An Italian exchange student once asked me what he should know in order to understand America. The best I could come up with on the spot was the U.S.
Constitution, jazz and baseball.
Only later did it come to me that to study each of those only in the abstract as a legal document, a musical score, or an official rulebook would be less than useful to someone trying to understand America. It might even mislead. The notes would be there, but not the music. The rules but not the game itself. The letter but not the spirit of the law.
On this, the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's inauspicious birth on the ever-moving American frontier, it occurs to me that I should have mentioned his Second Inaugural address to my young friend. It might have told him all he needed to know about the American spirit.
The short speech, short for an Inaugural Address, was delivered on the Capitol steps Saturday, March 4, 1865. What must it have been like to be there that day? Picture it:
All around the capital city lay the evidence of a great civil war that had consumed almost four long years, and left the land covered in blood and ruin. It was still grinding slowly to an uncertain close that Inauguration Day, and was almost over if only Americans would let it be over.
The country's new vice-president had just celebrated his swearing-in by delivering a drunken rant about his modest beginnings and little else. Then it was time for the long-tested president to address those assembled there, and a shattered nation.
Even now, and certainly when the Second Inaugural was delivered, learned scholars would debate the question of what had caused The War. As if standing on the heights of history, Mr. Lincoln would come as close as anyone has to answering that question. And his would not be the partisan answer one might have expected from the leader of one side on the cusp of victory in a terrible conflict, still the most costly in our history:
"Both parties deprecated war; but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came."
And the war came. Like an awesome act of justice from on high, as if to expiate the terrible sin of centuries of slavery:
"These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war. ... Neither party expected for the war the magnitude, or the duration, which it has already attained. ... The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes."
The Almighty has His own purposes.
There is something biblical in the charity and acceptance of those words.
The victor would assign no blame that all did not share. If he had been defiant in war, Abraham Lincoln would be more than magnanimous in victory.
He would be humble, as his nation, North and South, had been humbled.
The Almighty has His own purposes.
Yet man must do what he can, without thought of vengeance or vainglory:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as G-d gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are inů
Abraham Lincoln understood that the crisis he faced was too great for smallness on his part, or on his country's. He would look beyond victory and defeat, beyond grief and vengeance, toward understanding, forgiveness and healing. Toward a renewed and ever-new Union, now indivisible.
What a strange picture of this same Union is now painted by its critics: not just a great power but the world's only superpower; an impersonal place in which no one really cares for another; a society driven only by material ambition; a nation so self-righteous in conflict, so proud and unreflecting, so uncharitable and unfeeling that its malice is almost unpremeditated....
That caricature painted by the America-haters of the world is not the America of Mr. Lincoln, and it is not the real America.
The defining American challenge, said Tocqueville in his unmatched study of "Democracy in America," is to find the right balance between liberty and equality.
In his Second Inaugural, Abraham Lincoln did not choose one value or the other, or even portray them as opposing forces. He presented liberty and equality as one, each bracing the other, like the timbers of a great ship, as inseparable as the Union itself.
The good ship Union would sail on long after its captain had departed, and it still heads, as always, in the direction of freedom and not freedom for just this nation. For such a vessel cannot but help roil the waters all around, sending out ripples who knows how far, lifting the hopes of all at the sight of its tall masts and billowing sails as she proceeds on her own undeterrable course. Despite the debris and wreckage in its wake, despite all the fears and animosities within and without, it sails on, its flag still there. Yes, undeterrable.
I now realize that, when my young Italian friend asked for the key to understanding America, I should just have handed him a copy of Lincoln's Second Inaugural, and said: "Here it is. Now go and study."