The Suicide of a Great Democracy

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U.S. President Abraham Lincoln's statue at the Lincoln Memorial is seen in Washington March 27, 2015. The 170 ton, 19 foot high statue, formed from 28 blocks of Georgia marble, was sculpted by Daniel Chester French and dedicated in 1922. On April 15 the United States commemorates the 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln's assassination. Events will include the re-enactment of his funeral in Springfield, Illinois, as well as talks and plays at Ford's Theatre in Washington D.C., where Confederate sympathiser John Wilkes Booth shot him in 1865. Lincoln, who kept the Union together in the American Civil War and helped secure the end of slavery, has enduring appeal both in the United States and worldwide: his life is celebrated at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C., five-dollar bills carry his image and Stephen Spielberg directed the 2012 film bearing the 16th president's name. REUTERS/Gary Cameron PICTURE 7 OF 30 FOR WIDER IMAGE STORY 'MEMORIES OF LINCOLN' SEARCH '150TH ASSASSINATION' FOR ALL IMAGES - LM2EB47150101

A shutdown looks like the beginning of the end that Lincoln always knew was possible.

We wandered across the mall to see the monuments, which are always open. We climbed the marble steps of the Lincoln Memorial. There was the somber giant in his chair. Our 7-year-old daughter’s eyes filled, and she read out the Gettysburg Address: “A new birth of freedom … government of the people, by the people, for the people.” The second inaugural was too much for her, and she asked me to read it.

And the war came … Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword … let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds …

It shamed me to read it. Abraham 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.

A constant theme runs throughout Lincoln’s writings, from his years as a young Illinois politician to the last great speeches of his life: the supreme value of self-government. Everything depended on this idea, “our ancient faith,” which itself was “absolutely and eternally right.” But its endurance was never guaranteed. From the start of his career, Lincoln foresaw how American democracy might end—not through foreign conquest, but by our own fading attachment to its institutions. “If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher,” he said in 1838. “As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”

Self-government required that the union should live, and it also negated slavery. Lincoln never believed in political and social equality between the races—instead, he built his argument against slavery on the founding words of the republic. In 1854, after Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, abolishing the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and allowing the extension of slavery into the new territories, he told a crowd in Peoria, Illinois: “If the negro is a man, is it not to that extent, a total destruction of self-government, to say that he too shall not govern himself? When the white man governs himself that is self-government; but when he governs himself, and also governs anotherman, that is more than self-government—that is despotism … No man is good enough to govern another man, without that other’s consent. I say this is the leading principle—the sheet anchor of American republicanism.”

During the Civil War, the government never shut down—not even when the capital was threatened by Confederate troops. A shutdown would have undermined the foundation of Lincoln’s cause, which was the ability of free people to rule themselves. The paralysis and dysfunction would have told the world that the government he led was no longer fully devoted to the cause for which other Americans had given the last full measure of devotion. A shutdown would have looked like the beginning of the end that Lincoln always knew was possible.

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.

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