By Edward Achorn
While rioters in American cities in recent days have damaged or destroyed monuments to George Washington, Ulysses Grant, and even the black 54th Massachusetts Regiment, those honoring Confederates seem especially targeted for destruction. Everyone from violent Marxists to conservatives look down these days on the Confederates from their high ground of moral superiority.
Abraham Lincoln had plenty of reason to despise the Confederates and seek vengeance on them. Rather than accept his legitimate election in 1860, they led their states to break off and form their own nation.
Determined to prevent the severing and destruction of the United States, Lincoln embarked on what turned out to be four years of brutal and anguishing war, American against American. He sent hundreds of thousands of young men to their deaths.
Every day of Lincoln’s presidency was poisoned by the Confederates. He believed their defense of the brutal institution of slavery placed them in the wrong. He knew that if he lost the war he would be despised by history as a blundering hayseed. He knew that white Southerners regarded him as a monstrous tyrant who had wreaked havoc on their homes and slaughtered their loved ones rather than simply let them live apart in peace, under a government of their choosing.
In March 1865, after four years of war, with Union victory on the horizon, many in the North wanted the Confederate leaders hanged and all white Southerners punished harshly. Some of the loudest advocating vengeance were liberal Northern clergymen.
Yet, as I note in my new book, Every Drop of Blood, Lincoln used his second inauguration to argue for something altogether different.
While he postulated that the terrible war was God’s harsh punishment on America for the sin of slavery, he urged compassion toward each other, not hatred. Sympathy, not vengeance. A recognition that both sides bore moral culpability, not just one.
He quoted Jesus: “Judge not that we be not judged.”
He ended his address with these words: “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.”
The great black leader Frederick Douglass called that address “a sacred effort.”
Brutal Jim Crow laws in the South and persistent prejudice in the North closed off opportunities for black Americans for decades after the war, though many blacks bravely fought their way into society and achieved success. But I believe Lincoln’s stirring and beautiful words made it possible to end the warfare between North and South and promote healing instead of violence.
The Southern novelist and Civil War historian Shelby Foote, a Democrat who admired President Lyndon Johnson, recalled the bitterness that persisted in Mississippi in his youth, many decades after the war.
“When I was a grade school boy in Mississippi, I knew obscene doggerel about Abraham Lincoln, left over from my parents and grandparents. Yankees were despised. When one of them was so unfortunate as to move to Greenville, Mississippi, he was despised. All that stopped. All that’s over now,” he said in a July 1994 interview.
He credited the “great compromise,” a psychological pact between the North and South, that developed during the 20th century.
“It consists of Southerners admitting freely that it’s probably best that the Union wasn’t divided, and the North admits rather freely that the South fought bravely for a cause in which it believed. That is a great compromise and we live with that and that works for us. We are now able to look at the war with some coolness, which we couldn’t do before now.”
Anyone who has read into that terrible war would have to be a pea-wit to fail to recognize the enormous courage and integrity of many men who fought for the Confederacy.
Their cause was terrible, I believe as a Northerner. Slavery was, as Lincoln put it in the Second Inaugural, a national sin. I believe that it was crucial to humanity that this country be saved, as the “last best hope of earth.”
But I also share Lincoln’s belief that perpetual hatred is neither a helpful or fitting response to the immense tragedy of slavery and of that war. I believe we should set aside malice and treat each other with charity, as fellow Americans. I believe historians should make a genuine effort to understand people in the past, not just label and dismiss them.
Marxist ideology operates a toggle switch: our side and their side. We cannot live in peace together. Those deemed to be in the wrong must be hated, smeared, threatened, fired, silenced, and eventually killed. Conformity is required. Slogans must replace nuanced thought and historical facts. Emotions must be exploited to foment revolutionary change. Books, statues, and other cultural artifacts must be destroyed in service to ideological and moral purity, as the party defines it — though the definition constantly changes.
Our media, academia and, increasingly, corporate offices are now filled with people who seem to believe their sense of moral superiority justifies censorship or cruelty against those they deem morally inferior. Now the targets include Americans who argue against racial animosity and mob violence.
American freedom was founded on a different perspective, one drawn from Judeo-Christian values. That view holds that every human being is of immense value, though deeply flawed and prone to sin. That no party or government is perfect. That we seek the truth, always elusive, by permitting each other to speak freely, without punishment. That limits on political power are essential to promote justice for all and the safety of every individual. That freedom to think and act for oneself is better than enslavement to any ideology. That people should be judged as individuals. That we best settle our political differences nonviolently, through elections, whose results we accept out of respect for the people and our system of self-government. That love — a genuine effort to work together and respect each other — is better than fostering never-ending, 24/7 hatred and destruction of anyone who opposes one’s infallible political aims.
Though Lincoln was not a churchgoer, he revered the wisdom and beauty of the Bible. He was speaking to a country, North and South, that overwhelmingly embraced the Christian faith.
I think the message of his 155-year-old Second Inaugural is one that could yet greatly serve this sad and divided nation.
(Read Edward Achorn’s books about American history.)