Category Archives: History

Reconciliation Is More Beautiful than Victory

Michigan lake

This date in 1865, the signal act of reconciliation in American history took place, in the dusty hamlet of Appomattox, Virginia. The last embers of the Civil War were dying, as had 625,000 soldiers, blue and gray.  The courtly Southerner, Robert E. Lee, came to surrender his threadbare army, and he met the most unlikely of counterparts.  Union General Ulysses S. Grant had been a clerk in a leather goods store when the war began.  He wore his usual ordinary soldier’s coat, mud-spattered and distinguished only by the three stars in each lapel.

When the papers were signed, Lee thanked Grant for his surprisingly generous terms.  Union soldiers watched respectfully as the gray-clad troops filed past; the order had come down from Grant that there was to be no celebration.  Most importantly, the terms of surrender ensured that there would be no retribution against Confederate officers.  Since General Grant,  hero to the public in the North, had signed the document, the radicals and newspaper editorialists could shout for trials and vengeance until they were hoarse, but it would avail them nothing.

The previous month, in his Second Inaugural Address, President Lincoln had anticipated the war’s end with the words, with malice toward none, with charity for all.  He pledged to bind up the nation’s wounds and to care for those who had borne the battle, and their widows and orphans.  Nowhere did he distinguish between blue and gray soldiers.

The common wisdom might be that the Southerners were the beneficiaries of Grant and Lincoln’s generosity.  The better  view of reconciliation is found in the words of Shakespeare.  The quality of mercy is not strained, the Bard wrote.  It is twice blessed, blessing him that receives, but also he that gives.  By choosing reconciliation, the victor eschews the darker, revengeful  side of human nature.  He is then touched, as Lincoln said, by the better angels of our nature.  Given the fertile soil of accommodation, the slow process of evolutionary growth can proceed.

Significantly, with the abandonment of post-war Reconstruction, the promise of reconciliation was denied the freedmen, even the 180,000 who had fought valiantly in the Union Army.  This retreat from equality remained a  stain on the nation’s record for a century.

In recent decades, the simple, but profound message of the meeting between the aristocrat and the former store clerk at Appomattox Court House has been lost in the noxious atmosphere of American politics.  Triumph at the polls is now the occasion for contempt, not respect, for the vanquished.  The new majority arrogantly rams through its agenda without concern for the minority’s deeply held values.  Reconciliation?  How quaint.  However, as Lincoln, Grant, and Lee knew, victory without reconciliation is a prescription for an endless cycle of rancor and revenge.

“Reconciliation is more beautiful than victory.”
Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, President of Nicaragua, 1990

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Veteran’s Day: Lincoln at Gettysburg

antietam

Antietam National Battlefield, Maryland
NPS photo

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate-we can not consecrate-we can not hallow-this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.

Abraham Lincoln, speaking at the National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, November, 1863

A Youtube Glimpse into Leadership and Love

the road less traveled by

Window-shopping youtube for glimpses of insight, I  happened upon a grainy, black-and-white clip of a  poignant moment in American history.  Decades have passed in procession since the airing of this television program, yet the images and words posed a timely question about  current American politics.

The United States was enduring a wrenching time when the show aired.  Only a few months before, President John Kennedy had been shot by a sniper on the streets of Dallas.  Grief weighed on the nation; the public was still in disbelief of the loss.  Robert Kennedy, the slain president’s younger brother, had retreated to the seclusion of his grief and despair after the murder.   He chose the late night conversation show hosted by the urbane Jack Paar to re-emerge in public.

As the youtube clip began, Paar spoke thoughtfully  of “a man whose own life reminds us what brother really means, the distinguished Attorney General,” and then Robert Kennedy walked to the stage. How unimposing he looked.  He cut a slight figure in a plain suit,  and sported a haircut far from stylish.  Kennedy did not stride with the brisk gait that politicians have since adopted.  As he took  his seat, the audience rose as one and erupted in applause.  The camera panned the crowd, and I sensed they were grateful  to express their love for their martyred president through this  show of affection.

 After waiting for the applause to fade and the audience to settle back, Paar opened with a question about the young widow, Jacqueline Kennedy: how was she dealing with  her grief.  Bobby answered in a voice colored with tenderness, “She spends most of her time with her children.”   Paar then asked Kennedy what he thought the late president’s greatest contribution had been.  Without hesitation, he answered, “He made America feel young again.”  The expression seemed to surprise Kennedy himself.   John Kennedy had given Americans a new confidence in themselves, Robert elaborated.  President Kennedy had also  instilled confidence in others that America stood for certain principles and values and would fight to protect them, if need be.

Confidence: the word stood out for  me.  Yes, America then had confidence in her leaders.  I thought of the U.S. Army, in the summer of 1961, facing down Soviet tanks in Berlin and preventing them from intimidating freedom’s  isolated outpost.  I remembered televised scenes of federal marshals escorting a lonely figure of courage, the first black student to enroll at the University of Mississippi, despite the mobs egged on by the erratic governor of that state.  The nation’s feelings were of accomplishment and possibilities.

When Kennedy paused, the audience again applauded,  giving voice to  their pent up emotions. Robert let the applause roll over him, knowing I am sure that it displayed the American people’s love for his brother.  And perhaps that they dared to hope that the youthful confidence the country had gained had not been stolen by the furtive assassin.  The ensuing years, I regret to say, have cast this confidence into the shadows.

