Hey all, for the January edition of The Emmitsburg News-Journal I was asked to write the Creative Writing section of the newspaper. What you’ll find, below, is a piece of historical fiction centering on the days leading up to Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural address in 1860. If you wanted to read the reason I chose this topic, it can be found after the piece.
[Excerpts from the journal of a well-reasoned man].
November 20, 1860
Every presidential campaign, and every candidate, approaches the common man differently. I lost my bid for the Senate some two years ago to quite an ambitious man. He is a talented rhetorician, one who can speak with pragmatic precision on the most troubling issues of our times. I have mentioned it privately and said it publicly: Stephen Douglas is a strong logician, an excellent judge of human nature, and more persuasive than most other men I have met.
My presidential campaign approached the common man through simple language based in logical truth. I admitted the shortcomings of my party’s platform. I believe it was David Locke from Ohio who wrote that I approached my debates with Douglas with honesty and conviction. The American people are intelligent. They perceive and object to the wordy moral rhetoric that many politicians openly and knowingly employ. I am uncertain about what will be required to heal this divided nation, but it must start with a leader who can be direct, erudite, honest, and principled.
My opponents in this presidential election embodied these traits, though we shared our disagreements. Stephen Douglas and I dissented on a great many things, just as John Breckinridge and I shared fundamental differences in belief. I cannot say, however, that either Douglas or Breckinridge would be an incapable leader. They may even be more capable than I.
So how did I succeed? How did I win? The details of my victory were made public in recent days. The South is furious; there are threats of revolt. They are is asking how I, Abraham Lincoln, could be elected President with only 40% of the popular vote. I share their concern. How can I possibly lead, when 60% of the American people voted for Douglas and Breckinridge? Our nation borders two oceans, yet our strongest barriers stand between the states.
How can I move forward? How will our country remain united? How can I enact the most effective legislation for the American people when a majority of the electorate is disappointed and angered by my nomination? The South believes that I will fight against the establishment of slavery in the new territories. This is their fear with my presidency, and on this subject, I cannot waver.
How should I proceed? Should I fight for the principles and positions I advocated in my campaign? If I do, the divisions between us will only grow deeper. Even if my proposals are in the long-term interest of our nation, and those who aspire for a greater future, it will be subject to immediate disagreement. Anything I propose will be rejected because it has my approval. How could anyone succeed in this political environment?
Divisions could be mended through bipartisanship. Perhaps I, and the Democrats, could establish resolutions that provide small benefits to both parties. The people would believe that Congress, and I, were working to protect the interests of every American. Perhaps that would foster solidarity. Our last four presidents had less than 51% of the popular vote, and each intended to keep their campaign promises.
I cannot help but believe that troubling times are ahead. If I lost this election, the North would have been outraged that slavery would spread into the new territories. My victory, however, has instilled fear about the survival of slavery in the South. Both sides would have faced adversity if their candidate lost. I will need to reflect deeply on how I can mend these scars of division, while ensuring the long-term success of our great nation.
March 3, 1861
Tomorrow afternoon, President Buchanan and I will ride from our hotel to the White House, where I will be sworn in as the succeeding president. Division now defines the state of our Union; seven states have seceded already, and more are expected to defect in due time. I have spent the last several months preparing an administration that will address division, but never anticipated South Carolina’s secession in December. We have never been more apart. How can we be a Union with so many dissenting states?
Through private reflection, and consultation with my advisors, I cannot recognize the sovereignty of these Confederate States of America. I understand their fear, their right to protest against unfavorable legislation. Their actions are unprecedented, however, and I cannot find any evidence that our Founders expected or intended the current state of our Union. The Union was founded on cooperative participation between all states. Men of these Confederate states, not the states themselves, are forming this rebellion. South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, and all the others are a part of our Union, even if members of those states do not wish to be.
I have drafted my inaugural address and my administration in the anticipation of outright war. There are methods to resolve our differences without armed insurrection. My speech will directly address the greatest fear resounding in the South; the eradication of slavery. I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.
The South will be suspicious of my words. I speak in truth. If slavery is to be eradicated, it must not originate solely from the executive branch. It must have Congressional approval, and must be considered legal by the Supreme Court. This will disappoint those in the North that expected me to issue an executive order to eradicate the institution of slavery.
I am being scrutinized by my supporters and enemies alike. As I will say tomorrow, I have no mental reservation in accepting the oath of office. I hope that the institution of slavery is removed from this great nation. However, I will not misconstrue the Constitution and all laws pertaining to this office. It is safer to accept the Congressional legislation that stands up to the judicial branch’s scrutiny than to raise up arms against those who disagree.
