If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
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
If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.
–John F Kennedy
The spirit of liberty is the spirit that is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit that weighs their interests alongside its own without bias.
Judge Learned Hand, 1944
…and alas a spirit that is noticeably absent from the current
political and cultural landscape.
But, my friends, in ugly times the true protest is beauty
Robert Kennedy’s words touched the American spirit, transcending his death 50 years ago, with a truth that speaks to our time, too.
Yet we know what we must do. It is to achieve true justice among our fellow citizens. The question is not what programs we should seek to enact. The question is whether we can find in our own midst and in our own hearts that leadership of humane purpose that will recognize the terrible truths of our existence.
We must admit the vanity of our false distinctions among men and learn to find our own advancement in the search for the advancement of all. We must admit in ourselves that our own children’s future cannot be built on the misfortunes of others. We must recognize that this short life can neither be ennobled or enriched by hatred or revenge.
Our lives on this planet are too short and the work to be done too great to let this spirit flourish any longer in our land. Of course we cannot vanquish it with a program, nor with a resolution.
But we can perhaps remember, if only for a time, that those who live with us are our brothers, that they share with us the same short moment of life; that they seek, as do we, nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and in happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can.
Surely, this bond of common faith, this bond of common goal, can begin to teach us something. Surely, we can learn, at least, to look at those around us as fellow men, and surely we can begin to work a little harder to bind up the wounds among us and to become in our own hearts brothers and countrymen once again.