Us and Them: Lessons from Lincoln’s Inaugurations

The second inaugural address of Abraham Lincoln, March 4, 1865 (via Library of Congress)

There are two feuding tribes in South Sudan, the Dinka and the Nuer, and they are at the heart of a civil war that has killed 300,000 people. To any westerner, the people of these tribes appear so similar that one would be hard pressed to tell them apart if it weren’t for their ceremonial markings. Members of both tribes are from the Nilotic ethnic group and live pastoral, semi-nomatic lives. Yet, for all the similarities that should bring them together, they are as apart as two peoples can be.

Of course, the ancient animus between the Dinka and the Nuer, fueled by competition over limited grazing areas, only partially contributes to the post-colonial wars, where nationalism, politics, and religion have come into play. But the fact remains that two peoples, who have shared a river valley for thousands of years, each refer to themselves as “the people,” inferring that members of the other tribe are not worthy of the same considerations, empathy, human rights, justice, or prosperity.

It’s easy to wave off the Dinka-Nuer conflict, but are we really any different? Our lives are based—start to finish, in one form another—on “us versus them.” Certain small-town rivalries consist of burning the other team’s mascot in effigy on Thursday night, bitterly competing on Friday night, and then drunkenly fighting one another on Saturday night. There are towns, separated by just a few miles, that absolutely loathe one another. Anyone looking from the outside in sees people who look the same, talk the same, worship the same god, and listen to the same music.

But to the people living in those towns, two mascots and a historic rivalry have carved a rift that’s only bridged by even greater “thems” to fight—be they glib big city “libtards,” illegal job-stealing freeloading criminal aliens, freedom-hating Muslims, cop-hating protestors, or entitled whiny millenials. There is always a “them” that brings “us” together. We always despise lazy socialist Europeans, until we need to join them in our crusade to “save Western civilization.” We hate Muslims until we need to invade their countries to save them from what we judge to be even worse dictators or religious extremists.

The only real difference between our small towns and the Dinka and Nuer is that there are outside influences holding us together instead of pulling us further apart. But recently those “mystic chords of memory” have been strained like no time in recent history. Our country has become increasingly splintered, and there seems to be no commonly recognized foreign foe or domestic crisis to “bind up our nation’s wounds.”

The first quoted phrase in the paragraph above is from Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address (delivered on Monday, March 4, 1861), and the second is from his second inaugural address four years later. In two of the most powerful orations ever delivered, the central theme was a plea for unity and forgiveness, one before our terrible civil war and one as it drew to a close. No one could have penned more poignant or powerful words, yet neither worked. It took the unimaginable hardship of the Great Depression and the horror of a world war to bind us together.

I thought President Obama’s farewell address was powerful and inclusive, but when I asked my Trump-supporting friends (yes, I do have them) what they thought, most hadn’t even bothered to listen. I am no better, so doubtful that Donald Trump’s inaugural address will contain anything of substance, much less anything poignant, that I probably won’t listen either. The truth is I dread the idea of being brought together under any kind of unity envisioned by that man. (He wouldn’t want to do that anyway, because exploiting our divisions is what put him in power.) So that leaves me to wonder, what hardship must we endure, what enemy must we face to turn “the better angels of our nature” once again toward one another? What calamity will save America?

Lincoln predicted in a speech called the Lyceum Address that if we were to falter, the catalyst would come from within. His words were so profound they are worth remembering:

Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant to step the ocean and crush us at a blow? Never! All the armies of Europe, Asia, and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest, with a Bonaparte for a commander, could not by force take a drink from the Ohio or make a track on the Blue Ridge in a trial of a thousand years. At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer. If it ever reach us it must spring up amongst us; it cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen we must live through all time or die by suicide.

Have we taken the first steps towards self-immolation? If Lincoln’s prophetic words couldn’t heal our wounds, then what must we endure together to suture our torn affections?

Perspective should reveal that conservative and liberal viewpoints are legitimate fodder for healthy debate. They should each enjoy a champion in our political arena. But xenophobic, homophobic, racist populism is the danger Lincoln was referring to that would “spring up amongst us” and their champion is one who should never be legitimized again in our sacred institutions. What will it take to show us that our Dinka versus Nuer-like dehumanization of one another are the seeds of our demise?

Empires, nations, religions, corporations, and money were all formed to unite people. They are completely abstract concepts that only exist in our collective imagination. It is important to remember this when those things, intended to unite us, begin to divide us.

Every human on earth is 99.5 percent genetically similar to every other human on earth. This too is important to remember when we start separating ourselves over that 0.5 percent.

It’s far too easy to find comfort and purpose in shared animosity and fear. Leaders know this. They know that it is easier to bring people together to fight against something, under the guise of fighting for something, than it is to get them together to build something, whether that something be physical or metaphorical.

There are enemies to humanity in this world and they need to be painted as such. But we should be very careful with the width of our brush strokes and lash of our tongues, lest we paint broad swaths of our brothers the same hue as our enemies or insinuate that some people are any less human than ourselves.

Another excerpt from Lincoln’s second inaugural address seems apt and gives insight into that great president’s own conviction that it is preposterous to ask one’s god for assistance in the destruction of one’s fellow human.

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.

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