Yet man must do what he can, without thought of vengeance or vainglory: "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."
Abraham Lincoln understood that the crisis he had faced, and still faced, was too great for smallness on his part, or on his country's. He would look beyond mere victory and defeat, beyond grief and vengeance, toward understanding, forgiveness, healing, hope. And a new birth of freedom. Toward not just a renewed but an ever-new Union.
What a strange picture of this same Union now is set before the world: not just a great power but the world's only superpower; an impersonal place in which no one really cares for another; a society driven only by material ambition; a nation so self-righteous in conflict, so proud and unreflecting, so uncharitable and unfeeling that its malice is almost unpremeditatedŠ.
That is not the America of Mr. Lincoln, and it is not the real America behind the caricature so often presented to and by the world.
The defining American challenge, said de Tocquevlle in his unmatched study of Democracy in America, is to find the right balance between liberty and equality.
In his Second Inaugural, Abraham Lincoln did not choose one or the other, or even portray them as opposing forces. He presented liberty and equality as one, each bracing the other, like the timbers of a great ship, as inseparable as the Union itself.
The good ship Union would sail on long after its captain had departed, and it still heads, as always, in the direction of Freedom. And freedom not just for this ever-new nation. For such a vessel cannot but help roil the waters all around, sending out ripples who knows how far, lifting the hopes of others just at the sight of its tall masts, its billowing sails, as it proceeds on its own way undeterrable. Despite the wreckage and debris on the surface of events, despite all that is arrayed against it, it still heads out for the open sea of freedom. Undeterrable.
I now realize that, when my young Italian friend asked for the key to understanding America, I should just have handed him a copy of Lincoln's Second Inaugural, and said: "Here it is. Now go and study."