Category archives: History

President Obama: Not Going for Bust

by Robert Morrison

February 18, 2009

With his signature of his economic “stimulus” bill, President Obama puts the U.S. total indebtedness just a few billion dollars shy of the total world annual Gross Domestic Product. But he is not going for bust-and he can prove it. The President has sent back to our British allies a valuable bust of Sir Winston Churchill. The bust-valued at hundreds of thousands of pounds-was loaned to the White House by the British government after the September 11th attacks. President Obama wanted the thing out of there.

The President apparently holds Churchill responsible for human rights abuses in Kenya in the 1950s. The President’s own grandfather was allegedly tortured by British colonial administrators trying to suppress the Mau Mau terrorist organization. Americans held long memories, too, of British maltreatment of our POWs and our settlers-during the Revolution and during the War of 1812.

When President John F. Kennedy made Winston Churchill an honorary American citizen in 1963, he brushed aside objections from his own father. Joe Kennedy had been F.D.R.’s ambassador to Britain in the `30s and was happy to call himself an appeaser. Father Joe hated Churchill, and blamed the dauntless British Prime Minister for the death of his eldest son, Joe, Jr., in WWII.

President Kennedy, however, knew that Americans admired Churchill’s World War II heroism. In making Churchill only the second man, after Lafayette, to be given honorary U.S. citizenship, Kennedy overrode his father’s objections. America should do this. President Kennedy, in his eloquent tribute, said this of Churchill:

In the dark days and darker nights when England stood alone—and most men save Englishmen despaired of England’s life—he mobilized the English language and sent it into battle. The incandescent quality of his words illuminated the courage of his countrymen.

President Kennedy was also wise enough to recognize that we needed Britain’s support as we stood against another menace to human freedom, the Soviet empire and the specter of world communism. President Obama may have concluded that we really don’t need the British today in our fight against terrorism. The British rallied to our side in Iraq and in Afghanistan. The President’s first interview was not with the BBC-an invariably pro-Obama news outlet. It was with Al Arabiya.

Churchill was victorious in World War II. But as he stood on the brink of total victory, British voters kicked his Conservative Party out of office. It was a Labour Party landslide. Winston felt stricken, almost a death blow. Trying to cheer him up, his wife Clementine said “it may be a blessing in disguise.” Dispirited, Churchill glumly replied: “At the moment, it seems to be very effectively disguised.”

Soon, however, he brightened. There was work to be done. When the King offered to bestow on him a high honor, the Knight of the Garter, Churchill cheekily declined:

Why should I accept the garter from His Majesty when his people have just given me the boot?”

Churchill set to work on his magisterial six-volume history of the Second World War.

He was the only one of the wartime Big Three-that distinction he shared with F.D.R. and Stalin-to write his version of the cataclysm that claimed sixty million lives. So outstanding was his work that he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Nor was this all. He came to America in 1946 and delivered the famous “Iron Curtain” speech at Westminster College. He was the first world statesman to warn of Soviet aggression. Left wing historians blame Churchill for starting the Cold War, but he is not the one who brought down an Iron Curtain across old Europe.

Churchill spearheaded efforts to re-integrate (West) Germany into the European family of nations. He turned away from ancient hatreds to treat the Germany people with humanity. Many people call Churchill the father of European unity, although we have to hope he would not be on the side of the irresponsible Brussels bureaucrats of today.

Perhaps Churchill’s greatest contribution was his inspiring and elevating rhetoric defending the core values of Christian civilization. President Obama might put away ancient family grudges, as President Kennedy did, and study Churchill’s speeches. The President is now pondering a new assault on innocent human life. He is primed to revoke Bush-era protections against killing embryonic human beings to scavenge their stem cells. Mr. Obama might consider Churchill’s timeless warning: “…[I]f we fail, then the whole world … will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister … by the lights of perverted science.” If that does not persuade, he might read Kennedy’s equally powerful belief: “The rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.”

