The Lincoln Tragedy

On this morning, April 15, 1865, Abraham Lincoln died in a house across the street from Ford’s Theater. The pandemonium of the night before still resonated through Washington, DC, and the news would soon spread throughout the country, both North and South.

John Hay, Lincoln’s personal secretary, recalls hearing these words from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton:

The nation mourned, and it wasn’t just the North that did so. Many in the South knew this was a tragedy for them as well. Lincoln had mapped out a policy of forgiveness and reconciliation with the transgressing states. His main hope was a peaceful reunification without rancor. He stated his position eloquently in his Second Inaugural Address.

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 portrait painted by some today, that Lincoln was a tyrant who trampled on the Constitution and abused his office, is inaccurate. I won’t go into all the details in this post, but suffice to say that I was one who leaned in that direction early in my career. I don’t believe that now. Why the change? Let’s just say that more historical research proved to me the opposite.

Lincoln was a man who was drawn steadily back to the Christian faith after years of agnosticism. The trial of the Civil War deeply affected him and forced him to turn his eyes Heavenward.

His speeches and letters during that awful war reveal a man who is in the throes of a great spiritual introspection—an introspection that exhibited itself in both his Gettysburg Address and in that Second Inaugural.

The heart of the Second Inaugural—and the heart of Lincoln himself—can be found in this short excerpt:

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.

The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.

“Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.”

If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

The loss of Lincoln at that critical point in American history was huge. Reconciliation did not prevail at that time; it took far longer to heal the brokenness and the racial attitudes than it should have.

We still bear those scars today.

A Speech Etched into America’s Memory

Yesterday, November 19, was the 154th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, one of the most significant and poignant speeches in American history—and also one of the shortest.

The battle at Gettysburg had occurred in July of 1863, three days of some of the most awful warfare the nation has ever endured. It was particularly awful because those who died were all Americans, fighting one another. It took from July to November to clean up the battlefield of all the dead. The carnage practically defied description.

Abraham Lincoln went to Gettysburg to commemorate the victory by Union forces. He wasn’t even advertised as the primary speaker that day—the renowned orator Edward Everett had top billing. Yet no one recalls Everett’s words now. Lincoln’s concise two-minute address has come down to us as one of the most eloquent ever delivered. It doesn’t take long to read, so I offer it to you here:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.

We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.

The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.

It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

The photographer at the event figured he had time to make the changes necessary to the camera and still catch images of Lincoln’s speech, but he wasn’t prepared for one that short. The only photograph we have of that special occasion is one of Lincoln sitting down right after delivering his comments.

Lincoln’s only error in the speech was in saying that the world would not remember what was said there. At the time, newspapers mocked the president’s address, calling it embarrassing. Speakers were supposed to go on forever, thrilling their audiences with decorative flourishes of oratory. Lincoln instead opted for directness, simplicity, and heartfelt gratitude for those who died.

Most people don’t know that Lincoln was feeling ill at the time. It turned out he had contracted smallpox, although not a virulent strain. When I was last at the museum in Ford’s Theater in Washington, DC, I noticed this plaque that I thought was a splendid example of Lincoln’s sense of humor:

The Civil War was a constant strain on Lincoln, yet he learned how to handle the heavy burden placed on him. Evidence is strong that the trials he suffered led him back to Christian faith. The Gettysburg Address and his subsequent Second Inaugural Address give testimony to that faith.

The Gettysburg Snub

A new mini-controversy is brewing over another action—make that an inaction—of President Obama’s. The 19th of this month is the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. The president has decided not to be in attendance to observe that historic event. Unlike 23 other presidents, he has chosen not to put in an appearance at the place where one of the most famous speeches in American history took place.

This has the citizens of Gettysburg and all others who are participating in the commemoration dismayed. “Why the snub?” they wonder. A short word to those who are distressed over Obama’s absence from the proceedings: don’t sweat it. The anniversary of Lincoln’s pithy and wise comments should be one of dignity and genuine appreciation. In my opinion, the presence of our current president at the event would only serve to degrade its historic significance. Neither he nor his wife have ever really been proud [in the right sense of the word] of their country. Why cheapen this commemoration with any insincere remarks he might choose to offer?

Abraham Lincoln--Gettysburg Address DrawingInstead, rejoice in his absence as you ponder anew the address that begins with those beguiling words, “Fourscore and seven years ago.” Listen attentively to Lincoln’s reminder that we are a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Recall his stirring vision that those who died on that battlefield would help the nation, under God, to experience a new birth of freedom. And dwell on that final thought, “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Be grateful that, during an arduous civil war that could have destroyed this nation forever, we had a leader who knew how to lead. Further, be thankful that God gave us another chance to live up to our ideals.

And finally, pray that the president doesn’t change his mind and decide to show up after all. This should be a memorable occasion for all the right reasons. Undue attention to a man who doesn’t really care much about his own country’s history would only detract from the memory of all those who fought for the nation’s ideals and from the memory of the president who so clearly enunciated them.