Thursday, March 04, 2021

'The Lesson of Terseness and Strength'

One-hundred-sixty years ago today, Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated as the sixteenth president of the United States. Lincoln closed the inaugural address he delivered that day with these words, spoken to all Americans, including the citizens of the Southern states: 

“I am loath to close. 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 battle-field 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.”


There was a time when many Americans could quote at least some of those sentences from memory. The words possessed a truth and magnanimity almost sacred. Less than six weeks later, on April 12, 1861, Confederate forces fired on the federal garrison at Fort Sumter in Charleston Bay, S.C., beginning the Civil War.


Four years later, on March 4, 1865, after his reelection as president, and after 620,000 Americans had already perished in the war, Lincoln concluded his Second Inaugural Address, a much briefer document, 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 war effectively ended a month later, on April 9, when Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at of Appomattox Court House. Six days later, Lincoln was murdered. The promises he made in the Second Inaugural Address, his allusions to the words of Jesus, his reiterated condemnation of slavery and commitment to reconciliation, would be subverted. Again, his words linger in at least parts of our collective American memory. Lincoln is among our most gifted writers. As Jacques Barzun writes in his essay “Lincoln the Literary Genius” (1960):


“Lincoln acquired his power over words in the only two ways known to man – by reading and writing. His reading was small in range and much of a kind: the Bible, Bunyan, Byron, Burns, Defoe, Shakespeare, and a then-current edition of Aesop’s Fables. These are the books from which a genius would extract the lesson of terseness and strength.”


Barzun goes on to identify the qualities that distinguish Lincoln, as man and writer, from most other presidents:


“Lincoln’s extraordinary power was to make his spirit felt, a power I attribute to his peculiar relation to himself. He regarded his face and physique with amusement and dismay, his mind and destiny with wonder. Seeming clumsy and diffident, he also showed a calm superiority which he expressed as if one-half of a double man were talking about the other.”


Leo Wong said...

"firmness in the right"

Unknown said...

From Lincoln's 1862 State of the Union report to Congress:

"The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.
Fellow-citizens, we can not escape history. We of this Congress and this Administration will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance or insignificance can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor to the latest generation. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We, even we here, hold the power and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave we assure freedom to the free—honorable alike in what we give and what we preserve. We shall nobly save or meanly lose the last best hope of earth."

From Andrew Reinbach