I have concluded that the only way to heal division in this nation is to respect the concerns of all men and women. I cannot use my office to enact whatever I envision for this country. No matter how much I disagree with the institution of slavery, I cannot work around our governmental institutions. I have an obligation to work with those I disagree with. The public must believe in our Union; no man or woman should feel unrepresented in the proceedings of our government. I must, however, fight for the ideals that will prove most successful for the state of our country. One cannot escape the responsibilities of tomorrow by evading them today. My dream is of a place and a time where America will once again be seen as the last best hope of earth. As I take the oath of office tomorrow, I will fight to ensure that this hope will never be extinguished from this earth.
“Why Did You Write This?”
The Election of 1860 was about as contentious as elections come (The Election of 1876 was arguably much nastier, it just didn’t have comparable repercussions afterwards), and some in the media have drawn a comparison between this past election and Abraham Lincoln’s first Presidential bid. I disagree with this comparison. Firstly, Abraham Lincoln and President Donald Trump were distinctly different men; one had prior governmental experience and one had never held the desire to run for office. President Trump greatly admires Lincoln, and hopes to be as good a President as he was (he said as much to David Muir of ABC News).
Secondly, it is quite unlikely that the Left will advocate secession due to Donald Trump’s presidency. Some on the Left, most notably the “Yes California” campaign, have fought for independence (most assuredly gaining some momentum and more voices as a result of this election). A fair comparison, as far as these movements can be analogized, can be found in the secession calls from rural Texas in 2016. One would expect Democrats, both from Texas and the upper corners of the continent, to ridicule secession efforts made from those on the far-right of the Republican Party, but the surprise came from the moderate and staunch Republicans who quelled this effort as effectively and as quietly as they could. Neither Democrats nor Republicans want to address calls for secession within their party; it rings of the obstructionism and bloodshed associated with The American Civil War.
I did not write this piece as an outright criticism of President Trump, nor did I intend to directly compare the thinking patterns of these two men. I wrote this for the reader, for those on the Left and the Right who will face difficulties in the upcoming term. For Democrats, these next two years (the length of time that Congress is guaranteed to be majority-Republican) will be a time of exasperation and derailment as American policy changes course. For Republicans, there will be considerable difficulty in reconciling some of President Trump’s policy measures, of which they approve, and his polarizing personality infamous for its strident remarks.
There is a famous (somewhat trite) saying from Louis Brandeis, former Supreme Court Justice, that that the most important office in a democracy is that of the private citizen. Another of his remarks, sadly less well known than the first, is reflective of our current political environment,
If we desire respect for the law, we must first make the law respectable.
And the enforcement of such law ought to be reflective of the respect contained within. Democrats, and Republicans, must fight to ensure that private citizens, holders of this important office, feel represented in the proceedings of their government. That numerous interpretations will be presented and debated, and not derided as “Just one of those Xs”, a “paid protester”, a “snowflake”, a “deplorable”.
I wrote this, I admit, in a fit of frustration. This is perhaps most evident when I said, “How could anyone succeed in this environment?” If Hillary won, she would have faced a Republican-controlled Congress. With Trump’s victory, he’s now responsible for governing over many who strongly dislike his candor and policy initiatives.
There is no direct solution to these divisions; but there are practices that we ought to incorporate over this next term, regardless of party affiliation. We ought to demand transparency in our government (cliche, of course, but it is important to rejuvenate this expectation for our leaders). When speaking with one another, especially those with whom we disagree, there are three practices that we should exercise in every discussion: empathy, openness to individual perspectives, and patience.
Empathy is necessary because, if we do not practice recognition of the other, his or her position will be interpreted as “just another X-party platform.” Practicing empathy opens us to another’s perspective; there is an important difference, one would agree, between someone who advocates a political position and another one will personally experience its effects. From empathy comes openness, and even when we continue to disagree, there is room for patience. Well, how does one get more patient? From The Art of Happiness, the Dalai Lama offers an interesting perspective,
The practice of patience guards us against losing our presence of mind. It enables us to remain undisturbed, even when the situation is really difficult. It gives us a certain amount of inner peace, which allows us some self-control, so that we can choose to respond to situations in an appropriate and compassionate manner, rather than being driven by our disturbing emotions.
But patience, like many other virtues, needs to be acted. It is a practice; patience oftentimes does not come instinctively. You can still disagree, debate, and fight against the position that you find untrue and/or harmful. But you could be surprised! It is interesting how often human behavior is reciprocal; act kindly, and others will treat you with compassion. Act wrongly, or in a harmful way, and it is unsurprising when others might treat you with disdain.
These three practices are my resolutions for this coming year, and I hope many of you all will join me in the effort!