Abraham Lincoln, Epitome of Political Civility

Detail of portrait of President Abraham Lincoln by George Healey, 1869 (White House Historical Association/via Wikimedia)

No American ever modeled the virtue more nobly — or expressed it more eloquently than he did in the Gettysburg Address.

His stovepipe hat and thick beard make him instantly recognizable. He was a gifted politician and was unusually witty. He delivered the Gettysburg Address, memorized by schoolchildren and carved into marble at the monument in Washington that bears his name. There are many reasons that Abraham Lincoln usually finds himself at the top of lists of our most beloved and greatest presidents. Today, on his 211th birthday, it would be appropriate to examine one specific characteristic that made Lincoln great — his fierce civility.

We are not enemies, but friends. This famous line from his first inaugural address was spoken in what was about to become the most divided time in our country’s history. He said this just before the outbreak of a civil war and the attempted succession of half of the country. In the coming years hundreds of thousands of Americans died at the hands of their fellow countrymen. Friends? This war threatened to divide our union into two countries and tested whether a nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure. These words, pleading for friendship, were more than mere sentiment for Lincoln. He believed that our commonalities as Americans and members of the human race were stronger than the issues that threatened to tear us apart.

Today, one does not have to look far to see that everyone seems angry about everything. Outrage drives Internet traffic. Cancel culture is pervasive. If someone speaks outside party lines, the reaction is not merely to silence him and his point of view but to destroy him. Don’t just make him shut his mouth and recant, but also make sure he loses his job and suffers public ridicule. These are the actions of an unhealthy republic and one that is not friends but enemies.  

Lincoln understood that to build a strong country and a better future he would have to work with those who disagreed with him, and that included many who simply were not his biggest fans. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s marvelous book Team of Rivals is the story about the cabinet that Lincoln built out of those who were previously his political rivals. A lesser man would have been threatened by this, kept them at arm’s length, and brought in only yes men. But he rose above that. When there was a vacancy for the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Lincoln told a friend he “would rather have swallowed his buckhorn chair than to have nominated [Salmon] Chase,” but he knew what would most benefit the country, so he did. He saw the skill and talent of these men and realized they had significant capacity to strengthen America.

Of course, some may say that they were still members of his own party. Anyone can get along with those on the same team if that means his side wins. But Lincoln’s civility did not extend only to Republicans. He treated those in the Democratic Party and even the Confederate army with respect and was not viscerally angry with those who opposed him. At the end of the Civil War, he could have become a tyrant and run roughshod over the South, but he chose to be magnanimous. When the war had been won, Sherman wrote to Lincoln and inquired, “What was to be done with the rebel armies when defeated? And what should be done with the political leaders, such as Jeff. Davis, etc.?” One can imagine how many leaders today would respond to this question. Many would make certain that their enemies were acutely aware of their loss and would make certain that they were meant to feel the shame of a conquered people.

Not Lincoln. He said that he wanted “to get the men composing the Confederate armies back to their homes, at work on their farms and in their shops.” He did not ask for punishment or humiliation. He wanted them to be treated not as conquered foes but as fellow citizens. He further said, “Let them have their horses to plow with, and, if you like, their guns to shoot crows with. I want no one punished; treat them liberally all round. We want those people to return to their allegiance to the Union and submit to the laws.” One week before he was shot, Lincoln visited Richmond, with the Confederate surrender imminent. He asked that, before returning to Washington, the military band play “Dixie.” It’s “good,” he said, “to show the rebels that, with us in power, they will be free to hear it again.”

Lincoln had a deep belief in human dignity and understood that everyone — including those with different skin color, and those in other armies — are worthy of respect. Our forefathers were dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, he said in the Gettysburg Address. Edward Everett, a pastor and former secretary of state, preceded Lincoln at the podium and spoke for nearly two hours. The president spoke for about three minutes. Afterward, Everett wrote to Lincoln and said, “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.” However, Lincoln did not merely happen upon these words as he sat down to write a speech. He had been ruminating on the principles that he espoused in his address for years, and, being the master orator that he was, condensed all of his belief in human dignity, personal freedom, and liberty into 272 words.

Our nation needs more leadership that resembles the admirable traits of President Lincoln — humble, kind, self-deprecating, not easily intimidated, principled, non-reactionary, magnanimous, and peacemaking. President Lincoln isn’t walking through the door anytime soon. But if our politicians and we the people will endeavor to emulate his example, and lay down our weapons of hostility, vitriol, name-calling, and malice, our country will be a better place. Until the day comes when Americans see each other not as enemies, but friends, we will continue to swallow one another in mutual bitterness that increases the slide toward our becoming a more divided nation. On President Lincoln’s birthday, let us fondly hope for a new birth of political civility. Let us strive to be better than we have been and pledge to see those on the other side of the aisle as worthy of dignity and honor and respect. Let us pray that we will be able to embrace all of our fellow citizens with malice toward none and with charity for all.

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