As a young man, Abraham Lincoln fretted that there was no opportunity for his generation to accomplish anything important; gone were the days in which the founders had risen to the great challenge of establishing the nation.
Here’s an early passage from Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, which I finally finished reading a couple of nights ago:
… Lincoln had expressed his concern that his generation had been left a meager yield after the “field of glory” was harvested by the founding fathers. They were a “forest of giant oaks,” he said, who face the “task (and nobly they performed it) to possess themselves, and through themselves, us, of this goodly land,” and to build “upon its hills and its valleys, a political edifice of liberty and equal rights.” Their destinies were inseparably linked” with the experiment of providing the world,” a practical demonstration” of “the capability of a people to govern themselves. It they succeeded, they were to be immortalized; their names were to be transferred to counties and cities, and rivers and mountains; and to be revered and sung, and toasted through all time.”
Because their experiment succeeded, Lincoln observed, thousands “won their deathless names in making it so.” What was left for the men of his generation to accomplish?…
Of course, Lincoln was profoundly mistaken:
In 1854, the wheel of history turned. A train of events that mobilized the antislavery North resulted in the formation of the Republican Party and ultimately provided Lincoln’s generation with a challenge equal to or surpassing that of the founding fathers.
Every day that he was in office, Lincoln and his administration wrestled mightily with questions of ultimate important and great moral weight. Until very late in the war, the great issues — whether the United States would continue to exist, and whether all its people would be free — were in great doubt.
Along the way, he dealt with a great deal of human pettiness — from the criminal uselessness of General McClellan to the scheming, naked ambition of Salmon Chase, from the everyday grubbing of officeseekers to personal disputes that threatened the government’s ability to function — but his focus, and that of most of those around him, was on the towering issues of the day.
And in spite of all, the challenges were met, masterfully. By Lincoln, whom I am more convinced than ever is the most remarkable and able individual ever to hold the office of president, but also by ordinary people who rose to do extraordinary things.
All the time I was reading that book, I kept thinking how unbelievably petty our public life is today. And I’m not just talking about the partisan bickering that I decry here so regularly. It’s the things that we squabble about that are so depressing.
The whole time I was reading that book — and I read it slowly, over a period of months, mostly at the dinner table, a few pages at a time — the great crisis of our time was the “fiscal cliff.” That precipice was created by our utter inability to deal with the most routine concerns, those of financing the government. And of course, we have a series of unresolved conflicts of the same nature that we must deal with this year, since the can has only been kicked, and kicked feebly, down the road.
In her column this weekend, Peggy Noonan wrote the following, in another of her passages finding fault with President Obama:
All the famous criticisms of him are true: He has no talent for or interest in sustained, good-faith negotiations, he has no real sense of alarm about the great issue of the day, America’s debt….
Really? That’s “the great issue of the day”? How mind-numbingly appalling.
And perhaps she’s right. Politicians in Washington, and all those who ape them in the hinterlands, certainly act as though that, and attendant issues, are the great matters of our day.
But here’s the thing: There are no great moral considerations involved here, people. Figuring out what it costs to run the government and how to levy the taxes to pay for it are matters that a middling accountant could work out in a day, and the issue would be behind us. How much to tax, how much to spend are indeed debatable issues. But they are not issues of right and wrong. They are unworthy of anyone’s passion.
No, I don’t long for us to be engaged in a mighty war to settle whether this nation, or any like it, will continue to exist. I don’t want to see more that 600,000 of my fellow citizen die in settling some momentous issue.I don’t lament, as Lancelot did in a time of peace in The Once and Future King, that “We don’t see many arrows thrilling in people’s hearts nowadays.”
I would just like to see us recognize that petty issues are petty issues, and resolve them, and move on. And no, I don’t consider trillions of dollars to be small considerations; I’m just saying that these issues are eminently solvable, with just a modicum of reasonable behavior on the part of all parties. I’m saying that the “drama” of “fiscal cliffs” and debt ceilings is entirely contrived, artificial and unnecessary.
Getting rid of slavery — now that was difficult. It was the great unresolved conflict that had dogged the nation since its founding. The issue could not be resolved without tearing the nation apart and putting it back together again. The solutions accepted as fact in 1865 were unthinkable in 1860. (Yes, they were “thinkable” in that abolitionists advocated them; but it was politically impossible to implement them until the height of the war.)
We shouldn’t need a national existential crisis to solve the problem of balancing the national checkbook. We should just be able to do it, and move on.