I was re-reading Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, which I do every once in a while, as it (and not, in my view, the Gettysburg Address) is the single most astonishingly great political utterance in this country’s history. Lincoln decided to speak about the Civil War which was then, finally, coming to a close, and instead of glorying in the by-then inevitable victory of the Union, or even gloating a bit at all those who had doubted him — hell, I would’ve — he gave a remarkable capsule history of the war and its causes. It is remarkable, more than anything, for its rhetorical distance. It’s almost as if Lincoln is already speaking to future generations, who would not know the combatants or even their cause. Of the two sides, he says:
Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged.
Now, look at that last line. He spends four sentences, each rung in with a word of equivalency (Neither, neither, each, both) establishing how alike the two sides were. As well he should: he had staked his presidency and his life on the proposition that “both” sides were in fact, one side. And then, with a masterful touch of understatement — “It may seem strange…” — he alludes to the underlying vast, categorical distance between the two sides: one of them fought for the right to enslave other human beings. In the speech, he has more to say about slavery and the blood drawn by the lash, but by then he has moved on to a general context of national guilt, implying, as the war comes to an end, that slavery was not the Southern sin, but a national one, and thus all the vast suffering, on both sides, was somehow divinely (or, I might say, karmically) just.
But what’s fascinating for me is Lincoln’s understanding that no matter how similar the two sides of that political argument may have been, there was, underneath the equivalent protestations about freedom and democracy and liberty, something profoundly different. Lincoln doesn’t go so far to suggest that one side, his side, was right — as he alludes to, ending slavery was not the aim of his government as the war began — but he does indicate, in his elegant way, that one side was, essentially, profoundly and objectively wrong. And thus, all the superficial similarities become moot.
Back to our current disputes, which has already begun to have subtle and not-so-subtle echoes of the Civil War. There is a lot of similarity to those who say “I want my country back,” and those who demand the restoration of our Constitution, whether they did those things in 2004 or 2010. But there must be, and I think there is, a profound difference, if only because of the nature and policies of the regime they are protesting. But let us judge not, lest we be judged.