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