The Silliness of Mr. Lincoln

“Four score and seven years ago”, something happened. You probably remember Mr. Lincoln’s speech, but do you remember what he was talking about?

The battle at Gettysburg had been a bloody mess and four months later, as Lincoln dedicated the new cemetery, only half of the dead had been moved from the battlefield. And still, the murderous war raged on with no end in sight.

But “four score and…”? Well, it was still a new country and much had happened around that time. There had been the other long war – a “Tea Party” and years of desperate battles against a superior enemy. There had been the unlikely – almost incredible – victory over the British, and free elections to form a new government. There had been the new Constitution and Bill of Rights.

These were all essential to the “new nation”, but they were not its heart.

As he stood to speak at Gettysburg, Mr. Lincoln stared into a dark sea of humanity; thousands of people dressed mostly in black, who had come mostly to hear someone else. There was a black silk band on Lincoln’s own hat; he was grieving the death of another young son. He stood but felt dizzy and weak; he was in the early stages of smallpox with a fever and severe headache. He spoke – just ten sentences – then sat down. His comments were so brief the audience was not sure he was done. There was an awkward silence, mild applause.

The Chicago Times described Lincoln’s speech as “silly, flat and dishwatery utterances” fit to make “the cheek of every American… tingle with shame”. The local Patriot-News called his address “silly remarks” deserving “the veil of oblivion”. Lincoln himself felt the speech had failed.

And perhaps it did because what Mr. Lincoln considered the heart of this new nation is not such an easy thing to admire when you are in the fog of war. People want assurances. They want to be lifted on a flood of consolation or rage or some other useful emotion. They don’t want to hear that the current trouble, which is bitter enough, could bring down the entire nation if we’re not careful.

We think better of Mr. Lincoln’s speech now. We write it on monuments and have our children memorize it for school plays, not because we are smarter than his original audience, but because, from our viewpoint in history, it is easy to see he was right.

So, what happened “four score and seven years” before Gettysburg? It was, of course, the Declaration of Independence, a piece of paper that launched “a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”.

The Declaration’s certainty that citizens “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights” was not one of the courageous acts that brought this nation into existence; it was the idea that made those acts possible and reasonable. It was the idea that drove Mr. Lincoln to hope “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.”

We, too, are now in the fog of war, stuck in a conflict we didn’t start and don’t know how to stop. We long for assurances, for help, for strong leaders to keep us safe. We may even be tempted to think there is a better way than freedom – just until this is over – a safe way for the government to manage us for our own good. Perhaps this is possible. But I hope we remember the risk.

Our system of government is sometimes beautiful, but we did not choose it for its beauty. We chose it because it is true. Men and women really are endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights. Governments really do derive their just power from the governed. These are facts of the human condition though they are rarely realities of the human experience. And they are rarely realities of the human experience because there is no virus on earth more virulent than humanity. Power corrupts us, whether it is the power to enslave or exploit or abort or dominate in other ways.

Our success thus far as a nation rises from our high view of human responsibility and our low view of human nature. Our government was designed to obstruct itself, through checks and balances and term limits and electoral policies – not because the power of government cannot be used for good, but because we knew it could be used for evil.

What was true in 1776 and true in 1863 remains true today. Our idea of government stands against the flow of human history and much of human nature. We must highly resolve in this – another great crisis in American history – that government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.


Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — 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.

Abraham Lincoln
November 19, 1863

The Michigan Mitch Didn’t Want Us to Know

One hates to contradict such a likable guy. Mitch Albom has been around for a long time and he’s a great writer with a big heart. Which makes it hard to understand his article about the recent protest in Lansing.

Mitch gets it wrong and I’d like to think he didn’t intend to. His article makes some important points about this crisis and the courage, patience, and wisdom of our citizens. In his telling, we face something like the biblical story of exodus, a slow and steady escape from deadly peril.

So far so good, but that’s not his main point. He wants to draw us a bit further into the story, to the part where a wise and selfless leader, set apart by God, is abandoned by a wild and impatient rabble who throws the community into deeper crisis.

