoning he applied to the nation as a whole was applied by Lincoln to the respect owed Washington, Jefferson and Madison. The absence of perfection in their personal lives that has been accentuated by the cancel culture movement to discredit the Founding did not blind Lincoln to the critical role that these men played in creating a model constitutional republic for all mankind to emulate.
Besides being generally beneficial for human flourishing, the republic that the Founders called into being provided Lincoln with the resources he needed to challenge the very existence of slavery in the United States.
On one level, Lincoln addressed the American people in his Second Inaugural Address as “Fellow Countrymen” who, after a painful war brought on by their own “offenses,” had a collective responsibility to pay in blood for their sins. While it is neither reasonable nor fair to expect human beings to be perfect in their thoughts and actions, so he understood that it was neither reasonable nor fair for the nation to expect exemption from punishment when retribution is merited.
On another level, Lincoln stressed that the heavy price that had to be paid for legalizing slavery did not include repudiating the “Union” or American constitutional republic, the great achievement of Washington, Jefferson and Madison, hence his call to heal the divide between North and South.
For Lincoln, a rational and responsible people will make up for their sins, but also have the good sense to preserve a constitutional order that is capable of promoting human flourishing for all. To endanger the integrity and question the defensibility of our constitutional republic would be as inexcusable as the South’s attempted dismemberment of the Union.
Lincoln teaches us in his Second Inaugural Address how to respond to the cancel culture movement’s assault on the Founding. We would do well to remember his sober teaching, especially his counsel that humility, moderation and rational patriotism prevail over arrogance, self-righteousness and lawlessness, as we wrestle with the extraordinary challenges posed by the pandemic and the recent civil unrest.
• David Marion is Elliott Emeritus Professor of Government and a fellow of the Wilson Center for Leadership in the Public Interest at Hampden-Sydney College.