By Tom Still
MADISON – Abraham Lincoln, the nation’s 16th president and a leader whose 200th birthday we celebrate this month, suffered from depression during much of his life. His public persona, however, was that of the eternal optimist; someone who could inspire others to see beyond national despair and encourage even those who reviled him to reconcile.
Whether or not he succeeds in emulating his favorite president remains to be seen, but it has quickly become clear that Barack Obama will stand for bipartisanship even as he stands relatively alone. This President’s Day Week offers a timely reminder of why that’s an attribute more American politicians should share.
On March 4, 1861, with the clouds of war casting dark shadows on North and South alike, Lincoln used his first inaugural address to appeal to Americans’ enduring “bonds of affection” for one another. In what may have been a knowingly futile attempt to save the union from a violent dissolution, Lincoln held out the hope that Americans would be summoned back to friendship by “the mystic chords of memory.”
It didn’t work, of course, and the Civil War began five weeks later. Even as the killing intensified and feelings hardened on both sides, Lincoln made the tough and often cold decisions a commander-in-chief must make – while keeping alive his own vision for a nation reunified. In the North, meanwhile, anti-war Democrat Copperheads lambasted Lincoln for not compromising on the issue of slavery and Radical Republicans condemned him for not freeing the slaves fast enough.
Lincoln continued to reach out to his critics while keeping on hand firmly on his own wheel. In November 1863, near the Gettysburg, Pa., battlefield that had been the site of tide-turning bloodshed less than five months before, Lincoln chose to remind Americans of the nation’s idealistic birth in 1776 (“four score and seven years ago”) versus the framing and ratification of the Constitution more than a decade later. He recalled the founders’ passion to create “a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” To Lincoln, it was that “proposition” which needed to be kept alive.
Some eyewitnesses to Lincoln’s speech, which lasted less than three minutes, reported hearing little or no applause. That’s likely, given Lincoln’s political popularity at the time. Two months before he spoke, the governor of Pennsylvania wrote to Lincoln warning him that anti-war sentiment was building.
“If the election were to occur now, the result would be extremely doubtful, and although most of our discreet friends are sanguine of the result, my impression is, the chances would be against us,” wrote Gov. Andrew Curtin. “The draft is very odious in the State… the Democratic leaders have succeeded in exciting prejudice and passion, and have infused their poison into the minds of the people to a very large extent, and the changes are against us.”
Yet Lincoln still came to Gettysburg and delivered a speech – about 270 words in length – that most Americans today associate with leadership at a dark time in the nation’s history.
After winning re-election, surprisingly, in November 1864, Lincoln once again reminded Americans there would be life after war. His second inaugural address, on March 4, 1865, included this memorable phrase: “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 ﾗ to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”
A little more than a month later, Lincoln was dead. His assassination made the work of reconstructing a war-torn nation much more difficult, but there were many who clung to the goals he had so optimistically set. Lincoln was no Pollyanna, especially in politics, but he understood working with critics and enemies even when few welcomed it.
Only three Republicans voted for the federal stimulus bill last week in Washington, a strong rebuff to President Obama’s call for bipartisan action. Don’t expect Obama to throw in the towel over one setback, however, and don’t expect all Republicans to oppose him on all future issues. There will be other days.
Bipartisanship may sometimes appear to be like Lincoln’s “mystic chords of memory,” elusive and more fondly recalled than it was carried out. But the “proposition” is still worth preserving.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.