Abraham Lincoln and the preservation of democracy
With Election Day just around the corner, thoughts from historian Jon Meacham, whose new book chronicles the life and evolution of President Abraham Lincoln:
He thought everything was over.
It was the summer of 1864, and Abraham Lincoln believed his campaign for re-election amid the Civil War was doomed: The president was to be defeated, his policies repudiated by the people, his vision of America lost; but if the Democratic nominee, George McClellan, was in fact the choice of the electorate, then so be it.
"This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re-elected," Lincoln wrote. "Then it will be my duty to so co-operate with the President-elect, as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration."
A president devoted to justice and to the rule of law. A president willing to cede power graciously should he lose. A president who put the Constitutional experiment and the good of others above his own self-interest.
Such words can seem nostalgic, even naïve, in our own time.
On Tuesday, Americans will go to the polls in the first national election since the Insurrection of January 6, 2021. Perhaps 300 election deniers are on the ballot across America. At stake is not only the policies of ordinary times, but the viability and the durability of American democracy itself.
I wish this were hyperbolic. I wish it were hypothetical. But it's neither.
- With election deniers running for office, our right to vote is on the ballot ("Sunday Morning")
- Some county clerks in Colorado say they are getting death threats from election deniers
Democracies are always contingent and conditional enterprises; they depend not only on the substance of laws and of institutions, but on the characters of leaders, and of the led. In a democracy, the pursuit of power for power's sake, devoid of devotion to equal justice and fair play, is tempting, but it's destructive.
This is why the unfolding voting in the midterm elections is so important.
There are forces abroad and in the land that are choosing to put their own power ahead of everything else. To them, politics is not a mediation of differences but an occasion for total war.
Usually a vote is about policy – a tax rate, say, or immigration reform. This year's vote is about more than that; it's about whether elected Republican officials will obey the law, fairly count the votes in 2024, and obey the will of the people.
A world in which power is all, in which the assertion of a singular will trumps all, in which brute force dictates all, is not moral but immoral, not democratic but autocratic, not just but unjust.
The task of history is to secure advances in a universe that tends to disappoint. That was Lincoln's task. And it is ours.
For more info:
- "And There Was Light: Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle" by Jon Meacham (Random House), in Hardcover, Large Print Trade Paperback, eBook and Audio formats, available via Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Indiebound
"The Penny Image of Abraham Lincoln" by William Willard, courtesy National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. David A. Morse.
Story produced by Amy Wall. Editor: George Pozderec.
More on Abraham Lincoln:
- Abraham Lincoln's coat, and its hidden, bloody stories ("Sunday Morning")
- Abraham Lincoln's long goodbye ("Sunday Morning")
- Did Abraham Lincoln sleep here? ("Sunday Morning")
- Almanac: Abraham Lincoln's beard ("Sunday Morning")
- Lincoln assassination: The other murder attempt ("Sunday Morning")
- The Lincoln Memorial at 100: How a monument to history became a part of history ("Sunday Morning")
More on this year's elections:
for more features.