"It profits me but little that a vigilant authority always protects the tranquillity of my pleasures and constantly averts all dangers from my path, without my care or concern, if this same authority is the absolute master of my liberty and my life."

--Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

Friday, March 4, 2011

March 4, 1861

One hundred and fifty years ago, Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated as President at the most threatening time in our history.   He would lead us through the four subsequent years of Civil War, and die just as victory was in reach.   When you read his inaugural address -- arguably the greatest political speech in the history of America, which argues that it's the greatest in the history of Man -- you sense his foreboding.   Its peroration is almost Shakespearean in its cadences, and in its tragic sense of the history that is about to unfold:
My countrymen, one and all, think calmly and WELL upon this whole subject. Nothing valuable can be lost by taking time. If there be an object to HURRY any of you in hot haste to a step which you would never take DELIBERATELY, that object will be frustrated by taking time; but no good object can be frustrated by it. Such of you as are now dissatisfied, still have the old Constitution unimpaired, and, on the sensitive point, the laws of your own framing under it; while the new administration will have no immediate power, if it would, to change either. If it were admitted that you who are dissatisfied hold the right side in the dispute, there still is no single good reason for precipitate action. Intelligence, patriotism, Christianity, and a firm reliance on him who has never yet forsaken this favored land, are still competent to adjust in the best way all our present difficulty.
In YOUR hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in MINE, is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail YOU. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. YOU have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the government, while I shall have the most solemn one to "preserve, protect, and defend it."
I am loathe to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
The entirety of the speech is well worth re-reading, if for nothing else than to mourn the decline in logic and sophistication in our political discourse.   Lincoln's speech is an argument to adults; modern speechifying (Obama?) sounds more like the harangues of a cheap demagogue.   Lincoln spoke to our "better angels"; Obama, to our lowest common denominators. 

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