How to Disagree Like Lincoln


I just finished watching Dean Ryan’s speech at the commencement ceremony of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, in which he encouraged the graduates to “lead with grace.” I’ve always liked Dean Ryan, and I’ve been particularly impressed with him on multiple occasions. For example, although he is a rather liberal leader at a rather liberal institution, he has resisted one-sidedness by inviting conservative speakers to campus and holding real debates over sometimes partisan issues like charter schools. As a “conservative with liberal friends,” I consider Dean Ryan a liberal friend to conservatives–something that feels quite rare to me these days, especially in higher education. One of the things I appreciated about his speech is the way he was able to talk about his catholic upbringing and the theological connotation of the word grace in a non-religious setting–that alone was striking–but he was also able to do it without alienating a religiously diverse and secular audience. The speech itself was an example of bringing together differing perspectives into a unified whole, a rhetorical e pluribus unum. In a time of division, that kind of synthesis is lovely.

I think one of the reasons why this speech stood out to me was how different it felt from the polarizing invectives I encounter practically daily, from both sides of the aisle. Polemics have a place, but they may also provoke when peacemaking is prudent. Consider, for example, the markedly depolarizing attitude of President Lincoln in his second inaugural address:

“With malice toward none; with charity toward 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.”

Or consider the remarkably respectful attitude of Major-General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain in his description of the Southern surrender–an attitude that seems to exemplify what I was gesturing at when I coined the term “unconverted admiration:”

“Ah, but it was a most impressive sight, a most striking picture, to see that whole army in motion to lay down the symbols of war and strife, that army which had fought for four terrible years after a fashion but infrequently known in war.

“At such a time and under such conditions I thought it eminently fitting to show some token of our feeling, and I therefore instructed my subordinate officers to come to the position of ‘salute’ in the manual of arms as each body of the Confederates passed before us.


“When General Gordon came opposite me I had the bugle blown and the entire line came to ‘attention,’ preparatory to executing this movement of the manual successively and by regiments as Gordon’s columns should pass before our front, each in turn.

“The General was riding in advance of his troops, his chin drooped to his breast, downhearted and dejected in appearance almost beyond description. At the sound of that machine like snap of arms, however, General Gordon started, caught in a moment its significance, and instantly assumed the finest attitude of a soldier. He wheeled his horse facing me, touching him gently with the spur, so that the animal slightly reared, and as he wheeled, horse and rider made one motion, the horse’s head swung down with a graceful bow, and General Gordon dropped his swordpoint to his toe in salutation.   

“By word of mouth General Gordon sent back orders to the rear that his own troops take the same position of the manual in the march past as did our line. That was done, and a truly imposing sight was the mutual salutation and farewell” (More here).

The contemporary moment is not as divisive as were the days of Lincoln and Chamberlain, but we can learn from their eloquent magnanimity and, perhaps, avoid the kinds of tragic divisions they witnessed. If ever anyone has, these men truly led with grace. And grace generates both reciprocity and unity. Notice, for example, how Chamberlain’s salute of the Confederate soldiers restored honor to the defeated army, who in turn honored the Union army with their salute.

From today’s perspective, slavery was the arch-evil and the Civil War the ultimate division, yet even in that context, these men maintained a respect toward their opponents, humility regarding their own cause, and a profound sense of common citizenship. Amid those dark divisions, unity ultimately prevailed–in part because men like Lincoln and Chamberlain cultivated these qualities. 

Our divisions and our rhetoric pale in comparison to theirs (thankfully with regard to the former, sadly with regard to the latter). From this perspective, it is somewhat pathetic when, in response to the recent withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, or something of the kind, our discourse loses all charity and instead inflates with malice. Whereas they were able to see slaveholders and enemy soldiers as brothers, we hardly seem capable of carrying on civil conversations about climate change. Democracy entails disagreement, but our republic also requires unity. In moments of division, we can draw inspiration from the restorative rhetoric of Lincoln and Chamberlain (and others), and seek, as they did, to preserve the Union, even in disagreement.





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