Biden at Gettysburg and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural: Division and Unity

Biden at Gettysburg[1]: The very definition of bathos? We shall see. (Biden has now given a speech in Warm Springs, GA, FDR’s personal retreat. I suppose I shall have read his homage to FDR too, and find the appropriate speech to compare it to, but not today.) Unfortunately, I don’t have the energy to pull on my yellow waders and do a close reading of Biden’s speech; instead, since Biden explicitly invokes Lincoln’s Second Inaugural (“With malice toward none”), I will compare Biden to Lincoln on the nature and causes of “division,” and how to achieve division’s opposite, “unity.” I’m not sure comparing Biden to Lincoln is entirely fair, but Biden brought it on himself.

First, the nature and causes of “division” in the Civil War[2]. In the Second Inaugural, Lincoln says:

[A]ll thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war–seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.

One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it.

So, for Lincoln, the cause of the “divisive” Civil War was interest, and the inability of the Confederacy to accept limits on that interest was the cause of the war. Lincoln is clear-eyed about both power and economic relations. Now let’s contrast Biden on what he regards as our modern-day “division,” and its causes. (Lincoln’s Second Inaugural is 697 words, where Biden weighs in at 2691. Since Biden is so discursive, I’ll have to do some cutting.) Biden says:

[Lincoln] taught us this: A house divided could not stand. That is a great and timeless truth.

Today, once again, we are a house divided. But that, my friends, can no longer be….

Too many Americans see our public life not as an arena for the mediation of our differences. Rather, they see it as an occasion for total, unrelenting partisan warfare….

We need to revive a spirit of bipartisanship in this country, a spirit of being able to work with one another.

The refusal of Democrats and Republicans to cooperate with one another is not due to some mysterious force beyond our control. It’s a decision. A choice we make.

And if we can decide not to cooperate, we can decide to cooperate as well.

That’s the choice I’ll make as president.

But there is something bigger going on in the nation than just our broken politics, something darker, something more dangerous…

I made the decision to run for president after Charlottesville.

Close your eyes. Remember what you saw.

Neo-Nazis, white supremacists and the KKK coming out of the fields with torches lit. Veins bulging. Chanting the same anti-Semitic bile heard across Europe in the 1930s.

It was hate on the march, in the open. In America.

[As President,] I will send a clear, unequivocal message to the nation. There is no place for hate in America.

What’s notable about Biden’s speech, in contrast to Lincoln’s, is that the notion of causality is entirely absent. Why is “the spirit of bipartisanship” absent? Apparently, it’s a “choice.” Why was it made? Who made it? When? Why is “hate”[3] “on the march”? Why now? And, like the “spirit” of bipartisanship, is hate, an emotion, really the root cause of the neo-Nazi marchers in Charlottesville? Also absent is any notion of interest. Apparently, people make bad “choices” randomly. Haters gotta hate. And so forth. This is vacuous.

Next, the question of how to achieve unity. For Lincoln, the method was easy: Win the war. It was the moral burden of making war that weighed upon him:

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[4] 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.”

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.

Win the war. To this let us contrast — is it too soon to deploy the word “fustian”? — Biden’s solutions, if solutions they are. Here I have to revert to my system of adding notes in square brackets, [thus]:

What we need in America is leadership[A] that seeks to deescalate tensions, to open lines of communication, and to bring us together[B].

Let’s set the partisanship aside. Let’s end the politics. Let’s follow the science[C].

We can have a national strategy that puts the politics aside[D] and saves lives.

There’s another enduring division in America that we must end: The divisions in our economic life that give opportunity only to the privileged few[E]….

Lincoln knew this. He said that the country had to give people “an open field and a fair chance.”

And that’s what we’re going to do in the America we’re going to build — together.

Today we are engaged once again in a battle for the soul of the nation.[F]

The forces of darkness, the forces of division, the forces of yesterday[G] are pulling us apart, holding us down, and holding us back.

As president, I will embrace hope, not fear. Peace, not violence[H]. Generosity, not greed. Light, not darkness[I].

I am ready to fight for you[J] and for our nation. Every day. Without exception, without reservation. And with a full and devoted heart.

It won’t be easy. Our divisions today are of long standing. Economic and racial inequities have shaped us for generations[K].