George Washington: First in War, First in Peace, and First in the Hearts of Nine Percent of his Countrymen

by Robert Morrison

February 16, 2009

When George Washington died in 1799, the country was shocked. No one expected the apparently hearty 67-year old former President to die so suddenly. We felt orphaned. The outpouring of grief was nearly universal. Even bitter political rivals vied with each other in paying tribute to the “Father of our Country.” General Henry “Lighthorse Harry” Lee of Virginia eulogized Washington as “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”

No more. The latest Gallup Poll shows a close race for greatest American President. Ronald Reagan tops the list, with 24 percent citing him as first. John Kennedy ties with Abraham Lincoln at 22 percent. George Washington registers and anemic nine percent. George W. Bush might feel a bit relieved.

This used to be the week of Washington’s Birthday. As little children, we would cut out little construction paper hatchets to remind us how Washington told the truth. His father, legend had it, confronted him with a chopped-down cherry tree. Young George had supposedly cut it down with his new hatchet. “Father, dear, I cannot tell a lie; it was I,” said the straightforward stripling. Most historians today pooh-pooh that idea. But when I was a lad, I carved my initials in my parents’ dining room table with my Cub Scout knife. I remember that my father’s pain was eased only by his relief that I admitted my guilt. The cherry tree story always had special meaning for me.

It made me laugh when I read Mark Twain. A hundred years after his death, Washington was still revered in this country. “I’m a better man than George Washington,” Twain told stunned audiences, “He couldn’t tell a lie. I can, but I won’t.

George Washington put his life on the line for his country, not once, but repeatedly. He faced death on the Pennsylvania frontier in 1755 during the French & Indian War. His commanding officer, General Braddock was shot down. Young Colonel Washington had to rally the troops and get them home.  Later, he would tell his brother there were four bullet holes in his coat.

During the American Revolution, Washington led from the front. At Princeton, he charged right into the mouth of British cannons. His young aide covered his eyes with his hat, certain that General Washington would be killed. Minutes later, Washington came galloping out of the smoke, and gave what then passed for a “high five” to Col. Fitzgerald.

After the war, Washington walked uninvited into a meeting of discontented Continental Army officers at Newburgh, New York. The army had not been paid. Some Members of Congress were taking bribes from the French to slow down the final peace treaty. There was ugly talk of a military takeover, getting justice at the point of a bayonet. Washington stepped into the midst of their meeting. Seeing that he had not convinced them with his words, he fumbled in his pockets for a letter, a message from a Congressman that might convince them with its eloquence. Most of his officers had never seen him wear spectacles before. Sensing their surprise, Washington politely asked their patience: “You’ll forgive me, gentlemen, for I have grown not only gray but almost blind in the service of my country.” Knowing it was true, knowing he had endured everything for them, with them, many hardened veterans broke down in tears. The mutiny collapsed. America has never again faced the danger of a military coup d’etat.

With the war over, would Washington return to his farm, to his plow, like the Roman hero Cincinnatus? Or would he use the Army to take the reins of power, like Julius Caesar and Oliver Cromwell? He sternly rebuked Army officers who had urged him to become a king. He stiffly turned aside suggestions that he seize control of the government. Washington went to Annapolis at Christmas time in 1783, determined to resign his commission to Congress. He had always respected civil authority. Amazed at his willingness to lay down his authority, his former enemy, King George III said:

If he does that, he truly will be the greatest man on earth.”

Washington returned to politics, reluctantly, in 1787. He agreed to chair the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. There, he spent five months, mostly silent, while the greatest graduate seminar in political theory, economics, and constitutionalism swirled around him. Only Washington could have been the unanimous choice for the first President. His two terms were not at all an easeful retirement. They were filled with violent controversy. Once, a torch-bearing mob appeared in front of the President’s house with a model guillotine, jeering the dignified Washington. Washington asked nothing from his countrymen but respect. Didn’t we owe him that?

Today, that question remains. Don’t we owe him more, he who gave everything for us?

Ronald Reagan said it well when he left the White House. Warning of a loss of historical memory, he said: “If we forget what we did, we will forget who we are.” Nothing less is at stake in our forgetting the Father of our Country. Without reverence for George Washington, we are not Americans; we are just resident aliens.

