DUPONT: Abraham Lincoln’s complex moral vision: a meditation for our times

Published 10:31 am Thursday, November 12, 2020

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The Union sat poised for war when Abraham Lincoln swore the oath of office on March 4, 1861.

Even so, the new president declined to beat the drums of division. Instead, he evoked Americans’ connections with one another: “We are not enemies, but friends … Though passion may have strained, it must not break, our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory … will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

The central issue of that war — slavery — fits easily into stark moral categories, and Lincoln might justly have labeled its defenders “moral monsters” that day. But despite the South’s willingness to make war in slavery’s defense — pursuing one evil to protect another — Lincoln refrained from such indictments.

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For many, the great issues of our time similarly represent clear moral choices. And what better than sanctity and humanity to inform our politics and create a meaningful vision of our shared future?

But clear moral categories also make it easy to describe our opponents in stark terms: they are the cancer on our country’s soul, all that is wrong with America and even the embodiment of evil.

The same moral impulse that gives our collective lives meaning and coherence also creates tribalism, polarization and even violence.

Leading our country through its darkest and most violent moments, Lincoln recognized evil, but also embraced contradictions and complexity. Three principles from his moral vision can help us chart a course in today’s polarized atmosphere.

All of us have “better angels”

For Lincoln, even slaveholders waging war to preserve human bondage had nobler sides — “better angels.” An acknowledgement like this sits hard. We’d rather draw a straight line from reprehensible beliefs to total soul depravity.

But on the other hand, when we insist that better angels stir even within our enemies, we recognize our shared moral vulnerability. Human history suggests how often and how easily right can seem wrong, and wrong seem right.

Importantly, recognizing these better angels does not demand compromising with evil or sanctioning clear moral wrongs. But if we remember that goodness may yet linger somewhere inside the opposition, we’ll summon our own better angels of patience, goodwill and compassion.

Commit to your convictions — but embrace ambiguity and doubt

Lincoln articulated this notion best in his second inaugural address. By then, civil war had breathed fire across the land — more brutal, terrible and costly than imagined. Southern cities and farms lay in ruins, and many Americans lived on the brink of starvation. Families carried on without husbands, fathers, brothers, sons.

Lincoln understood that deep convictions had driven each side: “Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.” He waxed incredulous that a morality so opposed to his own made sense to anyone: “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.”

Like Lincoln, many of us wonder how others can condone practices we abhor or ignore crises that seem urgent. Lincoln did not equivocate about the moral wrong of slavery. Yet as he beseeched his hearers to have “firmness in the right,” he accepted the limits of human vision, claiming we know only “as God gives us to see the right.”

Lincoln may have refrained from gleefully dancing on the moral high ground for another reason: He well knew how both he and the Union had compromised with evil. Devoted to stopping the spread of slavery, Lincoln early offered the South a generous bargain: they could keep their slaves if they returned to the Union. When he finally issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, slaves in Union states like Kentucky remained legally in bondage, a concession to prevent those states from seceding.

The North could not boast clean hands on slavery. Southern slave-grown cotton had boosted the American economy, fueled the textile mills of New England, and returned handsome profits to northern investors. Northern congressmen had supported the interests of their slaveholding colleagues. Federal law and resources had helped slaveholders hunt down their fugitive bondsman, even in the free states.

Lincoln and America’s compromised virtue made poor grounds for self-righteous gloating. So does ours.

Love your enemies

As the war neared conclusion, Lincoln suggested that more horror might await. Perhaps, he thought, “God wills that every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid with another drawn with the sword.” Yet, almost in the same breath, he urged his hearers against retribution and toward reconciliation: “With malice toward none, with charity for all.” Going further, he implored his countrymen to perform acts of service, irrespective of tribe: “to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan.”