At the close of his first inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln spoke to those who would divide the United States.
“We are not enemies, but friends,” said the 16th president. “We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield 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.”
Almost 150 years after Lincoln uttered those words, America is again divided.
The question that will be answered by voters on this first Tuesday in November is whether the land must remain divided.
Eight years of George Bush’s tragically flawed attempt at a presidency have strained the very fabric of the American experiment. Our debates about war and peace, taxes and spending, civil rights and civil liberties have developed bitter edges that suggest we are enemies: Democrat versus Republican, Red State versus Blue State, liberal versus conservative.
The banner-carrier of Lincoln’s Republican party in this fall’s election, John McCain, has torn open holes in that fabric, exploiting the oldest and ugliest of our differences.
And yet, most Americans are still touched by the better angels of our nature.
We still believe that this great nation can and should be what Lincoln imagined: “the last best hope of Earth.”
That, more than any of the vagaries of campaign finance, battleground-state calculations or simplistic candidate comparisons, explains why Barack Obama’s campaign for the presidency has been so successful — and why its success has become an imperative no less consequential than those of other historic candidacies: Jefferson in 1800, Lincoln in 1860, Roosevelt in 1932.
It may be mere coincidence that Obama is, like Lincoln, an Illinoisan with a relatively short resume of electoral service.
But as Obama submits himself to what his home-state predecessor called “this great tribunal of the American people,” we are reminded of the essential message of Lincoln’s distant campaigning: “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise — with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew and then we shall save our country.”