By Richard Meyer
After every election comes a necessary period of reconciliation and healing and we are more at odds today that any of us can remember. Reconciliation seems beyond difficult and nearly impossible. However, there was a time in history when our nation was indisputably more divided and a great man, perhaps the greatest American, taught us how to reconcile even while the conflict persisted. He taught us that the path to reconciliation was to find common ground, focus on what unifies, and promote our own beliefs rather than attacking the beliefs and personages of our opponents.
On November 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln gave what is often described as the greatest American speech at the battlefield of Gettysburg. Though the Civil War would continue for another year, five months and 21 days, his speech reveals that Lincoln was already focused on post conflict reunification.
Lincoln began with establishing common ground with his opponents. “Four score and seven years ago” referenced a date and event sacred to all Americans, the 1776 Declaration of Independence from England. However, far more than a mere patriotic call-back, the opening line of the Address was transformative in that it publicly labeled the United States a ‘nation’.
We often mistakenly interchange the words ‘nation’ and country. The latter is a political entity that can be created in a day whereas the former takes centuries to form. A nation (as defined by Black’s law dictionary) is a stable community of people formed on the basis of a common language, territory, history, ethnicity and common culture. Examples of nations in 1863 would be the French, the English, the Spanish and the Chinese. In comparison, our infantile eighty-year-old country of immigrants shared almost none of the national criteria. We were a collection of English, Welsh, Scottish, Irish, Dutch, Flemish, German, Spanish, French, Chinese, Scandinavian, Roma, and native American ethnicities who spoke different languages, and had largely different cultures and histories. We were anything but stable. To call us a ‘nation’ was almost spurious under the generally accepted definition. However, Lincoln, in a single line in short speech, changed the rules. Lincoln declared that our national birth was not rooted in these objective commonalities but instead our nation was “…conceived in liberty.” Thus, we could continue to have separate languages, histories, cultures and even ethnicities and yet still be a nation because membership in our nation was not based on one’s heritage and parentage; no, our nation’s single criterion for admission was a subjective dedication to freedom.
The next notable thing about the Gettysburg Address, and one that I confess to find shocking, is that in the middle of an intensely bloody conflict Lincoln has zero words of judgment or criticism of the rebellious enemy. In fact, not once did he mention them as an entity separate from the nation. Not once did he throw out the easy labels of ‘enemy’, ‘traitors’, ‘insurrectionists’, or ‘slavers’. Despite being less than a year from his potential reelection, Lincoln’s focus on rebuilding the Union was far more important to him than any easy political points he could score by denigrating an opponent. This does not mean that Lincoln avoided his own principles to placate. He rebuffed slavery by naming “all men are created equal” as the foundational proposition of our nascent Nation to start the speech and that Secession would deliver It a fatal blow to end the Address.
Within a single generation after the Gettysburg Address, the American reconciliation was complete not only politically but ideologically; Lincoln’s stances against slavery and secession had become nearly universal. If we would share this success, we must follow Lincoln’s roadmap of building from common ground, deemphasizing what separates to focus on what unites, and promoting our own beliefs rather than attacking others so that “…this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Our guest columnist is Richard Meyer, Interim Executive Director, Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law, at the University of Pennsylvania, 3501 Sansom St., Philadelphia, PA 19104, firstname.lastname@example.org.