Don't let any single cable network or Twitter feed tell you what to think.
On March 4, 1861, when our country stood on the brink of civil war, Abraham Lincoln, the newly elected 16th president, stood under the portico of the U.S. Capitol and addressed the crowd.
“We are not enemies, but friends,” he said. “Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory … will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as they surely will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
Lincoln’s first inaugural speech wasn’t destined to be recited by generations of schoolchildren like his Gettysburg Address, but it did capture the national mood. And it expressed his conviction that Americans would reunite after the cannon smoke cleared.
Today, when we find ourselves at another Great Divide, Jon Meacham, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, tells us to heed what Lincoln said and give the “better angels” thing another try.
In his latest book, “The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels,” he reminds us that times like these have tried men’s souls before — times marked by hatred, racism, fear, greed, panic. And each time we’ve managed to come back, thanks to our better angels. “A tragic element of history,” he writes, “is that every advance must contend with the forces of reaction.”
On the plus side, we can look back at the New Deal, the Marshall Plan, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon, to name a few. On the minus side, we have the Ku Klux Klan, lynchings, the McCarthy witch-hunt of the 1950s, the riots of the 1960s and a whole lot more.
How, then, when we’re anxious about the future of the country, when a sitting president tears up treaties, sides with dictators, denies climate change, denounces the free press and declares the power to pardon himself, how can we rediscover our better angels?
Meacham says to do these five things:
1. Enter the arena. Theodore Roosevelt put it this way: “The first duty of an American citizen … is that he shall work in politics; the second is that he shall do that work in a practical manner; and the third is that he shall do it in accord with the highest principles of honor and justice.” In other words, work on behalf of the candidates and causes you believe in. Or run for public office yourself.
2. Resist tribalism. Eleanor Roosevelt advised her generation, “Attend not only the meetings of one’s own party but of the opposition. Find out what people are saying, what they are thinking, what they believe. … If we are to cope intelligently with a changing world, we must be flexible and willing to relinquish opinions.” Translated today: Don’t let any single cable network or Twitter feed tell you what to think.
3. Respect facts and deploy reason. John Adams said facts are stubborn things. Yet too many Americans are locked into their particular vision of the world, choosing this view or that based not on its grounding in fact but whether it’s endorsed by the leaders they follow. “The dictators of the world,” Harry Truman wrote, “say if you tell a lie often enough, people will believe it.” Remember that the next time you watch a presidential news conference.
4. Find a critical balance. In 1789, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Wherever the people are well-informed they can be trusted with their own government.” Being informed is more than knowing details and arguments. It entails being humble enough to recognize that only on the rarest of occasions does any single camp have a monopoly on virtue or wisdom.
5. Keep history in mind. Daniel Webster drew this analogy from the sea: “When the mariner has been tossed for many days in thick weather, and on an unknown sea, he avails himself of the first pause in the storm … to take his latitude and ascertain how far the elements have driven him from his true course.” In like manner, consider how we fit in the grand scheme of things. History gives us a frame of reference. To remember Joe McCarthy, for instance, helps us to know a demagogue when we see one.
Days before a critical midterm election, Meacham’s advice couldn’t be more timely.