Abraham Lincoln was everywhere yesterday, even when most people didn’t realize it.
Newly sworn in President Joe Biden referenced Lincoln in his inaugural address. “In another January in Washington, on New Year’s Day 1863,” Biden said, “Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. When he put pen to paper, the President said, ‘If my name ever goes down into history it will be for this act and my whole soul is in it.'”
Biden’s speech was Lincolnesque in other ways as well. There were the almost ubiquitous call to “the better angels of our nature.” It was a good speech. Not soaring in rhetoric as much as spoken from the heart, rooted in his own deep-seated emotional belief in this nation.
“My whole soul is in it,” Biden repeated. His whole soul is in “bringing America together, uniting our people, and uniting our nation.”
“I ask every American to join me in this cause.”
We very much need to do this.
I was asked by good friends how I felt about the end of an error and the beginning of an era. Mostly it feels like we as a nation are finally breaking away from an abusive relationship, the constant fear of what will happen next, how low can we go as a people. Even as the inauguration gave us new hope, we are now in the “I hope the restraining order keeps him away” stage of the prior relationship. It feels comforting to wake up to a sense of forward movement without the previously inevitable tweet to start the daily roller coaster careening into the past. But there is still work to be done.
Outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, widely believed to be gearing up for a 2024 presidential run, epitomized the Republican party view with his parting lines disparaging the diversity of America. “Woke-ism, multiculturalism, all the -isms — they’re not who America is,” he wrote on his last day in office, “They distort our glorious founding and what this country is all about. Our enemies stoke these divisions because they know they make us weaker.”
He is obviously wrong. The proverbial melting pot in which all newcomers subsumed into the landscape invisibly was never really true, but the phrase lost its meaning entirely after immigrants began arriving from non-European climes and colors. Perhaps we are more of a melded society merging the best of multiculturalism while integrating into a blended America. Yesterday certainly demonstrated that diversity and blending. While Biden went to work in the Oval Office even as the celebrations continued into the night, our new Vice President Kamala Harris went to work giving the oath of office to three new Democratic Senators. New Georgia Senators Ossoff and Warnock were joined by new California Senator Padilla, the latter of whom takes over Harris’s previous seat. There are so many “firsts” in this one event that it becomes almost trite to catalogue them. But trite they are not; they reflect the change that is America. Harris herself represents many of those “firsts,” and may yet achieve more in her career. We are, in fact, a diverse America. And that diversity is reflected both in the new administration and the outpouring of election participation that proves voting has power. We’ll need to keep that energy.
In a program that included Lady Gaga (National Anthem), Jennifer Lopez (America the Beautiful), and Garth Brooks (Amazing Grace), who would have expected the ultimate star power to be 22-year-old African American poet Amanda Gorman. Her poem, “The Hill We Climb,” succinctly captured the past trials, the present transitions, and the future talents of America. Her performance, with its hints of rap and hip hop and history, made America fall in love with her, myself included.
So much of her performance spoke to so many. Among many other parts, and the sum of those parts, this part caught my ear:
A country that is bruised but whole,
benevolent but bold,
fierce and free
We will not be turned around
or interrupted by intimidation
because we know our inaction and inertia
will be the inheritance of the next generation
Then setting the stage:
Our blunders become their burdens
But one thing is certain:
She channels Abraham Lincoln, although few would have noticed it:
If we merge mercy with might,
and might with right,
then love becomes our legacy
and change our children’s birthright
Lincoln, in his 1860 Cooper Union Address, connected right with might:
Neither let us be slandered from our duty by false accusations against us, nor frightened from it by menaces of destruction to the Government nor of dungeons to ourselves. LET US HAVE FAITH THAT RIGHT MAKES MIGHT, AND IN THAT FAITH, LET US, TO THE END, DARE TO DO OUR DUTY AS WE UNDERSTAND IT.
Let us dare to do our duty as we understand it, and let it change our children’s birthright. Let love become our legacy.
Amanda Gorman again captures the essence of humanity in her closing lines.
The new dawn blooms as we free it
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it
If only we’re brave enough to be it
Let us be brave enough to be it.
David J. Kent is an avid traveler, scientist, and Abraham Lincoln historian. He is the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World as well as two specialty e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.
[Photo credit: Alex Wong. (Getty Images)]