image: arellis49 (flickr)

There’s nothing like a great speech to get the blood flowing. Where I used to live, there was this great neighborhood Fourth of July party, attended by lots of local politicians and other politically active people, which always featured a patriotic speech by one of our many good orators. This isn’t exactly the same kind of speech, but here is part of Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address:

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.”

Lincoln didn’t believe slaves were equal to white people. He didn’t really see them as having any role in society. His hope was to ship former slaves back to Africa. The limit of his belief system was stated in one of the Lincoln-Douglas debates:

“But,” he went on, “there is no reason in the world why Negroes should not have all the natural rights listed in the Declaration of Independence. The right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

“I agree with Judge Douglas,” Lincoln said, “that the Negro is not my equal in many ways — certainly not in color, perhaps not mentally or morally. But in the right to eat the bread that his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man.”

It’s fair to say that Lincoln’s powerful words exceeded the limits of his beliefs, and for the most part, his actions. But, the words of the Second Inaugural Address are carved into the wall of the Lincoln Memorial; they were in the background for Martin Luther King’s famous speech. Long before that day, those words provided a goal, and an explanation of the road to that goal. Hundreds of thousands of former slaves and their children and their children’s children pushed and kept pushing. They had little enough to work with, and plenty of opposition; few even had the right to vote.

They ignored the stories white people told each other about them in the white press or face to face. They didn’t need any help figuring out what was in their best interest, or the best interest of their kids. They ignored the soft-handed advice of squishy liberals that they should go slowly.

Those marchers, the people who preceded them, and the millions who were there in spirit, trusted in the power of the words of the Declaration of Independence, and the power of Lincoln’s language. They were inspired to demand their rights as Americans, regardless of their voting numbers; to demand that all of us, including cowardly or thuggish politicians, live up to our words.

That is patriotism I can believe in.