Charles Lane (photo right) is a Washington Post editorial writer, specializing in economic policy, federal fiscal issues and business, and a contributor to the PostPartisan blog and here expresses Lincoln's thoughts.
When you think about it, Thanksgiving Day is a paradoxical holiday for a country such as the United States.
Gratitude is nearly the opposite of grievance. Yet, despite the many reasons we may have to feel the former, our political institutions were consciously designed to protect, even encourage, the expression of the latter.
Of course, this right, exercised peacefully and with civility, is essential to freedom and self-government. When grievances multiply, and when groups begin to define themselves by them, however, division and instability grow. When politicians inflame and exploit mutually exclusive grievances for their own advantage, the system can begin to break down.
It’s frighteningly easy to start down this slippery slope, especially when people lose sight of the big things they all have in common, as the Constitution’s main author recognized long ago.
Madison’s meditation is extra-relevant in this season of political discontent; a time when would-be presidents of the most prosperous and secure nation in human history are encouraging voters to think of themselves as victims of a “rigged” system — or demonizing everyone and everything, from the incumbent president, to Congress, to their Muslim neighbours, to the media, to “the billionaire class.”
In the midst of a ghastly and seemingly endless civil war, the 16th president nevertheless urged Americans to express their gratitude to God for “the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies,” and the “harmony [that] has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict.”
The connection between blessing-counting and democratic stability was one that Lincoln had been pondering at least since one of his earliest published speeches , which he gave while a young member of the Illinois legislature to the January 1838 gathering of the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield.
Lincoln spoke at a time of frightening lawlessness on the American frontier, including the recent lynching in Alton, Ill., of an abolitionist editor, Elijah Lovejoy (photo right), by a pro-slavery mob during their attack on his warehouse to destroy his press and abolitionist materials. Lovejoy had condemned the earlier lynching of a black man accused of murder in St. Louis.
Condemning Lovejoy’s murder, Lincoln also alluded to violence seemingly unrelated to race, such as a massacre of white gamblers in Vicksburg, Miss. This implicitly reminded apologists for the attack on Lovejoy that no one was safe from the mobs. And it set up his broader point: that the violence was a symptom of waning gratitude for the American Revolution’s establishment of freedom and the rule of law — incomplete though it was.
“There is no grievance that is a fit object of redress by mob law,” Lincoln told the Lyceum. And yet, he said, many an ambitious politician, seeing no easy opportunity to advance by “building up” the system, “would set boldly to the task of pulling down.”
The antidote, he argued, was national unity and renewed “reverence for the laws.” This should be based not on a complacent belief that “there are no bad laws,” — slavery was one — but rather on an overriding mutual interest that laws be impartially enforced and, when necessary, peacefully corrected.
The alternative, Lincoln prophesied all too accurately, would be division, instability and, ultimately, national “suicide.” No foreign military threat could “crush” the United States, he told the Lyceum, but “if destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author.”
The Way I See It......a quarter-century later, Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation did not address Americans as aggrieved victims, as it might well have done, but as citizens who must acknowledge their share of responsibility for the country’s predicament. It accordingly urged them to offer not only thanks but also “humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience.”
Today, be thankful that the conflicts, dysfunction and threats of our time do not equal those of Lincoln’s — but reflect on how far we still are from adhering to his wisdom.