It’s a fantastic metaphor and further proof of Mitch’s genius. But it’s not true. And I suspect he knows it’s not true.

Mitch probably saw the “protest” at Lansing, either in person or via the vast information resources available to him as a reporter at a major newspaper. As a participant, I saw it too – as best I could as one car in a sea of cars. Clearly, I didn’t see everything, but here are a few important things Mitch reports that I didn’t see…

• “A phalanx of gun-toting men in close proximity on the Capitol steps.” (According to Webster, a “phalanx” is “a body of troops in close array” or “a heavily armed infantry… formed in close deep ranks and files.” I’m pretty sure that would have made headlines!)
• “People screaming ‘Lock Her Up!’”
• Citizens “throwing angry protests”
• People “looking for a new golden calf to believe in, one rooted in anger…”
• People in “revolt” when Moses (played by Miss Whitmer, apparently) “doesn’t return exactly on time”

In short, I “see” a very different event by reading Mitch’s article than I did by actually attending the event. I think this was the purpose of the article.

It’s important to Mitch that you think the event was angry – people “screaming”, “rooted in anger”, in “revolt” and “throwing angry protests”, a “phalanx” of frightening warriors. What a sight! I would have been frightened, too.

But that’s not what I saw. Instead, I saw a few thousand cars and hundreds of American flags. People smiling and taking turns, staying in their cars, usually leaving lanes open for local traffic. I saw police officers walking their beat, relaxed and seemingly aware of our support. I suppose we have to call it a protest, though it seemed more of a celebration – a free people reminding their Governor they intend to remain free.

I had second thoughts about going. An event so large is a clumsy thing. I worried we might impede an ambulance and I worried that hotheads (on either side) would create trouble. From what I saw and hear, that didn’t happen, and I am so thankful.

In my view, Governor Whitmer’s executive order pushes aside a beautiful thing, and that is the demonstrated willingness of our citizens to cooperate in a project we all recognize as important. Our willing cooperation was forcibly displaced by something far inferior to it – an odd collection of demands backed not by science, but by a threat of force.

I agree with Mitch that anger is not a solid foundation for anything productive, let alone in a time of crisis. Our Constitution, on the other hand, is exactly the right foundation, and it’s unfortunate that Mitch chose to minimize, dismiss, and misrepresent those who prefer it to governmental fiat.

Independence, 2020

There was something different about our revolution. There was plenty of injury and frustration – the protesters listed 27 brutal injustices – but where was the rage? Why did they bring their complaint “in the most humble terms” and draw attention to their “patient sufferance”?

These were not wimps, hoping to be rewarded for asking nicely. They signed their names to this dangerous Declaration, making themselves targets of a vindictive regime they could probably not defeat, demanding an independence they would probably never experience. With trembling hands, they signed, one after another, “pledg[ing] to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor”.

That was 244 years ago. A long time, for sure, and some people doubt their words matter anymore, though we have inherited the freedom they suffered to create.

I mention all this because I am about to do something infinitely less dangerous than they did for me, though I hope to do it with their honorable goal and their humble spirit. Tomorrow, I will join the protest at Michigan’s capitol, asking our state government to remember that it “derives its just power from the consent of the governed.” I will do this because I believe restrictions recently imposed on our citizens are arbitrary and capricious, reflecting a profound misunderstanding of the legitimate power and purpose of government.

I’m not angry. I don’t want a revolution. I’ll go and – if asked – I’ll present my complaint in humble terms. I don’t know what this protest will accomplish, but I hope our leaders will pause to remember who we are as a nation and how we got here. I hope they’ll remember that we are free, not because they allow it, but because this right is “endowed by our Creator.” I hope they’ll remember that “Governments are instituted among men”, not to rule over us, but “to secure these rights” for us.

Our founders were not motivated by anger, but by their certainty that government exists to serve its citizens and that it has no legitimate power without their consent. They were right about that, and it’s a good time to remember.