After witnessing this week’s mob takeover of the US capitol building, I’ve been thinking a lot about the fate of our nation. Is a second civil war inevitable? Can our union survive the challenges of the moment? Seeking answers, I went to see President Lincoln. This afternoon I sat on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial reading Jon Meacham’s excellent book The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels.
The Lincoln Memorial is one of my favorite spots in Washington DC. The words from the Gettysburg Address on one side and the speech from his second inauguration on the other speak to a time of national division, and have never failed to move me. President Lincoln’s visage in the middle is strong, but not stern. It’s not an attractive face, but it’s compelling. It manages to convey both an unyielding nature, as well as malice toward none. It’s an exceptionally good piece of art.
Today I gazed at Lincoln’s face and asked him what kind of character it took to hold together a nation so intent on tearing itself apart. It certainly took the last ounce of his devotion and, in the end, his life.
After Lincoln’s death the country had to go on without him. Others rose to take his place. President Johnson, by most accounts, was terrible. The union may have won the war, but Johnson did his best to lose the peace. But our institutions and Lincoln’s legacy were enough to hold the country together until better leadership arrived.
When President Ulysses S. Grant was elected he brought with him not only the fighting spirit of a victorious general, but convictions powerful enough to lead others in knowing what to fight for. President Grant continued to fight for the principles of the Civil War. A Republican president, he created the Department of Justice to prosecute the Ku Klux Klan, pushed for ratification of the 15th Amendment, and enshrined our American values of equality into law.
At the risk of making a bold comparison, we find ourselves today in Lincoln’s shoes. We have the treble task of holding our country together, shoring up her institutions, and making our children ready to assume leadership in the future.
“If you can do those three things,” Mr. Lincoln whispered to me, “the next Grant will be ready to take up your unfinished work.”