The Better Angels
The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
Abraham Lincoln, conclusion of his First Inaugural Address
A video clip of a movie, The Better Angels, coming out in the fall of this year. The film deals with the boyhood of Lincoln and centers on the death of his mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln. She died when Lincoln was nine and Lincoln helped his father make her coffin. Throughout his life Lincoln was surrounded by death: his younger brother Thomas who lived only three days, his mother, his beloved sister Sarah who died at age 20 giving birth to a still born son, his son Eddie who died in 1850 age three, his son Willie who died in 1862, age 11 and the grim death toll of the Civil War, larger than that of all other American wars combined until Vietnam. These deaths helped increase the melancholy that always lurked below the surface for Lincoln and which he fought off with his humorous story telling.
Lincoln’s religious beliefs during his life were a subject of controversy and so they have remained after his death. However, all the deaths that he personally witnessed convinced him that God had His own purposes that were unknown to mortals. Lincoln gave this belief immortal form in his Second Inaugural:
Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.
Death and Abraham Lincoln were never strangers, but Lincoln made sense of the ravages of Death by a belief in God and a trust that all of this was a for a purpose of God that Lincoln might not be able to discern but could only accept, even if, as I am sure Lincoln suspected, the purpose would involve his own death.
Lincoln’s appeal to “the better angels of our nature” failed to avert a fratricidal war. But the compassionate wisdom of Lincoln’s first and second inaugurals bequeathed to the Union, cemented with blood, a moral heritage which, when drawn upon in times of stress and strife, is sure to find specific ways and means to surmount difficulties that may appear to be insurmountable.
Concurring, Cooper v. Aaron, 358 U.S. 1 (1958)