Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Quote of the Day (Abraham Lincoln, on the ‘Virtue and Vigilance’ of the American People)

“By the frame of the Government under which we live this same people have wisely given their public servants but little power for mischief, and have with equal wisdom provided for the return of that little to their own hands at very short intervals. While the people retain their virtue and vigilance no Administration by any extreme of wickedness or folly can very seriously injure the Government in the short space of four years.”—President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1861

Like many people who have read this relentlessly logical address by Abraham Lincoln, I much prefer his ringing, eloquent conclusion:

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. 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.”

This spirit of generosity and reconciliation will surely be much on the mind of Joe Biden today as he attempts to close the divisions open for all the world to see in the storming of the Capitol two weeks ago. Let’s hope that some of his countrymen take to heart his Lincolnesque message of unity and a common patriotism.

If not, you can bet that what Gerald Ford called, at his own swearing-in, “our long national nightmare” will be far from over.

I worry about whether Biden’s expected appeal for bipartisanship will be enough at this unusually fearful inauguration. After all, Lincoln’s strenuous forswearing of any attempt to interfere with slavery in the states where it was already established was not enough to prevent southern extremists from pushing secession, instigating calamitous civil war.

Moreover, Lincoln’s confidence that no President could seriously harm the government in a single short term now seems, following the last four years, overly serene.

True, that time limit may be the optimum possible, given the need to allow Presidents the opportunity to look beyond short-term electoral considerations. But an office with so much potential for good possesses equal potential for evil, a negative capability demonstrated most dramatically by the latest outgoing occupant of the White House.

In the 20th century, historians used a short phrase, often picked up from inaugural addresses, to identify a President’s agenda: the Square Deal, the New Freedom, the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the New Frontier.

Given the lives lost in the COVID-19 pandemic and on January 6, historians might appropriately borrow a phrase from Donald Trump’s single inaugural address to characterization his administration: the American Carnage.

It feels like meager recompense to the nation he devastated that, through his own cupidity and madness, the outgoing President laid waste to "the Trump brand." He left divisions surpassed only by the one confronting Lincoln.

An “extreme of wickedness or folly” occurred over the past two months through patently false but endlessly propagated accusations of electoral fraud—charges now acknowledged to be untrue by the two leading Republicans on Capitol Hill, Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy.

In the two-month interval between the election and the start of a new administration, Trump did nothing to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 across the United States, choosing instead to transmit the virus of falsehood to nearly half of the American electorate.

That recklessness spurred the most serious insurrection on U.S. soil since the Confederacy that Lincoln had to destroy. That riot undercut America as an exemplar of democracy abroad, as the embodiment of what Lincoln called, nearly two years after he took the oath of office, “the last best hope of earth.” 

For whatever reason, far too many ordinary Americans were insufficiently vigilant four years ago in voting for a leader without the slightest electoral or national security experience. In the process, they also elected a man without the virtue that Lincoln mistakenly believed would be possessed by all of his successors.

Because of the vacuum of "virtue and vigilance" in the past four years, I am forced to agree with Garrett Epps’ contention in The Washington Monthly: “Until the nation receives a full accounting, and until criminality pays a suitable price, our institutions will lie open, undefended against those who openly aspire to break them up by force.”

No comments: