America faces great challenges in 2020. It is even tempting to call these times unprecedented, but they are not. Harry Truman, of course, made this point in very plain language:
“It was the same with those old birds in Greece and Rome as it is now. . . . The only thing new in the world is the history you don’t know.”
As Samuel W. Rushay, Jr. wrote about Truman’s understanding of history and the threats to democracy in the 1940s, “(H)is understanding of history provided him with a wider perspective on communism, whose assault on democracy was, in the words of historian Elizabeth Edwards Spalding, the ‘current form of a timeless struggle on earth’ between the forces of tyranny and freedom.”
We have seen that struggle between tyranny and freedom over and over again here in America.
I was reminded of that feature of American life during my summer break, as I read of one particular moment in that struggle as told in Edward Achorn’s fascinating new book Every Drop of Blood: The Momentous Second Inauguration of Abraham Lincoln. Achorn, the editorial page editor of the Providence Journal, brings a journalist’s eye and a storyteller’s skill to illuminate all the capitol’s “mud, sewage, and saloons, its prostitutes, spies, reporters, social-climbing spouses and power-hungry politicians” that came together on March 3rd and 4th in 1865 when Lincoln began his second term in office. He then showcases the activities of these two days “as a microcosm of all the opposing forces that had driven the country apart.”
When the sun broke through and Lincoln spoke on the afternoon of March 4th, he gave what is rightly considered the greatest inaugural address in the nation’s history, and perhaps the finest single speech in the 244 years since we declared our independence from Britain. When most were expecting celebratory words over the coming end of the war, he spoke instead of that endless struggle between tyranny and freedom. In just 701 words, Lincoln made the case that both sides were wrong, and that all the bloodshed that preceded that day and that was still to come may be God’s judgement for our original sin of slavery. Frederick Douglass, one of several individuals Achorn follows throughout the two days, told Lincoln later that evening in the midst of a crowded reception at the White House that it was “a sacred effort.”
Achorn takes the reader through the events of the inauguration, and how it set the stage for Robert E. Lee’s surrender to U.S. Grant on April 9th at Appomattox followed, less than a week later on April 14th, by Lincoln’s assassination on Good Friday. He does this through a group of characters, both famous and unknown. In addition to Douglass, Achorn follows poet Walt Whitman; soldiers’ advocate Clara Barton; Vice President Andrew Johnson, who was famously drunk the day of the inauguration; and Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth. Lucy Hale, the daughter of a U.S. Senator from New England and Booth’s lover, is also part of the story, as she inadvertently provided the access for Booth to get into the capitol on March 4th and then, fatally, into Ford’s Theatre six weeks later. Her involvement was covered up, probably beginning on the morning Lincoln died during a private meeting between her father and incoming president Johnson. Achorn captures the frenzy, the turmoil, the excitement, and the despair of that time in a remarkable work.
Few could imagine those events, and the country’s response, on the morning of March 3rd. But that is why history is so helpful. Dealing with crises is serious business, requiring our full attention. But as historian David McCullough reminds us, we have dealt with difficulty before. In fact, almost every era has crises to address.
It is important to remember that as we consider today’s challenges, including:
- A worldwide pandemic, and the botched response, that has resulted in the United States leading the world with more than 6.5 million cases and more than 190,000 deaths;* **
- The loss of between 20-40 million jobs*** since the pandemic began; and although some have come back, the economy has not recovered from the Great Depression-level losses earlier in the year;
- The horrific murder of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man who died in Minneapolis in late May after Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, knelt on his neck for almost eight minutes while he was lying face down handcuffed on the street following a complaint about a counterfeit $20 bill; an action that launched nationwide protests and confrontations focused on 400+ years of systemic racism; and
- Amidst cries of fraud and cheating, the Republican party’s most respected expert on election fraud, who has worked on every campaign back to the Reagan years, has written that Trump’s ceaseless cries about the election being stolen from him, “has put my party in the position of a firefighter who deliberately sets fires to look like a hero putting them out.”
All these and more require our close attention, hard work, and focus. Yet it is timely to remember that what we face is not unprecedented. This nation has struggled towards freedom, and fought the forces of tyranny since the beginning of its history. Yes, certainly focus on the work ahead to defeat those who would take our freedom away, but also remember that hope, as I am fond of saying, is grounded in memory.
More to come…
*By the time you read this, those numbers will be out of date (and, unfortunately, higher in both cases).
**If you think that the number of COVID cases and deaths in the U.S. is greatly exaggerated, then I recommend this explanation.
***It depends on how you count, but the range is courtesy of the conservative Wall Street Journal.