Abraham Lincoln, were he alive today, would quibble with only one word in the trumpeted slogan, “Make America Great Again,” but it would be a vehement, demagoguery-shattering quibble. He would insist that the sentence be ended after Great. America has, he would solemnly remind us, in practice NEVER been great, only struggling slowly and painfully toward greatness.
In theory, of course, it was another matter. He famously paid homage to “the last best hope of earth” that the truly radical American experiment in democracy (“of the people, by the people, for the people”) constituted, but reminded his fellow countrymen that this noble experiment was not foreordained to succeed, was something they could either “nobly save or meanly lose.” Having announced the “new birth of freedom” of millions of enslaved Americans rising from the crucible of civil war, he knew there would need to be continued births of freedom. It would be over a half century, for instance, before fully half the American population would win, necessitating an amendment to the Constitution against entrenched opposition, the right to vote. And what successive fights of various oppressed minorities for civil rights the ensuing century would see, up to our own day.
Americans will truly be on the path to greatness, Lincoln believed, only if we progressively approximate the radically-inclusive equality ideal emblazoned in the Declaration of Independence. Speaking not about a political party but about the nation itself, he had said, with slavery in mind, “Our Republican robe is soiled, and trailed in the dust. Let us re-purify it … Let us re-adopt the Declaration of Independence.” He would have cheered the later creation of the Pledge of Allegiance to this Republic, understanding the resounding conclusion (“with liberty and justice for all”) as declaration of aspiration rather than boast of achievement.
So here we are at another occasion “piled high with difficulty” that he would urge us to rise to, another “fiery trial” through which we are passing which “will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation.”
“In honor or dishonor”—it is up to us how we will be remembered. How might we better proceed than by praying, as Lincoln did, that we again be touched by the better angels of our nature, resisting the ever-present darker ones inclined, under the pressures of the moment, to surrender principle, foster fear, sink to insult, revert to exclusion.