It's a beautiful April day and I think, no matter the circumstances, no matter how harsh or mild the winter, April is a time of hope, of new beginnings and renewal. Doubtless the people of the north felt that way in April of 1865 after the Confederate surrender at Appomattox. Surely they thought, the long national nightmare was over. But the tragedy had one more act to play, the shooting of Abraham Lincoln at Ford's Theater and his death 150 years ago today. In commemorating that event, I think it appropriate to briefly reflect on three of Lincoln's major contributions to our country.
First, of course, is the preservation of the Union and the freeing of the slaves. The further away we get from those events, the greater the risk that the difficulty and significance of those accomplishments may be not fully understood or appreciated. The Civil War was a war about ideas: union vs. disunion and freedom vs. slavery. By the time a war over ideas ends, the ideas of the losing side have been so thoroughly discredited that it's hard to believe that anyone would have fought for them in the first place. Certainly, no one today would advocate fighting for the right to own slaves and no rational person would argue for fighting for the right to secede from the Union. As a result, the significance of the achievements of those who defeated those ideas may not seem as great as it was. Make no mistake, it was no easy task, but after four terrible years of war, the slaves were free and the Republic, as imperfect as it was and as imperfect as it is, emerged intact, still the "last best hope of earth."
The other two contributions are embedded in Lincoln's two greatest speeches, the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural which were read just a few minutes ago. We are all well aware that during the Civil War, the Constitution was under attack from the Confederacy. It may not be such common knowledge that the during this same period, the Constitution was also in danger in the north, both from the right and the left. The right wanted to preserve the Constitution, but with its tacit approval and recognition of slavery. On the opposite side of the political spectrum, the abolitionists recognizing slavery's place in the Constitution considered it a contract with the devil and literally burned it in public protests. At Gettysburg Lincoln shows that there is a better way. As Gary Wills writes in his book Lincoln at Gettysburg, Lincoln argued that the core values and commitments of the United States are found not in the Constitution, but in the Declaration of Independence with its vision of equal rights and equal opportunity. Rather than burn the Constitution with the abolitionists or carve it in stone with the conservatives, Lincoln would purify and modify it by returning to the country's core values. The Civil War generation certainly got that message as witnessed by the passage of the XIII, XIV and XV amendments especially the XIV which guarantees all Americans equal rights under law, a provision that is used to this day by those seeking their basic rights as Americans.
Lincoln took some degree of risk in what he said at Gettysburg, but he went far beyond that in his Second Inaugural. In a message delivered directly or indirectly to the people of the north, Lincoln could have talked about the impending Union victory, blamed the southern states for starting the war or claimed the Union would win because God was on its side. Instead Lincoln did something very different suggesting that the war was, in fact, God's punishment not just for one part of the country or one group of people, but for both north and south because of their complicity and participation in the sin of slavery. Those weren't easy words to hear then and may not be easy to hear even today, but as citizens of the last northern state to abolish slavery and then only by a long and protracted process, we would do well to remember it. What's important here is not whether we agree with Lincoln's statements about how God acts in human history, but rather that we recognize what he is asking of the people of the north - to avoid simple answers, to think critically and to consider and accept the appropriate level of responsibility for the country's situation. Only by doing so is there is any chance of earning the "just and lasting peace" so eloquently described in the conclusion.
Unfortunately the final tragedy of the Civil War is that Lincoln never had the chance to lead the country in the post war world. Whether it would have many any difference is debatable, that it was a tragedy of immense dimensions cannot be denied. Instead Lincoln joined his "brothers gone before," the over 350,000 men from the north including 6000 from New Jersey who "gave their lives that that nation might live." When Abraham Lincoln breathed his last on the terrible morning 150 years ago, his Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton said, "Now he belongs to the ages." Lincoln belongs to the ages because he challenged the Americans of his time and for all time to live to a higher standard. The best way to honor his memory is to do just that.