On March 4, 1865, near the end of a Civil War that divided the nation like no other in our history, President Abraham Lincoln stood to deliver his second inaugural address.
Lincoln understood that the reconstruction of the South – both physically and emotionally – was the greatest priority. He addressed the thousands in attendance with purpose and eloquence. And he did it all in 700 words.
The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History notes that “When Mr. Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address, I had the privilege of standing within twenty feet of him,” recalled an Army corporal in the presidential guard:
” ‘His voice was singularly clear and penetrating. It had a sort of metallic ring. His enunciation was perfect. … …it seemed as if his voice would reach the entire audience.’ ”
Lincoln began by addressing the reality of the past:
“On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war—seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.”
In plain and honest terms, Lincoln describes the perspective of each side:
“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. The prayers of both could not be answered…”
With the Civil War ongoing, Lincoln utilized that aspect of civility that Yale Law Professor Stephen Carter articulates in his book on the subject:
“Civility requires that we listen to others with knowledge of the possibility that they are right and we are wrong.
“Like so much that civility demands,” Carter continues, “the choice to listen in a truly open way involves a sacrifice – and what we are sacrificing lies near the core of the self. For our sacrifice is of nothing less than the ego support that comes from the certainty of our own rightness. Our senses of ourselves are deeply bound up with our senses of this-I-believe, whether our this involves a party affiliation, a commitment to nonviolence, a position on abortion, or even (especially!) our belief or nonbelief in God.”
Reading Carter’s book, Civility, it becomes apparent that Lincoln truly understood that “These central beliefs,” as Carter writes, “will be at risk if we enter into a truly civil dialogue, willing the other to try to convince us we are wrong, a dialogue we can join only by accepting… the possibility that we may be in error.”
Lincoln concludes his address with words that sound more like a prayer than those of one political ideology on the verge of victory over another.
“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 a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”
The path to civility is never easy, especially, when it is so entwined with deeply felt beliefs and principles. However difficult that path may be, civility begins with us.