There was plenty of celebrating.
That’s the way it is when you win.
It’s human nature to whoop and holler and congratulate yourself.
Winning is for winners. Losing is for losers.
The tall, gaunt man dressed in black moved slowly to the open window and wearily smiled at the exuberant crowd of 3,000 gathered below.
The band had been playing for some time and now waited for his request.
Abraham Lincoln paused and smiled again at the joyous crowd. He had never been particularly musical and always graciously declined to join in public singing. Yet he also enjoyed music, describing it, according to one friend, as a “simple unalloyed pleasure.” Self-deprecatingly unpretentious by nature, Lincoln once professed, “I only know two tunes, one is ‘Old Hundred,’ and the other isn’t.”
“I have always thought ‘Dixie’ one of the best tunes I have ever heard,” the president told the expectant crowd. “Our adversaries over the way attempted to appropriate it, but I insisted yesterday that we fairly captured it…I now request the band to favor me with its performance.”
The crowd cheered and the band struck up Dixie.
It was Monday, April 10th. Robert E. Lee had surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant the day before, ending the most devastating and tragic war in American history. This was a first symbolic step toward Lincoln’s noble vision of a re-United States of America.
That Friday, 150 years ago this week, Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth. Without regaining consciousness, the president died at 7:22 the next morning. It had been an act of vengeance committed in the name of the defeated South by a deranged narcissist.
Lincoln’s vision of national reconciliation after four long and costly years of bitter and blood-drenched conflict would perish with him. In a sad irony, the South had lost its most powerful ally – and its best friend – in the long and painful effort to heal the deep wounds of civil war.
The nation would eventually once again become the United States. But the path to reunion would be more difficult and filled with recriminations. Lincoln wanted the South restored. Now it would be punished.
As a presidential historian, I am often asked if I believe Lincoln was a Christian.
He kept his faith a private and personal matter, as most presidents have. It’s therefore impossible to say for sure, regardless of what some historians insist. While he often attended, he never joined a church. As a young and intemperate politician, he published a pamphlet advocating against religion. He later retracted it. Some suggest that after the death of his 11-year old son Willie in the White House, Lincoln gave his life fully to Christ.
It’s easier to make the claim that among all our chief executives, Abraham Lincoln – ambitious, scheming and shrewd politician that he surely was – was also among our most Christ-like presidents. He need not be deified as some American messiah, sacrificed on the altar of freedom on Good Friday. But in his temperament and his character, Lincoln consistently displayed those qualities that Christians seek and God desires.
Lincoln carefully read the Bible and knew it better than most ministers.
In his humility and patience, Lincoln was Christ-like. His favorite poem was Oh! Why Should the Spirit of Mortal Man Be Proud? Often slighted and mocked by the press and other politicians, he took it all in good humor.
So too in his mercy, his forgiveness and his extraordinary and tender-hearted compassion, Lincoln displayed an impressive Christian outlook that might be the envy of many believers.
There is not a single instance of Lincoln ever seeking mean-spirited revenge against his enemies or ever fretting of what any of them thought of him. His magnanimity was most fully and eloquently displayed toward the South as the war drew to a close.
It was his humble appreciation for the inscrutable purposes of a sovereign God that led Lincoln to refuse to blame the South for the war but to lay the blame upon the country as a whole. He recognized that “both sides” had responsibility. And he perceived God’s divine judgment in it all.
That is Christ-like wisdom.
He pleaded at his second inaugural for “malice toward none and charity for all.” He urged the nation to go forward “with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right,” and to “bind up the nation’s wounds” – to heal the deep divisions. He said the country must “care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan” – both North and South.
This was Lincoln’s vision for a stronger – and in the end – a happier republic. It was not steeped in angry and arrogant retribution but guided instead by “the better angels of our nature” – by kindness and goodness.
Even in the midst of violence and hate.
In his letter to the Galatians, the apostle Paul called them the “fruits of the Spirit.” He said the followers of Jesus Christ should display these spiritual attributes in our daily lives. It’s remarkable that Lincoln’s towering place in history is cemented, in large part, by these Christian virtues.
And 150 years later, it’s an inspiring example for us all.
May God bless you and your family.