The week after President Joe Biden’s inauguration, people are still wondering whether he was sincere in his call for unity.
Why would anybody wonder? Of course he was sincere.
As it happens, however, “unity” is not an American virtue. We’re not a unitary society but a pluralistic one.
Almost everywhere in history, the unitary leader has told his or her people: Obey me, or else. That was the precise meaning of Biden’s talk.
In defining the crisis of American society, our president named a trio of elements that he portrayed as threats to the republic: the pandemic, the riot at the Capitol, and the rise of extremism. He suggested that those elements have put the United States in as perilous a place as it has ever been.
Do you really think, Mr. President, that your difficulties measure up to JFK’s in 1961? Or to FDR’s in 1941? Not to mention Abe Lincoln’s in 1861?
Of those earlier crises, the most proximate to ours is Lincoln’s, because it concerns division in our own society.
When he mounted the Inaugural platform on March 4, 1861, Lincoln spoke about a crisis of “great and peculiar difficulty. A disruption of the Federal Union, heretofore only menaced, is now formidably attempted.”
It was not a band of marauders with whom Lincoln had to deal. It was a self-proclaimed confederation of seven Southern states, about to become 11, which had broken their tie to the Union while remaining geographically attached to it.
The audience for Lincoln’s Inaugural included people in the rebel states. The new president was acutely conscious of those people, and he took care to speak to them. Unlike Biden, who would one day hector his audience about what “we must” do, Lincoln used the phrase “we must” only once, in an anguished final plea. “I am loath to close,” he said. “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies.”
Biden’s Inaugural talk, when you listen to it, encloses you in a leaden atmosphere that gives no vision of anything different—for he uses a society-speak from which none of us today can escape.
But in Lincoln’s talk, we can find another vista. The new president speaks about his constitutional duty to keep the Union together: “Doing this I deem to be only a simple duty on my part; and I shall perform it so far as practicable, unless my rightful masters, the American people, shall withhold the requisite means ...”
Biden’s “unity” is an import from societies that run on mandates. Lincoln’s plea on behalf of Union is an argument for consensus.
Lincoln doesn’t stigmatize his opponents. He hardly criticizes them. The closest he comes to arguing is to tell the rebels: “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war.”