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Blog: Reimagining Gettysburg

Humility as a Tonic for Democracy

November 20, 2019

Abraham Lincoln recently topped the list of greatest American presidents as ranked by 100 presidential historians. They examined ten presidential characteristics and put Lincoln first because of his blend of leadership, vision, administrative skill, and pursuit of justice.

Here at the home of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, we are reminded daily of another personal trait of Lincoln that is conspicuously absent in contemporary American politics–humility. 

Gettysburg Foundation President Matt Moen, 2019 Dedication Day Ceremonies

Admittedly, Lincoln lived in a simpler era of self-restraint driven by Christian modesty, rather than the social media engine of self-promotion in a more secular world. And yet, humility is an inherent human trait that can surface (or not) with individuals.

Humility is desperately needed in a political world where certitude is now the norm. People on both sides of the political spectrum endlessly twist to make reality fit their beliefs rather than have reality drive their beliefs. Leaders and citizens alike too often remain ensconced in their chosen social media echo chambers, hearing only information that reinforces their existing opinions; they conclude the other side is ignorant, perhaps unpatriotic.

Lincoln modeled completely different behavior.

Generations have memorized Lincoln's 272 words in the Gettysburg Address, understanding his words as a timeless memorial to fallen soldiers. Indeed, they are timeless words. But Lincoln's speech is also remarkable because it conveys the modesty so often lacking today. For starters, Lincoln does not gloat over a decisive Union victory at Gettysburg. He does not speak ill of the Confederate army, or even its cause, which he found distasteful. In fact, he never mentions either side in his remarks. Instead, he quietly observes that "we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground" because the soldiers who fought "have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract." 

Our poor power to add or detract...a concept missing from today's political lexicon.

Lincoln doesn't stop there. His next sentence: "The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here." Lincoln telling the assembled audience that his words at Gettysburg will soon be forgotten because they mean nothing in comparison to the deeds of the soldiers. Unblemished modesty.

Try wrapping your head around the thought of our current crop of political leaders bestowing credit to others such that their own rhetorical flourishes are worthless. 

Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address strikes a similar tone. Coming near the end of a Civil War that killed 620,000 Americans, one might have expected triumphant words from the winning side. Instead, Lincoln gently reaches out to all Americans with these remarkable healing words: "With malice toward none, with charity toward 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."

A compelling clause of this remarkable passage is Lincoln's acknowledgement about doing the right thing as we are given the ability (by God) to even see the right thing to do. No arrogance there. No message from Lincoln that he has the right answers. Instead, a frank admission from a genuine visionary that he is short-sighted.

Imagine the possibilities for our democracy if our leaders could bring even a touch of Lincoln's personal humility to bear on their current work—calling out signature contributions by others, acknowledging their own imperfect understanding, or gently reaching out to their adversaries during this season of ill-will.   

Around the time that Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves, he sent to Congress a haunting message about American democracy that said "we shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope on earth."

Lincoln understood that personal humility is a tonic for democracy in the midst of turmoil.

Matthew C. Moen, Ph.D.