Angels of Our Better Nature

This week my students and I started to examine the Civil War.

The Civil War

In this unit we begin in the years preceding the war, known as the Antebellum, before we discuss the War itself.  

The years of 1845-1860, The Antebellum, or literally “before the war” in Latin, was a time of intense political, social and economic stress for the United States.

In order to properly understand why war became inevitable, and why it took so long to come about, the Antebellum is a central turning point in the overall understanding of the Civil War.

This is to say that the Civil War is a huge lesson in U.S. History. It is almost impossible for a high school teacher anywhere to make proper sense of this moment for the students in their classes.

It is almost required that teachers make choices about what they want to make of the Civil War for their students, resigned to the fact that there are hundreds of important and powerful lessons that could come from this teachable moment.

Thankfully there is time in the year for the Civil War to be many lessons: political consequences, economic impacts, social upheavals, and legal precedents. All of these lessons can be incorporated into the Civil War, and hopefully one or more of them will stay in the minds of my students as they go forward.

White Nationalists, Charlottesville VA, 2017
I begin by asking how they might approach a conversation with someone who they hate, with a person who hates them in return.

How might you, I ask, speak to the neo-nazis in Charlotte? What would you say to a KKK member if one were here now, standing right in front of you? What if you were President Trump? What would you have said the day after the violence in Charlottesville?

Personalizing the national situation in this way helps to reduce the conflict to a manageable size in the minds of a high school student. It’s also much more dramatic, which always helps to hook young adolescents into the subject at hand.

A little drama speaks the language of the teenager effectively.

This personalization of the history also allows for a connection to be made between the past and the present. Ultimately it allows for a reflective lesson that the students can use in their own lives and their own judgements about history.

The example from history that I love to use for this is Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address. It comes as the nation is falling apart, with most of the South already in secession after Lincoln’s election to the presidency in November of 1860.

The Antebellum is nearly over, and the Civil War is about to begin. The fighting hasn’t started yet, but the war is inevitable now that states have announced their intention to leave the Union.

Right now, there is a time of reflection after the shock of Charlottesville. We’re in a lull, and it may well be a lull before the next storm of racial violence.

What should Trump say now? He can’t unsay what he said, sadly. Trump can try again, however, because if anything America is a resilient nation.

Thankfully, we are the land of second chances. In America the conversation is never over.

How might Donald Trump rise to a situation far less dire than the one Lincoln faced in 1861?

As Lincoln gave his first inaugural address, he was inheriting the leadership of a nation in rebellion, with two sides in complete rejection of the other. The position of the states that made up the Confederacy was intolerant of Abraham Lincoln as president.

Trump has inherited a country deeply divided. Unlike Lincoln, he has added to the division; his election campaign made the most of every racial, political, social and economic divide that exists.

Donald Trump, leading.

Trump could learn from Lincoln about how to heal divisions, and stop expanding upon those divisions.

History teaches us that unity is the hallmark of great leadership and great presidents.

Division is the hallmark of failed presidents.

On March 4, 1861 Lincoln spent significant portions of his first inaugural speech on the steps of an unfinished Capitol Building describing how national division itself was impossible.

It is important for my students to understand the gravity of this moment for Lincoln and for the country. In order to put them in the context, I use a personal question. I ask my student to try and imagine how you might speak to a person completely in rejection of everything they represent.

Lincoln was a leader whose election touched off secession in the South. He was rejected completely by half the nation. He was starting his time in office more hated than any president before him.

To understand this, my student need to put themselves on the Capitol Steps on that day. They need to be Lincoln, in a sense.

They need to ask themselves, “How can you be tolerant of those intolerant to you?

How can they love those who hate them?

Is violence the only answer to hatred, or is it really possible to embrace those you reject and love them, despite the ugly and impossibility of their position?

To answer these questions Lincoln’s First Inaugural is a great guide.

In many ways this first speech he gives a president reveals his true greatness as a leader. In other ways it can help students of history to judge other presidents by comparison.
It can also help to instruct students on how to deal with difficult people or situations they may encounter in their lives.

Abraham Lincoln
They can be like Lincoln.

Lincoln said many things in his first inaugural, among them that secession was not possible. In his view entry into the Union was a one way road. States could enter, but they could never leave.

He said, “Physically speaking, we can not separate. We can not remove our respective sections from each other nor build an impassable wall between them.”

Imagine the difficulty of telling someone you can’t tolerate that they must stay with you and work through the difficulty. Remember that Lincoln is referring to slavery and white supremacy.

He was urging the  Americans who he had little or nothing in common with to stay and work through the seemingly impossible chasm between them.

Today our nation seems terribly divided. Today we are told by sociologists that we are voluntarily dividing ourselves from each other, avoiding contact with those whom we have great differences of opinion.

Lincoln’s First Inaugural tells us that this is a mistake. Lincoln tells us that we must instead move closer together. By embracing those we can’t tolerate we can heal and grow.

Separation and division increases the damage.

That is to embrace fear. It’s hard, because rejection, violence and even death may be the result.

That is not only fearless. That is also heroic.

That may be why Lincoln is one of the greatest presidents in American history.

