ARE YOU still looking for a resolution to keep in the new year, something more meaningful than visiting the gym regularly or avoiding saturated fats? Here’s a suggestion. Take a trip down to the Lincoln Memorial, if you’re in the Washington area. At last report it was still open to the public, though with limited government support, thanks to the shutdown. There, inscribed on a wall, is the perfect New Year’s resolution for Americans and people from other countries who still admire this nation despite all its conflicts and contradictions. The words come at the end of the speech Abraham Lincoln delivered during his second inauguration.
The sentence is so familiar to us — “With malice toward none,” it begins — as to have become almost meaningless to some. But reading the whole address in the presence of the statue of Lincoln, especially at night or on a gray day, with visitors from home and abroad quietly, respectfully taking it all in, gives it a sort of mystic power. Lincoln begins with thoughts on the tragedy of the war soon to end, then quickly gets to the root of it — to what split the country and set Americans to killing one another: “One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves. . . . These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war.”
And then it gets biblical, more prophetic than political, suggesting the need for a people to reflect not on their grievances and desires but on their own shortcomings and their duty to the greater good and the fellow humans they have wronged. “Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away,” Lincoln said. “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.’ ”
Yes, the speech was about our national sin of slavery, but it was also about the malign power of “interest” — demagogic political interests, financial interests, shortsighted self-interest on the part of many individual Americans who have lost sight of the common good and of the need for simple justice and equality in society. Just a short walk from the somber, seated Lincoln stands another memorial, dedicated to Americans who did serve the greater good — the statuary tribute to those who fought and died in the Korean War. It portrays 19 service members slogging along in the rain, and there is a startling realism to it. “Tensely they scan, listening for danger; some are gesturing, hollering, warning one another,” the late Charles Krauthammer wrote in 1995. They are, he noted, a reminder that there “are battles worth fighting; they should be chosen with great care and fought with great purpose, but there are purposes worth fighting for.”
Resolved for this new year, in words spoken nearly 154 years ago: “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 . . . and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”