31 – Lincoln on America’s task

[Thursday, February 9, 2006]

(8 p.m.) Mr. Lincoln. I have a pretty good idea what you want to talk about. I’m ready if you are ready.

I had given thought to the state of the nation as we would find ourselves with the end of the war. It is an abiding regret that I could not offer my guidance in this crisis as I had through the war itself, for I believed that I understood the situation as no man could who had not been in my position.

When a terrible war has been survived, those who find that they have lived through it usually want the one thing that can never be: They want things to go back to the way they were. I could not well understand this. “The way things were” led to the war. For us to return to the way things were would be to return to the path of war, would it not? And how was it to be achieved in any case? Would the almighty restore 600,000 men to life, and restore the massive damage to property that war always brings? Would we ask God to restore four million human beings to slavery – and return our minds to a condition of being able to live with slavery as a necessary evil?

No, clearly, to return was impossible, and undesirable even if possible. But then in what direction ought we to attempt to move? Was it desirable to restore the south as it had been, only with slaves now free? If so, what should be their status? How would they live? For that matter, where would they live? And the plantation owners: Without the capital those slaves represented, without a reliable labor supply, without the innumerable social supports taken for granted in the north – free education, free press, railroad connections, immigrant labor, a thousand useful machines – without all that, how would those plantations be operated? And if they could not be preserved, what was to replace them?

All these questions needed thinking through, and the overwhelming need was for thought and not mere bitterness of feeling, to determine the course that would lead forward.

You know my Louisiana plan. I was convinced that the sooner we got functioning state governments back into the union, the better for all. And the smaller the hurdles we made them leap, the sooner they would be back inside in feelings as well as in law and custom. But this was not to be, and it took me as much pondering “on this side” as you put it as ever I put in on the other side, in life, before I began to see.

The passage of time has made clear that many calamities that fell upon the Union cause early in the war ultimately conduced toward a higher end. As Joseph Smallwood correctly said, had McClellan crushed the rebellion in 1862, as he well might have done, the task of eliminating slavery would have been left not only unaccomplished but rendered less possible than before. It would have been a long time ere Union politicians raised the slavery issue after so near a miss – for so it would have been seen.

No, Union arms met defeat after defeat until we were driven into a corner and there was no way left; then I could proclaim emancipation and know that I could carry the country with me – probably. It was not a sure thing even then, but fortunately the contrabands had begun to transform the attitudes of the soldiers, then of the soldiers’ communities by way of their letters and visits. And the very mounting of casualties hardened the people’s resolution too, so that America in January 1863 was a far different place in its attitude toward slavery than America in January 1861.

There was even shame in it. The Tsar of Russia had freed the serfs in 1862! Were we to be the only people on earth holding slaves?

But just as time made it clear that our defeats played into the design of providence that all men should be free – so our terrible defeats after the war, after I was gone, were doing the will of providence no less. It took a while, but I came to see it.

The aim, as I see it now, was never to set up America as the world’s one successful free nation. It was, again, to have America lead the way to wider understandings. America has stood for reshaping itself, time after time. I have come to see that as a sort of model for the world. We having done it, others could be encouraged by our example to dare to follow.

We were a nation of white men, Englishmen. Then, English and Irish and German, and we had to absorb that. At about the same time – the ‘40s, as you well know – agitation for women’s rights and emancipation and the beginning of industrial strife all came at us together. When the war ended, we were faced with expanding our view of citizenship to the negro. In California, the Chinaman had no representation and few rights, but a time would come when they too would want to be included fully. In your day you have perhaps forgotten how wide the gates swung – southern and eastern Europe, China and Japan, finally India and every nation.

It is all part of the same problem, and it will not be solved by America alone or by America thinking alone. The problem is this: Is there going to be any division between people or is there going to be one common people? It is the same question that nearly foundered us in my day.

You see the Muslims and the Europeans, a clash of cultures, this very day. The task as I see it, looking down a long number of years, is to find a common sense of community for all the world’s peoples. That will represent success, and anything else, an incomplete success, or a delayed success, or, finally, failure.

This task will stretch you to your limits, as our challenge did us. You will not be the same people at the other end of this test, win or lose. However, in this is but another turn of the wheel. Your task is global but so are your resources. So is your influence, good and bad. What you lack chiefly at the moment is the vision of what you ought to be struggling for.

You copied my words and put them on your wall, and that was a good thing for you to do. I say it again on your behalf. “Determine that the thing can and shall be done, and we will find a way.”

Perhaps my thought is not as clear as I could have made it when I was flesh, but you understand. State it ever more clearly. Hold to it. America was founded as a city on a hill. That is what our puritan ancestors said. They meant by that not a city exalted, but a city in everyone’s sight, succeed or fail as it might.

It is for the living to carry forth the work that America has been carrying forth these four hundred years, knowingly or unknowingly, willingly or not. America itself, as I have come to realize, is nothing but another country. America as vanguard, though, America as trail-breaker, remains unique. It is for you the living to carry on the work, keeping in your mind’s eye the nature of the struggle. It is not mere survival, certainly not comfort, and not predominance that is at stake in your time, but the latest iteration of the age-old struggle – shall the world be divided or shall all the world be one? “United” does not mean all one thing. It means, all different things part of something bigger than each, bigger than all. In this I see no exception to the maxim so long ago entered into the language: A house divided against itself cannot stand. In my time we had to hold together the initial experiment in self-government. In yours, you must hold together an ideal, a model, upon which may be build a broader humanity. In this you have much support from “this side” – but you must act. Such action need not be political or even cultural but of necessity they must be acts of spirit. In this spirit is everything created; all else is but the working out below.

Enough for now.

Thank you again, Mr. Lincoln. God bless you.

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