Moderation is not easy to argue for after the savage attack on the Capitol by the pro-Trump mob, which included the deaths of a U.S. Capitol Police officer and four other people and the attempt to deter Congress from its constitutional duties. Condemnation of the riot and the attempted insurrection is nearly universal. But there is no calm descending, as typically follows a national convulsion. Voices from both ends of the political spectrum continue to cross swords on social media as though this is just another chapter in the journey from 2015 to last Wednesday.
But it is moderation that we need now. As noted here before, the tone should draw its spirit from Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address, delivered just before the Civil War: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies.” That will not satisfy the most extreme haters any more than Lincoln’s appeal averted the secession of the Confederacy, but they aren’t the ones who need to hear the incoming president. What matters is a more centrist audience, who can hear an appeal, as Lincoln put it, to “the better angels of our nature.”
Lincoln’s eyes were on the crisis in front of him and also on history’s long record of failed self-government. Though it did little to prevent the events at Fort Sumter, his vision reached past the war that loomed to the peace beyond it. He was certainly capable of imagining a republic bound up by the railroads he pursued, settled under the Homestead Act he signed, and growing into an empire of freedom that helped preserve freedom from global menace many times over. Had Lincoln not been assassinated, he might have curbed the zeal of his party and overseen a Reconstruction that did not end in Jim Crow and the Klan.
The president-elect will have many advisers and talented writers to help him, but he has only a week in which to re-craft an address suitable for this unprecedented moment. He can’t achieve that with partisan daggers and sweeping condemnation. He could achieve it with appeals to reason and civility. Both have nearly vanished from the land; President Trump licensed their abandonment by his tweets. Biden could well earn the respect of many of the 74 million of President Trump’s voters (and an easier path in Congress for his program) with an appeal to common citizenship. Generosity of spirit and an extended hand have always been celebrated when passion subsides.
A president who is merely civil would be a huge step forward because, as French-British poet and scholar Hilaire Belloc noted, courtesy is our most underrated virtue:
Of Courtesy, it is much less
Than Courage of Heart or Holiness,
Yet in my Walks it seems to me
That the Grace of God is in Courtesy.
Lincoln presided over catastrophe after catastrophe, but four years after his first inaugural address, he delivered a second, far more famous speech that, as inscribed on the inner walls of his memorial, concluded this way: “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, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
It cannot be improved upon. It can be imitated. It will be in the country’s best interest if the new president aims for it. Many with scores to settle would prefer he do anything but look positively at the future. Hopefully, he reads Lincoln and not their tweets.