Better Angels

History repeated itself this week in an odd and subtle way.

On Thursday, March 19, 2020, during a press briefing regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. President Donald Trump referred to the novel coronavirus as the “Chinese Virus.” A photograph later revealed that he had crossed out the word “Corona” and replaced it in marker with “Chinese.”

This isn’t the first time a U.S. President has edited a statement or speech on the fly, nor will it be the last. But I was struck by how much Trump’s actions contrasted with one of the great presidential edits in our nation’s history, and I think it’s appropriate to take a look at what it was, why it happened, and why we need those words now, perhaps more than ever.

Abraham Lincoln was the newly-elected 16th President of the United States. He was to take the oath of office and deliver his inaugural address on Monday, March 4, 1861. The President Elect wrote the speech back home in Springfield, Ill., in a back office at his brother-in-law’s store. William Seward, Lincoln’s future Secretary of State and perhaps the most vital of any of his advisors, suggested revisions to the speech.

These revisions were typed into the final draft, ready to be shared with a nation that was profoundly divided, to the point of secession by seven southern states. 

The speech was problematic, to be sure, with Lincoln stating that he did not plan “to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” He also supported enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act, provided that there was no abduction and sale of free blacks.

The Abraham Lincoln present at the 1861 inauguration was not the Abraham Lincoln present at the second one four years later. Over the course of his first term, he demonstrated a great capacity for learning and growth as a human being. 

Anyway, back to that first inaugural speech.

Seward wrote in an appeal to “the guardian angel of the nation” at a time of such great discord. But just prior to delivering the speech, Lincoln made a pivotal decision. He didn’t like the idea of calling on something external to heal the wounds of the nation. 

Seward’s words were crossed out, and Lincoln wrote the following:

“I am loathe to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Top: Edits President Abraham Lincoln made to his first inaugural address.
Bottom: Edits President Donald Trump made to his Thursday, March 19, 2020 COVID-19 press briefing.

This edit of the final draft was historic, still cited today as one of Lincoln’s first great gestures as President toward charting a better course for the United States. By appealing to Americans’ internal “better angels,” he put everyone in the game. Every citizen at that time had a role to play in steering the country toward a brighter future.

“Better angels” isn’t a concept original to Lincoln. Historians suggest that he was likely referencing William Shakespeare’s Othello, which had been around for over 250 years at that point. And it’s a concept still given life today in cartoons that portray characters debating with little angels and demons on their shoulders.

Lincoln used the Presidential edit to make a sincere appeal to the best of the American spirit. Trump used it to promote a racist concept.

On Friday, March 20, 2020, the day after the “China Virus” edit, Trump was tossed a softball question during another press briefing.

“What do you say to Americans who are scared though?” Peter Alexander of NBC News asked him. “I guess, nearly 200 dead, 14,000 who are sick, millions, as you witnessed, who are scared right now. What do you say to Americans who are watching you right now who are scared?”

This could have been Trump’s “better angels” moment. What an opportunity to reassure the American people, to call on us all to pull together, to praise those who are already fully engaged with their better angels. And he could demonstrate that his critics are wrong, that he does possess a sense of empathy and the ability to lead. 

Instead, he said, “I say the you’re a terrible reporter. That’s what I say. I think that’s a very nasty question.”

Given a chance later on to step back from that and offer a different answer, he continued his tirade. 

It’s obvious at this point that however we get through this new world we’re in, we’re doing it without presidential leadership. Fortunately, we have history to draw from. We have the words of great leaders from the past, as well as great leaders of the present, including governors nationwide who are carrying the burden of absent leadership at the federal level, as well as leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkell, who provided the sort of guidance and comfort the world could once count on American Presidents for.

And we have our better angels. That spirit inside each of us that can and does make a difference when we listen to it. 

Our better angels are working at hospitals, grocery stores, and childcare facilities. They’re driving garbage trucks, school buses, and tractor trailers. They’re learning on the fly to teach remotely, provide healing telephonically, and counsel online. 

We are surrounded by the better angels of our family, friends, and neighbors. If nothing else, each and every one of us can find our own better angel, learn from it, and do what we can to help ourselves and others.

We are isolated, but we are not alone.

Angels are everywhere.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s