Geoff Ritter: Waiting on Lincoln's 'better angels' to finally show up

Seven states had declared they were out, the nation was on the brink of civil war, and Abraham Lincoln took the stage on Inauguration Day with this tone-deaf little nugget:

"We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies," insisted the man from Illinois, claiming to be the newly inaugurated 16th president. Many of his contemporaries strongly insisted otherwise.

"Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection," he continued. "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."

These are among the most memorable words in presidential history. The echo of time lends them poetry, but on the occasion of their delivery, Lincoln's address to his countrymen landed with a thud. Most Southerners ignored it, and four more states joined the Confederacy in its aftermath. The ensuing carnage claimed more than half a million lives. Our home in southern Illinois found itself at the crossroads of two competing political movements, just as it does today.

But now, Americans wouldn't conceive of owning another human being like just another dog. To us, systemic slavery is backward and cruel. And to Lincoln and his contemporaries, some of the key concepts driving our current national division - tweets, laptops, emails, ballot machines, even the legal custody of coded numbers that allow one the executive authority to decimate a city - would sound even more foreign. A great national conflict waged a century from now over burpos, wagwats and salad forks might sound equally absurd to us now.

Lincoln's wisdom, so beautiful in retrospect, can seem almost meaningless in the moment - his or ours. We are too angry for better, or even just kind of OK, angels at the moment. See the latest calls for national disunion in the wake of last week's FBI raid on Donald Trump's Florida estate. Georgia Congresswoman and aspiring timeless intellectual Marjorie Taylor Greene has made "civil war" a recurring theme in the days since; fringe groups now call for armed conflict and the dismantling of federal law enforcement. "Law and order" is politically pliable language, no matter what time you happen to live in.

Conservative columnist Mona Charen notes that mainstream Republicans, like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, exhibit "zero interest in whether Trump actually committed a crime. The clear message is, 'You've gone after our leader, so we're coming for you.' The merits of (Attorney General Merrick Garland's) actions are irrelevant. The facts are irrelevant. It's war." The Democratic resistance to this thinking, while more rooted in actual reality, is still too entrenched to respond rationally. All of our angels are missing right now. Every. Single. One.

Four years after his first inauguration, Lincoln returned to speak for the second such time - this time as the misery of war was nearing its end. The words of his Second Inaugural Address are history, etched into the rock of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington: "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in ... to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."

A little over a month after Lincoln gave that speech, someone murdered him. And it took almost 60 years to get those words carved in stone.

A "just and lasting peace" is increasingly hard to imagine right now - in Washington, in Springfield, even among southern Illinoisans. So many have lost the capacity for reason and reconciliation. But Lincoln's words, ringing hollow for many in his own time, echoed forward to us now. With perspective, and time, we eventually enshrined them in stone as a cherished national value.

Once again, we are in need of our better angels, even if it seems we aren't ready to listen to them yet. One thing I'm betting is that they won't look a thing like Donald Trump or Joe Biden when they get here, which is hopefully sooner rather than later. After all, we're going to need time to reset before our next great conflagration comes. That business with the burpos and wagwats isn't going to be pretty.

<i> Geoff Ritter is editor of the Southern Illinois LOCAL Media Group, publishers of the Marion Republican, Harrisburg Register, Benton News and Carbondale Times.