Abraham’s Angels


Abraham Lincoln, 9 Feb. 1864. (Credit: Library of Congress)

After listening (a painful experience) to the Republican primary debate last week, I fled from its display of vanities, Orwellian language and outdated thinking to the words of Abraham Lincoln:

Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, 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.

(First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1861)

Who is so small as to claim Ronald Reagan to be their model and exemplar when they have inherited the mantle of Abraham Lincoln? What do you say about people who prefer Reagan’s speeches to the poetry of Lincoln? Reagan was a B-movie Hollywood actor; Lincoln was a student of the King James Bible and a critic of Shakespearean texts. And yet in our unfortunate times, it is Reagan who is called the Great Communicator.

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.

(Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865)


“Tobias and the Angel,” oil on canvas, by Giovanni Gerolamo Savoldo, 1542. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Who among us would go back to the country created by the first framers of the Constitution when they have been challenged with the holy task of building the nation Lincoln conceived in the crucible of the Civil War?

Let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.

(Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865)

The better angels of our nature were not present in the Republican debate. Carpet bomb Isis (never mind civilian casualties); cast out 11 million people from our nation; above all, lower the taxes of the rich.

We cannot all be Abe Lincolns, but we can try to emulate his great soul. We should keep our better angels close by. In Tony Kushner’s brilliant screenplay for Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, Robert Todd Lincoln explains to his father—in the vicinity of a Union Hospital—his need to enlist as a combatant in the Civil War:

I have to do this. And I will, or I will feel ashamed of myself for the rest of my life. Whether or not you fought is what matters. And not just to other people, but to myself. I won’t be you, Pa. I can’t do that. But I don’t want to be nothing.

There you have it: we should not be Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio. We should not be nothing. We should not be Donald Trump.



Abraham Lincoln, 9 Feb. 1864. (Credit: Library of Congress)

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