There are several new books out on Lincoln which purport to reveal the true man behind the mask. To adapt a line from Shakespeare: “They have come, however, not to praise Lincoln, but to bury him.” These right-wing authors have ascribed the worst possible motives to everything Lincoln said and did. It is a revision of our history that in the wildest imaginings of my youth I would never have thought possible. It is also one of the surest signs of our nation’s current, and dangerous, state of being, our new “civil war.”
Disparate groups like the Tea Party, the NRA, the Republican Party, corporations, the largely right-wing media, fringe groups like those supporting Clive Bundy, the KKK (a virulent white supremacist group), and other anti-government groups and individuals, have declared war on our historical way of life. It is a new civil war, funded by, among others, the far right-wing billionaire Koch brothers. And like the first Civil War, it’s a fight for the future, and soul, of America.
Below is part of a letter I wrote last year in response to these calumnies. It unmasks the preposterous image of Lincoln put forth by the right, by revealing through a single incident–Lincoln’s ministrations to a dying Confederate soldier–how uniquely humane a president he really was, and how utterly fortunate we were as a country to have had him as our president. It is literally inconceivable to imagine any Republican today—let alone a Rand Paul, John Boehner, Clive Bundy, or the Koch brothers—heart-feltly ministering to their sworn, deadly enemies, “With malice towards none, and with charity for all….”
“Lincoln had served in Congress with many later Confederate leaders; they had been on friendly terms before the war, and Lincoln never abandoned their friendship even during the war. Given his nature and sensibilities, Lincoln would have had a very different form of “Reconstruction” than that which was instituted after his death. You are quite right to quote from the Second Inaugural as pointing out the path of reconciliation he would surely have taken. To say “With malice towards none” with the deepest sincerity (as he did) can only be done if it has already been embraced in one’s soul.
“What makes Lincoln our greatest American (and not just our greatest president) is that he was also a deeply loving and profoundly reflective Christian, who wrestled openly and honestly with those aspects of his faith which he could not understand, but who sincerely and reverently lived out that which he could understand. His was a costly and prophetic faith, to be relied upon to inform one’s daily thoughts and actions in all the myriad trials, sufferings, temptations, and uncertainties which everyday Life presents. But it was especially during wartime, with the horrific suffering and innumerable deaths of so many soldiers, both Confederate and Union alike, along with the death of Lincoln’s much beloved youngest son, Tad, that deepened Lincoln’s faith the most, as he took upon his shoulders the inexpressible grief and anguish of both the North and the South.
“To say that Lincoln was crucified by the war is only to speak the truth. His was no tepid, bland “Sunday morning faith” that superficially satisfies so many Christians. His faith burned hotter, and purer, tempered as it was in the intense fires of a fratricidal civil war, of brother against brother. I cannot think of another world leader, alive or dead, who endured what he endured—nor one his equal in intellect, faith, charity, and humility, which makes his demonization by the political right so profoundly disturbing. Moreover, Lincoln, unlike his many current denouncers, was absolutely incorruptible. His Tea Party and Republican accusers, on the other hand, have a long and sordid history of accepting cash for votes, from the NRA, JP Morgan, GE, Exxon/Mobil, et. al. These corrupt politicians, like Faust, have struck a bargain with the devil, while Lincoln alone stuck to the high, costly road of sacrifice, faith, integrity, and charity.
“The following anecdote, which not surprisingly was left out of these books on Lincoln, unveils the authentic Lincoln, the deeply humane, caring, and giving human being that he really was. I read about this incident a decade ago in a library in graduate school and here retell it from memory–faithful to the facts, but told in my own words.
“Lincoln had spent a long day at an army hospital visiting and comforting the many Union wounded and dying. As day gradually turned into evening, an exhausted and emotionally depleted Lincoln departed the hospital, climbed wearily into the presidential carriage, and began the slow return to the White House, where a late evening’s work still awaited him. A hospital orderly suddenly ran up to the presidential carriage and shouted out, “There’s a Confederate soldier who wants to speak with the president.” Lincoln, although clearly exhausted, stepped down from the carriage and with weary steps re-entered the hospital.
“The Confederate soldier was a young man, who, upon seeing Lincoln in the flesh for the first time, remarked naïvely, ‘You don’t look at all like the ape pictures I saw in the South.’ The two of them talked for some time. Then the young man asked if Lincoln would deliver a letter and heirloom to his family. Lincoln promised him that he would. Lincoln then said that he had pressing business still awaiting him, and was there anything else he could do for him. The dying soldier pathetically replied, ‘I was hoping you’d see me through (death).’ So this impossibly busy wartime president shunted aside all official business, and forgetful even of his own exhausted state, stayed with this enemy soldier until the very end, ministering to him and comforting him, weeping as he clasped the dying soldier’s hands in his own. True to his word, Lincoln made sure that the family received the young man’s personal effects.
Need I remark that this is exactly how Lincoln would have treated the South after the war –with dignity, charity, mercy, and reason. What might our country have developed into with a Reconstruction based not on hatred and retribution but on mercy and charity for all?”
This incident clearly and unambiguously reveals what kind of president he really was: a deep-souled, caring, forgiving Christian whose tenderness, charity, mercy, intellect, moral stature, and self-sacrificing nature on behalf of the nation he was elected to serve—and harboring no ill-will towards the forces bitterly arrayed against him in an epic Civil War—are, so far as I am aware, unmatched in the annals of history, ancient or modern.
The destructive fires of our new “civil war”, which these revisionist histories of Lincoln are meant to stoke, continue today unchecked: ideological gridlock in Congress; hateful, petty Republicans calling for Obama’s impeachment every other week; lies and half-truths on important political issues that are a staple of Republican incendiary rhetoric; adversarial politics of the meanest and vilest kind; the inability of the Obama administration to get its many, and important, appointments passed; votes openly bought in Congress in exchange for campaign contributions; a Congress meanly subservient to the wealthiest 1% while caring not a whit for the middle or lower classes. Two well-respected and very-influential political scientists, in fact, one from Princeton University and the other from Northwestern, in an empirically-based 20-year-long study of how Congress actually works, have openly declared thatour democracy is dead. “We are now,” they pronounced, “an oligarchy, a nation governed solely by the few on behalf of the interests of the wealthiest 1%.” And they have the irrefutable evidence of over 20 years’ research data to back up their claim.
“Our democracy is dead.” In these disturbing times, what we need are the intellect, courage, faith, charity and moral stature of another Lincoln to guide us through these turbulent and treacherous waters. The future of our cherished way of life now hangs precariously in the balance.
Can we still reclaim the dreams of our forefathers and bring good, honest, intelligent, and caring government to every American citizen? Can we both as individuals and as a nation seek truth, goodness, and beauty with unflinching zeal and steadfast devotion, working daily for peace and concord among all citizens while disavowing diatribe, division, and discord? Can we once again prove to a skeptical world that our once-cherished and highly-regarded democratic way of life is not yet dead and buried. That our democracy can justly represent all economic classes; that it can honor and aid both our poorest and most vulnerable citizens as well as our richest and most successful; and that a government of the people, by the people, and for the people can, like the immortal Phoenix, rise once again triumphantly from its own ashes!
Len Sive Jr.