But I give you my word: If I am elected President, I will marshal the ingenuity and good will of this nation to turn division into unity and bring us together[L].

[A] No issue with systems, only “leadership.” Airport bookstore Business Section-level analysis.

[B] I believe it was Lyndon Johnson who said “Come, let us reason together.” Fine, except Johnson was also a brutal player of the inside game. That’s what it takes (and Lincoln is clear that’s what it takes: “paid by another drawn with the sword”). I mean, “what we have here is failure to communicate” is a joke exactly because it ignores power relations, as Biden does throughout, and Lincoln never does.

[C] See “Don’t ‘Trust the Science,’ Trust Science While You Hone Your Critical Thinking Skills.

[D] “Putting politics aside,” were it possible, has a checkered history. See, e.g., Society for U.S. Intellectual History, “Show Don’t Tell – Review of Robert O. Paxton’s Anatomy of Fascism“: “One example of this dynamic that Paxton explores is the antiestablishment, even antipolitical attitude of fascist parties in their earliest stages. Disparaging all the institutions of the country and claiming to be somehow “above politics” were common threads in both early German and Italian fascism, although the Nazis were particularly skilled at creating alternative social organizations for every conceivable function in order to peel Germans away from more traditional loyalties and tie them emotionally to the party. As Paxton writes, ‘Posing as an ‘antipolitics’ was often effective with people whose main political motivation was scorn for politics. In situations where existing parties were confined within class or confessional boundaries, like Marxist, smallholders’, or Christian patries, the fascists could appeal by promising to unite a people rather than divide it.’”

[E] It’s weird to see “leadership,” hate, “the privileged few,” and “the forces of darkness” all placed together on the same plane of abstraction. Quite a bouillabaisse.

[F] Nations don’t have souls. This is an enormous category error, of the same scope as “government is like a household.”

[G] What does this even mean.

[H] Except in Venezuela?

[I] What does this even mean.

[J] Ah, “fight for.”

[K] So now “economic and racial inequities” are on the same analytical plane as “leadership,” hate, the forces of darkness…

[L] OK, Joe Biden has excellent self-presentation skills as a genuinely nice guy, whose motives are nothing but pure.

Needless to say, there’s nothing to grasp in this befogged vision. Lincoln had a clear goal that could be operationalized: Achieve “unity” by winning the war. Is it possible to reason from Biden’s statements here to his platform? Of course not.[5]

* * *

Of course, none of this is a reason to vote for or against Biden, or any another candidate; I’m not comparing Biden to anybody but Lincoln. I will say that this speech is better structured than a Trump speech, and Biden, like Reagan, hits his marks and delivers with conviction. However, in this speech, Biden’s concept of historical causality is vacuous and sloppy, and his solutions[6] are so gauzy and insubstantial that they resolve to a mere promise to do the right thing (“I give you my word”). Again, comparing Biden to Lincoln is unfair to Biden, but Biden brought the comparison on himself.

NOTES

[1] See The Civil War podcast. Rich and Tracy Youngdahl are now up to Episode 334 (!), on the afternoon of July 1, 1863, and expect to spend the rest of the year, at least, on the battle. Best of all, they begin with the Missouri Compromise in 1820, and will move through Reconstruction. For anyone who wants to understand American history, I can’t recommend this podcast highly enough. It’s a real example of citizen scholarship.

[2] It seems a little, well, bathetic, to call the Civil War divisive, but unity v. division is a standard liberal Democrat trope. See, e.g., “A Major Fear for Democrats: Will the Party Come Together by November,” in the New York Times: “For many Democratic leaders, the hope for party unity rests on shared loathing of Mr. Trump. His divisive record and conduct in office helped propel Democrats to a new House majority in 2018 and a number of governorships in the last three years.” Unity is always good. Divisiveness is always bad.

[3] For an example of manufactured hate by the good guys, see Yasha Levine’s “Russiagate: A coming of age moment for Soviet immigrants.”

[4] Lincoln makes the case for reparations.

[5] I left this passage on the cutting room floor: “We can have a national strategy that will make it possible for our schools and business to open safely. We can have a national strategy that reflects the true values of this nation.” Of course we can have a strategy; the question is what the strategy is.

[6] No, I’m not going to “check the website.” I want to here what the candidates themselves say, on the record.

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