Letters: ‘We Need to Read Lincoln’s Words, Heed Their Meaning, Weep That We Have Fallen Astray’

Readers respond to George Packer’s argument that a government shutdown looks like the beginning of the end that America’s 16th president always knew was possible.

Toya Sarno Jordan / Reuters

The Suicide of a Great Democracy

Last week, George Packer described what it was like to visit the Lincoln Memorial during the government shutdown. “It shamed me to read” Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural, Packer wrote. “Lincoln’s eloquence touched levels of morality and high resolve that were preposterously out of reach in the first days of 2019, in the third year of the Trump presidency.”

I found the article very moving until I got toward the end. Then I was disappointed. This nation is dividing and picking sides. I had hoped I was reading a neutral article, one that was based on the concerns of its people. Instead, at the end you seem to blame President Trump for all of the issues and the shutdown. Yes, he made the decision to shut down, but we seem to have two equally stubborn opposing sides. Both are butting heads and refusing to budge. A compromise of some sort, with each side deciding what is most important to them, needs to come about. It isn’t about who wins in the end. It’s about the people in this nation who voted them into office, who are suffering because of this stalemate. As a nation, in order to survive, we need to quit looking at what side we want to be on. We need to be the embodiment of “We the People,” not “We, the blue or the red side.”

Mary I. Williams
Elizabethton, Tenn.

Why all this angst and gnashing of teeth? We have been through worse. We will get through this.

Andrew Hartman
Longboat Key, Fla.

I usually find great solace in Lincoln’s words, but for the reasons articulated in George Packer’s “The Suicide of a Great Democracy,” they sting at this moment in our history. I wonder constantly what Lincoln would think of our current mess. Have we really let the nation “of the people, by the people, for the people” “perish from the earth”? What have we become?

So I agree with much of what you had to say here. In fact, you had me until you said, “So we stayed for a while at the Lincoln Memorial and read the words carved into its walls, to recall what makes America great if anything does.”

Because, despite the madness and the desolation of these shutdown days, I believe there still are things that make us great. I concede, our democracy feels pretty darn bleak right now and I admit, our ideals are dormant, hidden, buried—but still, I do believe they’re there … somewhere.

We mustn’t give up.

Because the Declaration of Independence—its words and the ideals they represent—inspired Lincoln to say the words you quote and, as we know, to wage a war for the validity of those words. This is no small matter, as far as I am concerned. If Lincoln could hold on to them in the middle of civil war—if he could give his life for those words—like MLK and so many, many others—surely our hope can outlast this shutdown.

We need to read Lincoln’s words, heed their meaning, weep that we have fallen astray, and then give this great nation all we can to bring our democracy back from the brink.

M. B. Donnelly
Falls Church, Va.

I read with great interest George Packer’s “The Suicide of a Great Democracy.” Packer aptly describes the majesty and power of a visit to the Lincoln Memorial, and juxtaposes that with the scene of the Capitol during the current shutdown.

The second inaugural, perhaps the closest Lincoln came to elucidating his personal theology, has been analyzed by countless historians. Packer chooses to selectively quote the address, removing the ideas that Lincoln thought most compelling in March of 1865. In its entirety, the address highlights that slavery was “somehow the cause of the war,” and that people on both sides prayed to the same God and that the prayers of neither side had been answered. For Lincoln, the salient question after four years of war remained why God had allowed the war to ravage the American nation. “The Almighty has His own purposes,” Lincoln wrote, and believed it was possible that the war was God’s punishment for the national sin of slavery.

Lincoln’s second inaugural then turns toward the more familiar sentences that conclude the address. He not only calls for Americans “to let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds” as Packer references, but to have “firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right,” reminding Americans of our fallibility and God’s power. Lincoln closes by reminding Americans to care for the soldiers, widows, orphans, and for a “just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” Lincoln’s eloquence, his humility, and his belief in the power and perfection of God and imperfection of all humankind is on display in his masterpiece of an inaugural, which has come down to history as nearly his last words to the nation.

It is especially disappointing, therefore, that Packer selects a few phrases from this great document for his article, and then follows these with an edited phrase from another address Lincoln gave almost three decades before, as a young lawyer in Springfield, Illinois. There, in January of 1838, the young lawyer addressed an association on an important topic of the day—lawlessness and mob violence. His speech was printed in a local newspaper, and provides a careful chronicle of violence that had occurred in America in the 1830s, including the burning of an African American man who had killed a police officer in 1836 in St. Louis. Packer chooses to quote Lincoln’s statement by writing, “‘If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher,’ [Lincoln] said in 1838. ‘As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.’” In this quote, taken out of context, Packer tries to convey to the reader that Lincoln had an apocalyptic vision of a great nation bent on destroying itself by suicide.

Context, however, is paramount in analyzing the past. Thoughtful and accurate editing is as well, so that the words of historical figures are not used for our own rhetorical and ideological purposes. When Lincoln gave his speech in 1838, he considered Americans’ responsibility to pass a legacy on to future generations. He asked,

At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? By what means shall we fortify against it?— 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 Buonaparte 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.

Lincoln did not believe, in 1838, that Americans could be threatened by any power across the oceans. Lincoln saw an internal danger, however. It was not slavery or an inevitable march toward civil war that he envisioned as a young lawyer. Instead, he was disturbed by the mob rule and lawlessness that he witnessed and read about in the newspapers of the 1830s.

Lincoln’s cause, Packer tells readers, was “the ability of free people to rule themselves.” He notes that Lincoln did not allow a government shutdown during the Civil War as proof of this and suggests that Lincoln would not approve of “paralysis and dysfunction.” Perhaps this is true. No one can say. What is certain is that Lincoln instructed a fellow Republican to reject any compromise that would violate the Republican Party’s 1860 platform, which prohibited slavery’s extension into the federal territories. “On that point hold firm, as with a chain of steel,” he instructed in December 1860, even as Southern state militias mobilized and South Carolina elected delegates to a secession convention.

Selective use of Lincoln neither inspires nor informs; but when we read Lincoln’s words in their full historic context, we learn much. Even if Lincoln cannot provide answers for our current debates and crises, his words can encourage us to reach beyond ideology and partisan invective. When Lincoln wrote of a nation committing suicide in 1838, he feared lawlessness in a specific historic place and time. He was not troubled by political battles over national borders in the Southwest, or immigration law, or federal budget appropriations exceeding $4 trillion. And in his penultimate public address, Lincoln told Americans to do their best, as God allowed, to avoid malice, have charity, and to achieve “a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” If we are to take Lincoln’s phrases out of context, it may be this idea, alongside his first inaugural certainty that Americans would be moved “by the better angels of our nature,” that is worth remembering today.

Dr. Christine Dee
Professor of History
Fitchburg State University