Abraham Lincoln was born 212 years ago this week, on February 12, 1809, and it is tempting in these divided times to wonder what he would think about events now taking place in Washington, DC and its effects on national unity, a subject always on Old Abe’s mind.
Lincoln no doubt would have been horrified by the January 6 storming of the Capitol. The Capitol dome, after all, is our greatest monument to government of the people. Its construction amid a tower of scaffolding during the Civil War became a symbol of determination that the Union would go on.
If here today, perhaps Lincoln would agree with those who say impeachment is necessary to bring a just conclusion to the mayhem of January 6. But it is also easy to imagine his being disheartened by a rushed impeachment process and a trial that risks leaving the country more divided afterward.
For Lincoln, the goal of healing bitter divisions and bringing the country together while preserving its founding principles was not just a talking point. It was everything.
In early March 1865, when he gave his second inaugural address, animosity was at its height. By then the war was winding down and people knew the North was going to win. Lincoln could have given a vindictive, triumphant speech.
Instead, he did something remarkable. He reminded Americans that both sections, North and South, were responsible for the sin of slavery, the root cause of war.
He then closed with some of his most famous words, calling on his countrymen to act “with malice toward none, with charity for all” and “to bind up nation’s wounds.”
Lincoln put those sentiments into action many times during his presidency. A few weeks after his second inaugural, while visiting troops at City Point, Virginia, east of the front at Petersburg, he went out of his way to greet wounded Southern soldiers at the Depot Field Hospital.
As I relate in my novel, Old Abe, he moved down the rows of cots, offering words of comfort to the surprised Confederates. A colonel from South Carolina gave a frown as he approached.
“Mr. President, do you know who you’re offering your hand to?” he asked. Lincoln said he did not. “You offer your hand to a Confederate colonel who has fought you as hard as he could for four years,” the man said.
Lincoln saw that the fellow had been shot in both hips. “Well, I hope a Confederate colonel will not refuse me his hand,” he said.
The colonel’s face softened, and they clasped hands. Lincoln said he hoped he would soon be restored to health and his family.
Several days later, during his last cabinet meeting, on what turned out to be the last full day of his life, Lincoln stressed the urgent need to bring Americans back together. “We must extinguish our resentments if we expect harmony and union,” he said.
Secretary of War Edwin Stanton wrote that in that last meeting, Lincoln showed “in marked degree the kindness and humanity of his disposition, and the tender and forgiving spirit that so eminently distinguished him.”
It is, of course, impossible to know what Lincoln would say if here today. But, given his sentiments, he might ask some questions.
What is the spirit inside the Capitol now? Will events unfolding there help extinguish resentments? Are they being steered with malice toward none and charity for all? Are they helping to bind up the nation’s wounds?
The answers to those questions may determine how Americans and history judge this week’s impeachment trial.