Abraham Lincoln, Epitome of Political Civility

No American ever modeled the virtue more nobly — or expressed it more eloquently than he did in the Gettysburg Address.

This stovepipe hat and thick beard make him instantly recognizable. He was a gifted politician and was unusually witty. He delivered the Gettysburg Address, memorized by schoolchildren and carved into marble at the monument in Washington that bears his name. There are many reasons that Abraham Lincoln usually finds himself at the top of lists of our most beloved and greatest presidents. Today, on his 211th birthday, it would be appropriate to examine one specific characteristic that made Lincoln great — his fierce civility.

We are not enemies, but friends. This famous line from his first inaugural address was spoken in what was about to become the most divided time in our country’s history. He said this just before the outbreak of a civil war and the attempted succession of half of the country. In the coming years hundreds of thousands of Americans died at the hands of their fellow countrymen. Friends? This war threatened to divide our union into two countries and tested whether a nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure. These words, pleading for friendship, were more than mere sentiment for Lincoln. He believed that our commonalities as Americans and members of the human race were stronger than the issues that threatened to tear us apart.

Today, one does not have to look far to see that everyone seems angry about everything. Outrage drives Internet traffic. Cancel culture is pervasive. If someone speaks outside party lines, the reaction is not merely to silence him and his point of view but to destroy him. Don’t just make him shut his mouth and recant, but also make sure he loses his job and suffers public ridicule. These are the actions of an unhealthy republic and one that is not friends but enemies.

Lincoln understood that to build a strong country and a better future he would have to work with those who disagreed with him, and that included many who simply were not his biggest fans. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s marvelous book Team of Rivals is the story about the cabinet that Lincoln built out of those who were previously his political rivals. A lesser man would have been threatened by this, kept them at arm’s length, and brought in only yes men. But he rose above that. When there was a vacancy for the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Lincoln told a friend he “would rather have swallowed his buckhorn chair than to have nominated [Salmon] Chase,” but he knew what would most benefit the country, so he did. He saw the skill and talent of these men and realized they had significant capacity to strengthen America.

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