On March 4, 1861, President-elect Abraham Lincoln stood on the East Portico of the U.S. Capitol to take the oath of office and deliver his first inaugural address.
Seven southern states had already split from the Union. Others would soon follow, and the day felt gloomy and worrisome.
There are so many similarities between the America of the early 1860s and the America of today. The Capitol, then as now, was heavily guarded by armed troops. Lincoln had to be spirited into Washington in the dark of night, so terrified were his guards and aides that mobs would descend on his train and assassinate him.
Yet on that March afternoon, Lincoln delivered a message that he hoped would be healing. “We are not enemies, but friends,” he said in a deep but gentle voice. “We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.”
Unfortunately, the president’s words did not stop the southern states from forming the Confederacy and attacking Fort Sumter, outside Charleston, S.C. Jefferson Davis was sworn in as president of the Confederacy two weeks after Lincoln’s inauguration.
Four years of war changed the face of America forever.
Yet once the Confederates surrendered at the Appomattox Court House in Virginia, Lincoln remained compassionate to the vanquished South and reached out with a healing hand. Confederate troops were allowed to return home unharmed, and Lincoln began the process of Reconstruction and bringing the rebel states back into the Union.
This week, Donald Trump, one of the most polarizing presidents in American history, was scheduled to leave the White House after four tumultuous years. The nation is badly in need of healing, and that enormous task is now in the hands of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.
The question that we face — and that Lincoln faced — is simple, yet extraordinarily complex: How do we heal this country, tortured by a pandemic, unemployment, racism and division not seen for decades?
Lincoln’s plan was to re-admit the rebel states and extend to the country paths out of poverty. Nearly 160 years later, our American society is far more complex. Millions of people believe the 2020 election was “stolen,” and that a “deep state” exists, and is preparing to overthrow America and spread communism, socialism, Satanism, take your pick.
But somehow, we must begin the process of healing. A good place to start would be in the schools, from elementary to college. Education programs as simple as how a democracy works would be a big help. Courses in how to read a newspaper would be helpful, too. I have met a number of people who do not know the difference between an opinion column and a news story.
Public libraries could establish discussion groups on the meaning of the last election, and the underlying cause of the riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6. Speakers — Republicans, Democrats, liberals and conservatives — could be called on to present their views, and the audience could question them and discuss their opinions.
Perhaps most important, people who have not spoken to one another during most of Trump’s presidency could find ways to get together, even in small groups. They might begin by talking about their kids, the Buffalo Bills or the baseball season that’s just around the corner. They might just find out how much they have in common, as opposed to what has divided them.
Once people see one another as human beings, and not as caricatures out of a comic book, it becomes harder to scream oaths and obscenities across a room.
If we can do just this much, the healing process will have begun.
Jim Bernstein is the editor of the Long Beach Herald. Comments about this column? JBernstein@liherald.com.