The day after Robert E. Lee surrendered, virtually ending the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln instructed the Marine band to play “Dixie” for a large crowd of cheering Washingtonians gathered at the White House.
In justifying this magnanimous gesture, he jocularly explained: “I have always thought ‘Dixie’ one of the best tunes I have ever heard. Our adversaries over the way attempted to appropriate it, but I insisted yesterday that we fairly captured it. I presented the question to the Attorney General, and he gave it as his legal opinion that it is our lawful prize.'' The way for this unusual request had been paved by his young son Tad, who had preceded the president to the White House window, waving a captured Confederate flag until a servant yanked him away, much to the amusement of the assembled multitude.
Though Lincoln was willing to reinstate “Dixie” as a respectable tune to be enjoyed by Northerners and Southerners alike, today he would today probably approve the yanking of flags displaying the stars and bars from state capitols in the former Confederacy.
The war had been fought to preserve the nation’s unity, and that rebel battle flag symbolized a violent attempt to destroy it. Lincoln called the United States “the last, best hope of earth” and “a nation worth fighting for” because it represented a hopeful experiment in democracy. As he told a White House secretary shortly after the outbreak of hostilities, “I consider the central idea pervading this struggle is the necessity that is upon us, of proving that popular government is not an absurdity. We must settle this question now, whether in a free government the minority have the right to break up the government whenever they choose. If we fail it will go far to prove the incapability of the people to govern themselves.”
“The war had been fought to preserve the nation’s unity, and that rebel battle flag symbolized a violent attempt to destroy it.”
A few weeks later he declared in a message to Congress that the war was “a struggle for maintaining in the world, that form and substance of government, whose leading object is, to elevate the condition of men — to lift artificial weights from all shoulders; to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all; to afford all, an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life.”
The U.S. also represented another kind of experiment: a heterogeneous country of various nationalities, religions, races, and ethnic groups united by a common devotion to the principles of the Declaration of Independence (especially to “the proposition that all men are created equal”). Other nations were unified by ethnic, religious, and racial homogeneity, but not America. Americans were not simply people whose ancestors had been in the country for generations; they were any people who agreed to abide by the principles of the Declaration and the laws sanctioned by the Constitution.
The Balkanization of the country along regional lines was the great threat in Lincoln’s day; in our time the threat of Balkanization runs along lines of race, class, religion, and sex. Lincoln would probably deplore the identity politics of our era as strongly as he deplored the rebellion of the Confederate states. As he eloquently pleaded at the outset of his campaign for the senate in 1858, “let us discard all this quibbling about this man and the other man – this race and that race and the other race being inferior, and therefore they must be placed in an inferior position...Let us discard all these things, and unite as one people throughout this land, until we shall once more stand up declaring that all men are created equal.”
In addition, Lincoln would probably deplore another feature of contemporary American life: the power of the grievance industry, which encourages individuals and groups to wallow in a sense of victimhood. That includes Southerners who feel that their section has been persecuted; many of them regard the Confederate flag as a symbol of defiance against their perceived “oppressors.”
In 1848, when Lincoln's young law partner complained that older Whigs were discriminating against him and his contemporaries, the future president offered him some wise counsel: “The way for a young man to rise, is to improve himself every way he can, never suspecting that any body wishes to hinder him. Allow me to assure you, that suspicion and jealousy never did help any man in any situation. There may sometimes be ungenerous attempts to keep a young man down; and they will succeed too, if he allows his mind to be diverted from its true channel to brood over the attempted injury. Cast about, and see if this feeling has not injured every person you have ever known to fall into it.”
Lincoln might well today declare: “Let us discard all this quibbling about oppressors and victims, let us not ruin ourselves by wallowing in a sense of victimhood, let us improve ourselves every way we can, and unite with our fellow citizens in declaring our allegiance to that form and substance of government, whose leading object is, to elevate the condition of men — to lift artificial weights from all shoulders; to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all; to afford all, an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life.”