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Lincoln's Struggle Puts Today's Troubles in Perspective

D.J. Tice

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There's a lot of talk today about the "red and blue" division of America -- a metaphor adapted from the electoral maps in the 2000 presidential election. It has come to express the sense that a profound cultural and political schism has opened in the United States, separating the traditionalist, individualist heartland (George Bush's "red" America) from the progressive, collectivist culture of the coasts and the large cities (Al Gore's "blue" America).

It is a real social and philosophical divide -- complex, deep and potentially lasting. Yet Feb. 12 provides Americans an occasion for putting current troubles and differences in perspective.

Today is Abraham Lincoln's birthday -- the 194th anniversary of America's most inspiring and characteristic hero. There may be comfort in recalling, through his story, that this nation has faced and overcome crises and internal conflicts that make today's look almost imaginary.

If the friction between "red and blue" America is unsettling, the collision of "Blue and Gray" America threatened the very survival of the country and the convictions about government at its core.

The monstrous problem Lincoln confronted was that an entire section of the country had evolved an economic and social system built on an evil institution that could not and would not persist indefinitely. Like other moderate anti-slavery leaders, Lincoln hoped that gradual political processes could peacefully put slavery "in the course of ultimate extinction." But the slave South chose another, desperate course, reacting to Lincoln's election by abrogating the Constitution and attempting to break up the nation.

Lincoln responded with war, but not because war was needed to destroy slavery. He knew that inexorable economic and social forces would lead to slavery's demise before long, even if the South left the American Union.

Lincoln went to war because the question his generation had to answer -- perhaps once and for all -- was whether free, constitutional government was real government. Were decisions made through open constitutional processes and elections genuine, binding decisions? Or could sufficiently dissatisfied citizens simply overthrow law and authority they disapproved?

The question, as Lincoln put it at Gettysburg, was whether a nation "conceived in liberty"... "can long endure." He called Americans to the costly mission of ensuring that "government... by the people... shall not perish from the earth." Not without a fight, anyhow.

It was of course a cruel irony -- not for a moment lost on Lincoln -- that to preserve free government he coerced rebellious citizens with a fierceness never matched before or since. Not only did he wage civil war with a grim determination, but he also suspended civil rights protections and ordered the jailing of suspected subversives.

The parallel is obvious in worries about war-inspired restrictions on rights today. The dilemma caused even Lincoln to worry about the stability of free societies. "Is there," he wondered, "in all republics, this inherent and fatal weakness? Must a government ... be too strong for the liberties of its own people, or too weak to maintain its own existence?"

Lincoln answered that terrible question, in part, by recognizing that in the end even the cause of the Union had to be submitted to the will of the people. Lincoln made no effort to postpone or circumvent the requirement that he stand for re-election.

In 1864, America conducted a full, hard-fought presidential campaign -- with its central issue the worthiness of the war, almost the value of the nation -- even as one of history's bloodiest civil conflicts raged in full fury. It was arguably the ultimate American event.

There are many other ingredients in Lincoln's greatness, of course. But in the face of today's stresses, suspicions and divisions, amid fears that some basic social consensus has been lost, it is well to remember Lincoln's heroic conviction that devotion to free institutions and the rule of law could hold America together, no matter what forces worked to tear it apart.

From where, Lincoln asked, in one of his first public speeches, could danger to America come? All the armies of the world combined, he said, "could not by force take a drink from the Ohio ... in a trial of a thousand years ... If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author..."

To protect America from itself, Lincoln had a simple recommendation: "To the support of the Constitution and the laws," he said, "let reverence be breathed by every American mother to the lisping babe that prattles on her lap; let it be taught in schools, in seminaries and in colleges; let it be written in primers, spelling-books, and in almanacs ... Let it become the political religion of the nation."

The United States is still a young country -- still almost an infant civilization. But it is an old republic, as republics go, a seasoned democracy. It has suffered and survived much.

And if it keeps the one common faith Lincoln fought and died for, America will endure awhile longer.

D.J. Tice is editorial writer for the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

This article can be found at the St. Paul Pioneer Press website. Reprinted with permission of the author.

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