A fuller sense of our own history must include a sense of the history of racial oppression in our country—a story which has not ended by any means. But it must also include a sense of the history of struggle against racial oppression, a struggle as old as our society and which has witnessed tremendous progress in our own time. Together, that history gives us a way to understand the righteous outrage that has spilled into protests before those were deformed into riots. And it gives us a way to address it. It gives us a resource on which we can draw constructively, a way to know that we can be better than this. This may be the deepest lesson Lincoln offers us in this moment. It is a lesson he himself took time to learn. In his youthful address to the Men’s Lyceum, he could see that a reverence for lawful justice was an essential source of solidarity for our society, but he suggested that, especially in the absence of direct memory of the revolution, that reverence would have to be rooted in cold, rational arguments:
Passion has helped us; but can do so no more. It will in future be our enemy. Reason, cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason, must furnish all the materials for our future support and defense. Let those materials be molded into general intelligence, sound morality, and in particular, a reverence for the constitution and laws.
But two decades later, as he took upon himself the awful burden of the presidency in a moment of ultimate crisis, Lincoln had come understand a more profound source of solidarity against the dangers of lawless passion. As he closed his first inaugural address, he said this:
Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
Before the war had really begun, Lincoln could see past it. He had come to recognize, and rose to teach us, that memory must be at the root both of national identity and strength and of national conciliation and solidarity. Memory is the path by which we might find our way toward a reverence for the law that is also a reverence for justice. It is by seeing that we have lived a life in common, by being gentle with each other and not by mistaking force for strength, that we might answer the kind of challenge we confront now. Ideally, we might be called to such a recourse to common memory by leaders in our country. But in the absence of that, we can also rise to the challenge individually and together, and take our cues from great leaders of our past. We have vast resources to call upon in this effort, if only we would seek them out.