Monday, February 20, 2006

Prescience and Presidents



We had gone to a fund raiser for a global something or another.

As we walked in the door, we saw a legislator, a columnist, and an author.

In the kitchen, a few of us gathered close to the buffet steamers.

I was asking if anyone knew who the Congressman was

who had asked the hard questions about the coming war on Mexico

back in 1846.

Who was the young whig congressman who risked his career

to ask the unpopular questions of then President Polk,

and who sponsored the spot resolutions to determine if

American blood had indeed been shed on American soil?

In the spirit of good party conversation,

the answer led to another story of our 16th president.

Since today is President's Day, it seems appropriate to mention it.

When you walk into the Lincoln Memorial and look to the right,

you will see the words of Lincoln's second inaugural.

"On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, urgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war—seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation.

Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.

One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war.

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Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained.

Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease.

Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding.

Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.

It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged.

The prayers of both could not be answered.

That of neither has been answered fully.

The Almighty has His own purposes.

'Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.'

If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that

He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away.

Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman'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, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said 'the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."

When I walked into the Lincoln Monument one day,

many years ago,

alone and open,

and read these words,

I wept.

I wept for my Great Grandfather who fought as a boy in this war,

and was captured, only to be released by Lincoln's goodness,

into the hands of a cousin in Ohio.

I wept for the South and for the North.

And I weep for a people who have traded in this depth of greatness,

for the singular shallowness of spirit that imposes its long shadow

today.

At the party,

We marveled how such words of moral Karma and cosmic retribution

could find itself in the speech of perhaps our greatest president

then,

and how such a people could accept such nationalistic corporate dribble

today.

Earlier in the weekend,

We heard Howard Zinn speak at the Historians Against the War conference.

He always reminds his audience of the value of knowing your history.

"If I don't have any history, then whatever you, the person in authority, the president at the microphone announcing we must bomb here, we must go there, the president has the field all to himself.

I cannot counteract, because I don't know any history.

I can only believe him.

I was born yesterday.

What history does is give you enough data so that you can question anything that is said from on high. You can measure the claims that are being made by the people in authority against the reality.

And you can look at similar claims that were made before, and see what happened then.

Here's a president who's saying we're going to war for democracy.

And then you go back through history and say, "How many times have presidents said we're going to war for democracy, and what have those wars really been about?"

The history can clarify things,

prepare you for dealing with the duplicities of the real world."

On this day, we would do well to remember

Lincoln and our History.

And the duplicities of the real world.

With that in mind,

I was born a Mexican,

and a War between the North and the South,

will have two committed sides that

"pray to the same God,

and each invokes His aid against the other"


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2 Comments:

Anonymous Catalina said...

The synonym for slavery is poverty and the war rages on.

8:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

sadness. how do we get out of this mess?

I am almost thinking that people should be required to pass a history exam before voting.

6:49 AM  

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