How often since Lincoln uttered the phrase in his First Inaugural Address have politicians exhorted us to heed “the better angels of our nature”? Rote repetition has drained the words of their original intent, which was to remind Americans that the national soul, far from being unalloyed, is rather an inextricable compound of good and evil. We have our better angels, but we also have our evil demons, which many who ritually invoke Lincoln’s message would rather forget.
Sometimes the demons win out, as they did in 1861, even as Lincoln tried to calm his “dissatisfied fellow-countrymen.” The new president knew that malign spirits were on the verge of carrying the day. The “momentous issue of civil war,” he warned, was not in his hands but in the hands of those who bitterly opposed him. Passion had “strained … the bonds of affection” that bound the country together, but he still hoped a final break might be averted. He was wrong. Six hundred thousand deaths ensued.
The evil demons of our nature are once again on the loose. What this portends for the future remains to be seen, but it is already clear that some of today’s demons are the same ones that weighed on Lincoln’s mind a century and a half ago. One is the demon of racism, which gave us the Electoral College, an institution designed to protect the slave states and drape a mantle of legitimacy over minority rule. In this year’s election, a minority has once again prevailed. The Electoral College is an abomination upon which age has bestowed a patina of respectability. There is no reason it should have endured this long (but for a contrary view, see here). Yet somehow the evil demon of slavery and its malign influence on our Constitution remains.
The evil demon of faction is also aroused. In Federalist 10 Madison defined faction thus: “By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” Trump’s electorate, “actuated” by a “common impulse” of both passion and interest to deny rights to immigrants, Muslims, and African Americans and to chastise the alleged arrogance of so-called “elites,” fits the definition nicely.
We are a settler democracy, but spasms of xenophobia have often caused us to fall short of the welcome our better angels would urge us to offer to the world’s “huddled masses yearning to be free.” Even the sainted Founding Fathers, extolled so often on the stump and in mindless paeans to our supposedly perfect and perfectly immutable Constitution, were not exempt from curious antipathies. Benjamin Franklin had this to say about German immigrants to Pennsylvania: “Those who come hither are generally of the most ignorant Stupid Sort of their own Nation, and as Ignorance is often attended with Credulity when Knavery would mislead it, and with Suspicion when Honesty would set it right; and as few of the English understand the German Language, and so cannot address them either from the Press or Pulpit, ’tis almost impossible to remove any prejudices they once entertain.” But some were no doubt “good people,” as our president-elect would say.
In the middle of the 19th century the Know-Nothing Party sought actively to spread the influence of the evil demons across the land. Lincoln expressed his opposition: “When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except Negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.’ When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence [sic] of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy [sic].”
We have been prone to exaggerate the virtues of whatever the established order has happened to be at any given moment in our history and to panic at the first sign of criticism or opposition. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer had this to say in justification of his persecution of “reds” in the early 20th century: “It is my belief that while they have stirred discontent in our midst, while they have caused irritating strikes, and while they have infected our social ideas with the disease of their own minds and their unclean morals we can get rid of them and not until we have done so shall we have removed the menace of Bolshevism for good.” The spirit of Palmer is evident in the president-elect’s promise to deport three million “aliens” in his first months in office.
As a child growing up in 1950s America, I learned that torture was an absolute evil. Popular culture reinforced the association of torture with foreignness, giving us images of the monocled German hissing in accented English over the bloodied body of a brave American boy, or the Japanese camp commander parading about with swagger stick as Yankee prisoners starve to death. But then came 9/11, and absolute evil, re-baptized “enhanced interrogation techniques,” was added to the American arsenal. Popular culture faithfully registered the change: In films like Zero Dark Thirty the torturer ceased to speak with a foreign accent and was transformed into an American hero. A week before the election, the president-elect called for a resumption of waterboarding, outlawed by his predecessor: “These savages [of ISIS] are chopping off heads, drowning people. This is medieval times and then we can't do waterboarding?”
In fact, however, this particular demon had long been on the loose in America, unbeknownst to me. My childhood image of American innocence and foreign culpability turned out to be a fairy tale. The American discovery of torture did not await 9/11 or the savagery of the Islamic State. It was practiced by American soldiers in the Philippines and in Vietnam (where I myself served in military intelligence without ever becoming aware of it). And now a Trump supporter mentioned as a possible head of the CIA has joined the president-elect in calling for the perfection of new, still more “enhanced,” interrogation techniques: “Enhanced interrogation techniques are well known to the enemy and we would have to come up with something else.”
These are dark times. They are likely to become darker. At the worst moment in American history until now, President Lincoln looked forward to the day when “the mystic chords of memory” would again be touched by those “better angels of our nature” that have lately been driven from the field. We can all remember, thankfully, a time when America was a better place than it is today. We must devote ourselves to making sure that it becomes so again.