As I heard President Joe Biden in his primetime address malign the “extremist forces” in our country that our “threatening our democracy,” I couldn’t help think of another president who also faced a serious threat.
The threat consisted of a third of the country with an army of about a million soldiers at war with the rest of the country. Rebel states like Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia were in a vicious war with northern states.
Hundreds of thousands of Americans had already perished.
So, on March 4, 1865, faced with this ongoing carnage, President Abraham Lincoln addressed the nation in his Second Inaugural.
Had Lincoln followed Biden’s approach to dealing with threats, he presumably would have bashed the rebel states and held them accountable for the atrocities of the Civil War, before demanding an immediate surrender.
Instead, Lincoln spoke compassionately and almost objectively of both sides, going as far as to discourage judgement: “Let us judge not that we be not judged.”
Here is a brief excerpt from that address, as the guns and canons continued to blaze:
“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– that of neither has been answered fully.”
Lincoln took a deeply wounded nation and applied the force of ten Emergency Room centers to his patient.
Of course, it’s not fair to expect from President Biden the extraordinary wisdom and rhetorical brilliance of President Lincoln.
But it is fair to expect from our president an effort to heal the wounds of our nation rather than inflame them, especially since “unity” was the theme of his own inaugural address.
Biden started off with a grand reminder that “America made its declaration of independence to the world more than two centuries ago, with an idea unique among nations: that in America, we’re all created equal.”
Then he proceeded to undermine a big chunk of the country.
In his fiery speech, Biden repeated over and over the term “MAGA Republicans,” asserting angrily that they “represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our Republic.”
I wonder if he realizes that 74 million “MAGA Americans” voted for Donald Trump in 2016. Who was he talking to, the other half?
According to our president, “MAGA forces” are “determined to take this country backwards, backwards to an America where there is no right to choose, no right to privacy, no right to contraception, no right to marry who you love. They promote authoritarian leaders, and they fanned the flames of political violence that are a threat to our personal rights, to the pursuit of justice, to the rule of law, to the very soul of this country.”
Hearing those words, one would think the barbarians were at the gate. What occasioned such an inflammatory speech? Well, that’s not really clear.
As Noah Rothman reminds us in Commentary:
“[The speech] was not preceded by any episode of mass violence, no outpouring of primitive racial antagonism. The January 6 rioters are being systematically prosecuted by the legitimate executors of American justice, in whose crosshairs even the former president has found himself. What crisis is the American right precipitating?”
Apparently, the crisis was politics.
The speech was so partisan that many critics have called it a mostly political exercise to activate the Democratic base before the November midterms.
Realizing that he went too far, the next day Biden tried to walk back his partisan venom by assuring us, “I don’t consider any Trump supporter a threat to the country.” When the country needed an emergency room, all the president could offer us was a band aid.
I guess we can be grateful that he wasn’t in charge on March 4, 1865.