The Gettysburg Address is a convenient length for memorization, but the designers of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC made the remarkable choice to include a portion of a yet more insightful address made by Lincoln: I refer to his second Inagural. It is doubtful whether all the tomes laboriously compiled by the efforts of scholarship have significantly added to Lincoln’s recognition of the causes of the Civil War; and oversimplifying, where Lincoln recognized complexity and competing motives, and was unwilling to allege pure villainy, seems to me to actively harm our own comprehension of faults and causes – and effects.
I quote here a selection from Lincoln’s most profound and moral judgment offered in the speech: “If we shall suppose that American slavery is [an] offence… which… [God] now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war… shall we discern therein any departure from those attributes which the believer in a living God always ascribe to Him? … [I]f God wills that [the war] continue, until all the walth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword… so still it must be said ‘the judgements of the Lord are true and righteous altogether’.”
It may easily be argued that forced labor for another is not always unjust. How else, for instance, is a poor thief to pay back what he owes for what he stole, than to see at least some part of the wages of his work given to his victim? (Assuming he has work, the ensuring of which and what to do if not is not the point here.) But for America to have proclaimed freedom and liberty for all men, and then to keep some in life-long slavery, is easily recognized as a violation of the most basic principle of honor, which is honesty. The Founding Fathers recognized this, but shied away from carrying through their principles in fear of civil unrest and for their own fortunes, even though American independence did see some measures taken in the succeeding years to reduce and remove slavery in several states independently.
But the overall offence remained. It is noteworthy that Lincoln sees the joint responsibility “both North and South” – where Southern apologists wish to downplay any role played by slavery (in contrast to the writings of the times) and many today wish to justify themselves by only villifying those they can cast conveniently as the “slaveholders and rebels”.
In God’s providence, the Civil War ended mere months after Lincoln’s speech; but we can hardly have been said to have heeded Lincoln’s warning. Measures imposed on the southern states were motivated as much by revenge as concern for the freed slaves; and removed purely in political manuevering with no concern for – with wilfull ignorance or at times even approval of – the resulting treatment of black citizens.
Although black slavery and anti-black racism have dominated American political crises for some time, at no point do I see a concerted effort to put race aside, treat the victimized as citizens, and assess what may actually be due in restitution or, as we say, “damages”. Perhaps the closest was the effort immediately after the Civil War to settle former slaves in ownership of land confiscated from the southern grandees or otherwise available; but land policy has hardly been a bright point in American political management.
Speaking of land, much of the sovereignty over what the United States now governs was taken by force, often in violation of treaty or a succession of treaties, from other American nations. Which is known if ignored, but I mention it to make the point that there are many other “offences” which Americans might be held accountable for – often, as with slavery, excused on specious racial grounds. We might consider this particular set of violations offences against the right of property, essential to our understanding of freedom, and even – though as best I can tell, apocryphally – sometimes alleged as the original word replaced later by “happiness” in the Declaration.
More recently, various manias for sterilization, euthanasia, and, most publicly, abortion have placed us in defiance of the right we declare to life for “all men”. If we alarmed by civil unrest and public obscenity, we can hardly do other than say, with Lincoln, that we have gotten more than was coming to us, and the degree of the consequences is in God’s hands at this point.
The great need today is not new programs, new services, greater central organization, and so on, which are generally most popular today on all sides. We are in need of repentance, reform, and restitution, in consonance with principles and laws already known: incidentally also of restitution of our self-government to ourselves. It can hardly be argued that the modern American populace displays much self-control; but the opportunities were largely removed with the bloat of existing schools and roads and townships and congressional districts and bureaucracies and regulations and corporations to encompass larger and larger populations, instead of replicating the local organizations necessary to meaningful self-government.
Only repentance can be urged – even though we may yet find, with the later kings of Judah, that the corporate guilt built up is overwhelming and “all our boasted pomp of yesterday is one with Ninevah and Tyre”.