The short clip of a leader’s re-emergence and an audience’s love told a story tinged with possibility–a sense of what leadership means and how it can instill the courage to face trials.  Could the sense of confidence so palpable in this snippet of history be revived in our country?  There can be little chance of real leadership without a love earned by a president’s moral courage and as felt by that audience in 1964. Such love is not to be confused with its counterfeit, adulation—whose filament may shine brightest just before it burns out.   When leadership is tested and shown to be formidable, it proves worthy of popular respect.  Only then can the people draw confidence from their leader.

Love never fails; but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish.

Paul, I Corinthians 13:8

When the Authentic Was Not a Mirage

Robert Kennedy, campaigning in 1968

Robert Kennedy, campaigning in 1968

The authentic is an elusive quality in public life today, like a shimmering mirage on a summer day that continually retreats into the distance until it disappears over the horizon.

I was reminded of this absence, by contrast, last evening. While surfing YouTube, I stumbled upon a clip of Robert Kennedy speaking to students at New York’s Columbia University when he was running for Senator. I had forgotten how unimpressive a figure he cut. Bobby had a bad haircut, his rumpled suit hung limply on his spare frame, and he seemed to protect himself against the crowd by hunching his shoulders. He nervously clenched a rolled-up paper in one hand. His speaking style, sometimes hesitating, never with an easy flow, revealed he was not really comfortable in this kind of crowd scene.

The unscreened questions from the students, while not hostile, challenged Kennedy on key issues of the campaign. As he answered each question, occasionally jabbing the air for emphasis, he won the students over. While watching, I soon understood why they responded. It was not on the basis of his policies or proposals, but due to the feeling with which he touched them. The students sensed something about Bobby Kennedy, something palpable, based on his plain words and on his prior record as Attorney General during the early battles for civil rights. Simply stated, Robert Kennedy meant it. Whether they agreed with him or thought he was a reckless liberal, the students realized after a short time that they were seeing a public figure who meant it.

When Kennedy left the auditorium, the students stood and applauded. They felt connected to the authentic.

Spiritual Resistance in the Crucible of American Slavery

Flight to freedom (photo, public domain)

Flight to freedom (photo, public domain)

 Inspiration  shines like a beacon  from great films when the screen portrayal reflects historical truth. In the 1989 movie, Glory, blue-clad soldiers of the famed 54th Massachusetts regiment sing hymns around a campfire on the eve of a Civil War battle.   The former slaves—the United States Army’s first black unit—invoke their religious tradition to steel their hearts,  as they testify to their faith in God and their faith in each other. “It don’t much matter what happens tomorrow,” one fiery soldier says, “because we’re men now, ain’t we!”  The chorus responds, “Yessir!” and “Amen.”

 [Repost from April]

The historical truth is that the religion of American slaves played a crucial part in preserving their humanity in the face of a brutal system that tore down their human dignity. There was no escape from this existential threat. Slave revolts in the American South proved suicidal. Flight was possible, but so fraught with peril that it was available to only a heroic minority. For the vast majority who remained on the plantations, there was cultural resistance, and the center of that culture was the slaves’ religion.

The slaves’ Christianity taught that there was a power higher than that of the plantation owner, and that before Him the slaves were the equal of any man, with an equal claim to human dignity. Their religion also provided a source of solidarity and collective identity. These were powerful messages in the face of the master’s pervasive control of the slaves’ lives, providing an enclave for the slaves’ human spirit, an inner space protected from the toxic corrosion of slavery.  Religion promised a better future, but also fortified the slaves’ community to endure in the here and now.  100 years later, the civil rights movement’s great orator echoed this spirit. “With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope,” Dr. King avowed before the Lincoln Memorial.

The story of this cultural resistance in times that  tried men’s souls is  told in a remarkable book published two generations ago, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made, authored by Eugene Genovese. The title itself says so much. Slaves in the American South have often been portrayed as passive, even submissive, and as victims. In Genovese’s account, they are the active subjects who make history, not merely objects to be used and abused by actors who wield greater power. From his narrative, it becomes clear that the slaves’ social labor and their collective struggle to maintain their human dignity contributed as much to the history of the American South as the actions of the planter aristocracy or the exploits of the great political families.

Genovese’s achievement  in writing Roll, Jordan, Roll merits admiration today. Although he is passionate, his book is reliably objective, untainted by the self-righteous tone that so often mars the current spirit in politics. His history reads from the bottom up, giving ordinary men and women their due as historical actors. For an activist and scholar on the left (as Genovese was then), it was a signal mark of creativity to recognize the critical part the spiritual played in enabling the slaves to maintain their humanity.

We are urgently in need of such objectivity and creativity in our politics today. As Abraham Lincoln said in the rancorous 1850s:  ” If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it.” Indeed, with contemporary efforts to ban religion from public spaces and airbrush religion from American history, Roll, Jordan, Roll and its tale of communal spiritual strength speaks to us as a timely voice from the past.

A Mettle Forged into Legend: Iron Brigade

Iron Brigade Monument, Gettysburg

Iron Brigade Monument, Gettysburg (Photo by Robert Swanson)

 

Through Maryland’s green and rolling meadows, a stream the color of chocolate winds on its unhurried way to the Potomac River. Blown by summer breezes, cirrus clouds coast across the blue sky, trailing their shadows like the tails of kites across the tasseled corn. In this pastoral landscape, a battlefield seems out of place. One autumn day in 1862, the clash of musketry and cannon fire erupted in the normally languid air near Antietam Creek. Continue reading