He was fearless when the times we fearful. He was heroic when others, millions of other Americans, were choosing to run from the situation.

His answer was not to run and separate but to turn, to embrace and to engage.

He went on to say in that speech, “ You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors.”

Those that would reject the unit of the relationship between states and the Federal government are seeking to be aggressive. The secessionists are making this movement. They are the actors, and Lincoln is the receiver of their action.

Lincoln was smart to hold back and give the South the first play.

Lincoln continued, “You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the Government, while I shall have the most solemn one to “preserve, protect, and defend it.”

Again, Lincoln is acting as unifier and defender against division and aggression. Donald Trump is falling short in the eyes of the nation and the eyes of history because he is diving the nation in order to keep control.

Lincoln is a great comparison, because his leadership sought to do just the opposite of what Trump is trying to do now.

The end of Lincoln’s First Inaugural is one of the most famous of all Lincoln’s expressions. Knowing that there is little time left to avoid war, Lincoln pleads for sanity. Instead of talking tough, Lincoln shows us that true leadership is sometime humble.

Sometime the best leaders plead with others to follow.

Lincoln ends his remarks saying, “We are not enemies, but friends.”

I explain to my students that this is the value of history. It teaches us more than just what happened. It guides us in the present and marks a path forward into the future.

Good leaders focus on the commonalities and the positives of the situation when seeking unity.

We, I explain to my students, need to do the same in our school, our communities and in our relationships with others.

Notice and compare what Lincoln does, I tell them.

Lincoln doesn’t blame anyone for the situation. He does not claim he is misunderstood, nor does he criticize the media for hating on him.

He says simply, “We must not be enemies.”

Simple. Honest. Leadership.

It inspires.

Lincoln tell us, “Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.”

Lincoln is telling us to remember that we have more in common with others than we have that is different.

Lincoln ends by saying, “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

This means that when we remember what we share we are moved to preserve that common bond.

Trump needs to say this to the nation now. If he won’t, or can’t then we need to do it for him. Patriots love their country enough to stand for what is right when our leaders can’t, or won’t.

Those alt-right, neo-nazi and KKK fanatics in Charlottesville will not go away. They might give up being alt-right, neo-nazi and KKK members, however.
Leonard Cohen
Sept. 21, 1934 – Nov. 7, 2016

Trump needs to remind everyone that through our divisions we can find our common love for America. If we do that then we will be guided by a higher, more divine sense of right.

The angels of our better nature come when we see rightly, act lovingly, and seek to heal division rather than expand what separates us.

Leonard Cohen wrote, “In the broken places, the light shines through.” We are in a broken place in our nation’s history right now.

This does not mean we should despair, nor should we turn away from the difficulty of the current situation.

Now is when the light of our better angels shines through most clearly. Patriots can act and work to heal the divisions that our leaders are too timid to address.  

That is what makes Patriots so special.

Patriots are the better angels of our nature.

Works Cited
“Inaugural Addresses of the Presidents of the United States : From George Washington 1789 to George Bush 1989.” Avalon Project – Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy. Web. 04 Sept. 2017.

Lincoln, Abraham, Judd Stewart, and Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln’s First Inaugural: Original Draft and Its Final Form. Place of Publication Not Identified: Publisher Not Identified, 1920. Print.

Author: historydojo

I’m a National Board Certified Teacher with nearly twenty years of experience teaching high school history. I blog about teaching, history, current events, the law and social justice.

1 thought on “Angels of Our Better Nature

  1. My thoughts on Lincoln are well-known. Here is an excerpt from my essay “Honesty Is the Best Policy”:The individual in question is the 16th President of the United States, serving from March 1861 until his assassination in April 1865, Abraham Lincoln. Often referred to as, among other things, Honest Abe, Father Abraham, Uncle Abe, Spotty Lincoln, The Tycoon, The Rail-Splitter, The Liberator and, the most frequently cited pseudonym, The Great Emancipator. For those who seek knowledge, in this instance, a viable, intelligent, thoughtful and relevant question should be presented: Who is Abraham Lincoln? Is he “The Great Emancipator?” “Honest Abe?” Or, a historical figure who became, arguably, a template for the modern day politician? Some claim Lincoln was a white supremacist that denounced Black freedom and equality and possessed a single-minded view on so-called race mixing. Furthermore, his motivations regarding the Emancipation Proclamation were military in nature aimed at recruiting enslaved Blacks from the South to fight for the so-called Union. However, some claim Lincoln`s greatest gift, if you will, were his political abilities which, in the opinion of many, outclassed his reformation skills, and he was devoted to the Constitution`s stance on enslavement. Yet, he was directly responsible for the largest mass execution in the history of the United States and, at the same time, is claimed to be responsible for the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Though debated by many, he was, arguably, a geographical cline prejudiced man who never intended to “free” Blacks. Arguably, he could be the template for all modern politicians who employ “any means necessary” to satisfy agenda, directives, or group/personal/political interests as Lincoln intended to “save the union”—the shortest way under the Constitution.” Nevertheless, the reverence and veneration for Lincoln is a century-encompassing, world-wide phenomenon, and he is commemorated with epic tributes such as the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

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