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 faced was too great for smallness on his part, or on his country's. He would look beyond victory and defeat, beyond grief and vengeance, toward understanding, forgiveness, healing, hope. Toward a renewed and ever-new Union.
The continuing and defining American challenge, said Tocqueville in his still 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. Or in Daniel Webster's words, Liberty and Union, Now and Forever, One and Inseparable.
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 not freedom for just this 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 undeterrable course. Despite the debris and wreckage in its wake, despite all the fears and animosities within and without, despite headwinds and gusts that send it off course, mutinies and failures of will, seizures of trepidation and indecision, it sails on, its flag still there. Undeterrable.
I now realize that, when my young Italian friend asked for the key to understanding America, I should have just handed him a copy of Lincoln's Second Inaugural, and said: "Here it is. Now go and study."