“Don’t be troubled. I guess we shall get through.”
Elizabeth Wiling Powel could not vote. The 19th Amendment and Suffrage movements didn’t exist in a country not yet born. Powel was a politician’s wife. She was married to the Mayor of Philadelphia and a fixture of Philadelphia society. She was close to General Washington and his wife Martha. It was Powel who asked Ben Franklin the question that elicited the famous and oft-quoted answer from our most important founding elder, ‘’A Republic if you can keep it.’
Powel fired back, “And why not keep it?” Dr. Franklin responded, “Because the people on tasting the dish, are always disposed to eat more of it than does them good.” Franklin was the oldest of the Founding Fathers and his genius was epic. It extended from the sciences to common sensical observations about human beings. “The first man put at the helm will be a good one. Nobody knows what sort may come afterwards.” It could be argued the entire system of American Government was designed to hobble the ambitions of the type of men that Franklin feared and knew loomed both in the moment and over the horizon.
Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President. Eighty-five years after the Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia, the Union was breaking up over the evil of slavery. The Southern states were in open rebellion. The American Civil War had begun. Lincoln called the Congress into session on July 4, 1861, and sent a powerful message. He began his message with a salutation to his fellow “Citizens” as there is no greater or superior title or peerage in the American Republic.
Lincoln’s message began one of the most extraordinary special sessions of the United States Congress in history. Vice President Hannibal Hamlin called the Chamber to order. The Southerners were absent, and their desks were startlingly vacant for the commencement of momentous affairs. Then like now, it was the politicians and faithless elites who were the threat and the cause of the crisis. Then like now, there were some who looked at the empty desks and saw crisis in the absence – not the cause of the absence.
Lincoln saw clearly then what matters much now – the fecklessness, cowardice and betrayal of so many elected and appointed officials (officers) in the 117th Congress. The failure of fidelity and loyalty towards the nation comes from the pampered and privileged who have received the most and given the least. Here is an excerpt from his message to the 37th Congress:
“Great honor is due to those officers who remained true despite the example of their treacherous associates; but the greatest honor and most important fact of all is the unanimous firmness of the common soldiers and common sailors. To the last man, so far as known, they have successfully resisted the traitorous efforts of those whose commands but an hour before they obeyed as absolute law. This is the patriotic instinct of plain people. They understand without an argument that the destroying the Government which was made by Washington means no good to them.
Our popular Government has often been called an experiment. Two points in it our people have already settled--the successful establishing and the successful administering of it. One still remains--its successful maintenance against a formidable internal attempt to overthrow it. It is now for them to demonstrate to the world that those who can fairly carry an election can also suppress a rebellion; that ballots are the rightful and peaceful successors of bullets, and that when ballots have fairly and constitutionally decided there can be no successful appeal back to bullets; that there can be no successful appeal except to ballots themselves at succeeding elections. Such will be a great lesson of peace, teaching men that what they can not take by an election neither can they take it by a war; teaching all the folly of being the beginners of a war.”
Lincoln could well have been talking about Capitol Police Officer Caroline Edwards, the granddaughter of a Marine wounded in combat at the Chosin Reservoir, when he spoke of a disgraceful truth that is not a new phenomenon in our own troubled hours.
When Lincoln sent this message most thought the “rebellion” would be settled quickly. It was not. It would grow into one of the bloodiest Civil Wars in history, and would kill more than 600,000 in a divided nation of 34 million souls. The war would be an industrialized preview of the horror of the 20th century’s wars of complete annihilation. The concept of total war was born in the American Civil War. William “Tecumseh” Sherman, one of the American Army’s greatest commanders, was among its first fierce practitioners. He was deeply skeptical about Lincoln in 1861. He thought the Union cause was hopeless because the people were soft and indifferent, and led by politicians who were equally corrupt, incompetent and selfish. He thought Lincoln was particularly inept.
After his American martyrdom, Sherman had this to say about Lincoln, “Of all the men I ever met, he seemed to possess more of the elements of greatness, combined with goodness than any other.” What Sherman understood was what made Lincoln great and good: his absence of malice and embrace of love as the means towards national reconciliation. Lincoln’s toughness was not in doubt by 1865. He had no heart for meanness. He dreamed of reconciliation. He knew though that reconciliation could not come at the price of Union because the Union is what guarantees our liberty and freedom.
Lincoln noted the differences between the Union and the Confederacy in their respective founding documents. Lincoln noted the omissions. There was no “We the People” or “All Men are Created Equal” in the Confederate version. Lincoln understood the inherent contradictions and hypocrisies of American freedom, as did his admirers and critics like Federick Douglass and Harriet Beecher Stowe. He imagined the possibilities of freedom expanding, propelled by the incandescence of the American idea and ideal that first came to life on July 4, 1776.
We are Americans. The luckiest people on Earth. Trouble has found us like it found our ancestors. The Confederacy of Jefferson Davis and Robert Lee was crushed, yet the ember of the malice and racism that breathed life into it has never been completely extinguished. It is the idea that matters. It must be constantly confronted. There have always been people for whom the idea of equality between all people must be resisted at all costs. That struggle continues today, and the work is undone. It might be wise to heed the departing words President Lincoln left George William Curtis after an interview, “Don’t be troubled. I guess we shall get through.”