One of the privileges I am afford, living in a city like Chicago, is the opportunity to hear various noteworthy scholars, teachers and journalists speak publicly. Elmhurst College, where both my wife and daughter received a B. A. degree, is only about twenty minutes from my home. It is a first-rate liberal arts college that is affiliated with the United Church of Christ (UCC). It is also the host of an endowed annual lecture devoted to history and social science. Past speakers have included names such as Robert Dallek, David Gergen, David Halberstam, Taylor Branch, Richard Norton Smith, David Tracy and Martin Marty. This year's lecture was held last Sunday evening, February 15. The speaker was Michael Beschloss, esteemed historian of American presidents, and a frequent guest on NBC and The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.
Beschloss has authored several best-sellers and is a good writer. He is also an excellent speaker, or at least a very good story-teller. He did not provide us with a prepared lecture but rather a running series of anecdotes and stories about several presidents. He also answered about five or six good questions from the audience as well. He was easy-going, pleasant and effective. I enjoyed hearing him in person.
Beschloss grew up on Chicago's South Side and the nearby suburb of Flossmoor. After graduating from Williams College he did an M.B.A. at Harvard Business School. But he couldn't get the historical passion out of his system and eventually gave himself to the study of American history. His special interest has been presidential history. He has particularly studied FDR, Truman, JFK and LBJ, thus he told quite a few stories about each of them.
When asked about the worst presidents in U.S. history he cited Warren G. Harding and John Buchanan. Ironically, Harding died in office with extremely high approval ratings from the public and was well liked. Buchanan delayed on dealing with the issues that led to the Civil War and the delay likely made matters a lot worse.
He told two marvelous stories I will never forget about courage in the office. One was about Washington and the other about Lincoln. Washington was nearing the end of his second term. He had been a virtual god to many American and was genuinely "the founding father" of the nation. But at the very end of his term Britain was threatening to attack America and use the Indians to help them destroy the infant nation. Washington knew we could not win. He sent John Jay to negotiate a treaty in London. The infamous Jay Treaty kept us out of war but brought incredible pain into George Washington's life. When he left office many hated him and in his own state of Virginia he was vilified. Many even prayed for his death. But historians can now see that the Jay Treaty protected America at a most vulnerable time and ultimately preserved a fragile, young nation.
The second story was about Abraham Lincoln. His advisers came to him in August of 1864 and told him that he would lose the election in November in a landslide. The Civil War had gone so badly for the North that people wanted to end it. They also wanted to end it and stop the struggle over slavery in the South. The advisers told Lincoln that if he would move away from The Emancipation Proclamation then he had a chance of re-election. Lincoln thought about this for several days and sought counsel about actually doing it. He felt very strongly that he needed to win in order to preserve the Union. But Lincoln, ever wise and open to the counsel of those who opposed him, sought advice. Frederick Douglas took great issue, as you would expect. So did others who advised him in private. After some days Lincoln decided that he would rather lose the election than go back on what he believed was morally right. When Grant began to win military campaigns, and Sherman marched through Georgia, the war efforts turned and by November Lincoln was able to win the election after all. Either way he stood by his tough decision as morally right and history has shown us that he was correct.
I pray we will again be led by men (or women) who have such courage. It is such presidential courage that has often served the nation at its darkest moments.
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Lincoln and Darwin have been front and center this month. In Angels and Ages, Adam Gopnik uses their lives to engage the tension between religion and natural history.
I find his analysis to be as penetrating as it is honest. Gopnik is a gifted writer. This work, brief as it is, presents a serious rhetorical challenge to absolutism – religious or Darwinist – as well as to moral relativism.
Lincoln was presiding when an awful arithmetic of death was needed to produce the birth of a new freedom and save not just the American Union, but the notion that liberal democracy could survive the use of force against itself. Lincoln agonized over what kind of God would require such suffering. His tragic religious sensibility shadows our appeals to the angels for meaning and inspiration.
Darwin was raised in the English church, but he saw a different story come together with his own studious eyes. He marshaled a mountain of facts that raised serious questions about Biblical accounts of history. The evidence points to an evolutionary time scale throughout which nature exhibits a habit of regularity and a rule of variation – so nothing ever seems settled. With Darwin more people started looking to the ages – our horizontal mode for making sense of our past and future.
Each man experienced an evolving inward faith that existed in tension with outward skepticism.
Today, across our cultural divides, we share modes of deep spiritual experience in common, and we are evolving ecumenical frameworks able to integrate diverse forms of religious into a coherent view of the whole.
We continue to scan the vertical and horizontal, wondering what verdict the ages will lay at the feet of our descendants, and what it will say about which of our better angels should have guided us.