Lincoln and Darwin: Trans-Atlantic Twins?

by Robert Morrison

February 12, 2009

The heavens declare the glory of God; the firmament sheweth his handiwork.” Thus saith the Lord. Not necessarily, saith George Will. Washington’s leading smart man notes today’s two hundredth anniversary of Lincoln’s birth with a useful explanation of what Darwin taught. Darwin was born on the same day that Lincoln was born. Historian John Lukacs calls such coincidences spiritual puns. There are some secularists who are trying to make Lincoln and Darwin trans-Atlantic twins, suggesting somehow that just as Lincoln liberated the slaves, so Darwin freed us from religious dogma and catechesis through his writings on the origins of dogs and cats-and us.

Will notes that Darwin “had no intellectual room for a directing deity that wills a special destination for our species.” Darwin, Will points out, “placed humanity in a continuum of all protoplasm.” How elevating.

Will rejects Intelligent Design. “The fact of order in nature does not require us to postulate a divine Orderer.” But is it reasonable for us to rule that divine Orderer out of order?

That’s what happening in our schools today. Discussion of Intelligent Design is being banned as a violation of the separation of church and state. When such matters become court cases, as they invariably do, the invocation of Jefferson’s 1802 Letter to the Danbury Baptists brings a responsory amen chorus from our elites. In Pennsylvania recently, a federal judge cited Jefferson’s famous letter as his rationale for banning any classroom discussion of Intelligent Design.

Isn’t it odd for today’s atheizers to invoke Jefferson against Jefferson? When Jefferson wrote to John Adams in 1823, he came down foursquare on the side of Intelligent Design:

… it is impossible for the human mind not to percieve and feel a conviction of design, consummate skill, and indefinite power in every atom of [the universe’s] composition. The movements of the heavenly bodies, so exactly held in their course by the balance of centrifugal and centripetal forces, the structure of our earth itself, with its distribution of lands, waters and atmosphere, animal and vegetable bodies, examined in all their minutest particles, insects mere atoms of life, yet as perfectly organised as man or mammoth, the mineral substances, their generation and uses, it is impossible, I say, for the human mind not to believe that there is, in all this, design, cause and effect, up to an ultimate cause, a fabricator of all things from matter and motion, their preserver and regulator while permitted to exist in their present forms, and their regenerator into new and other forms. We see, too, evident proofs of the necessity of a superintending power to maintain the Universe in its course and order. Stars, well known, have disappeared, new ones have come into view, comets, in their incalculable courses, may run foul of suns and planets and require renovation under other laws; certain races of animals are become extinct; and, were there no restoring power, all existences might extinguish successively, one by one, until all should be reduced to a shapeless chaos. So irresistible are these evidences of an intelligent and powerful Agent that, of the infinite numbers of men who have existed thro’ all time, they have believed, in the proportion of a million at least to Unit, in the hypothesis of an eternal pre-existence of a creator, rather than in that of a self-existent Universe.

George Will is certainly a smart man. But so was Jefferson. Evidence of design that Will rejects Jefferson thought “irresistible.” To Jefferson, the idea that all men are created equal was “self evident.” And Jefferson also stood up for free intellectual inquiry. At his University of Virginia, he welcomed debate “for here we are not afraid to follow truth, wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate error so long as reason is left free to combat it.” Those who reject Intelligent Design owe us a reasonable response, not just a back of the hand dismissal or, worse, a court-ordered suppression of debate.

Lincoln often said he had no political idea that did not derive from Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. To Charles Darwin, on the other hand, human beings may or may not be equal, but we are certainly not created.

Americans are free to choose whom they will honor tomorrow. My guess is that more of us will thank Lincoln for what he achieved than will genuflect to either the memory or the lengthening shadow of Darwin.

That “Muslim World” Formulation

by Robert Morrison

February 10, 2009

President Obama gave his first interview to the Al Arabiya television network. He talked of a new U.S. effort to reach out to “the Muslim world.” He’s hardly the first one to use that phrase. Think tank director John Esposito of Georgetown University regularly speaks of the Muslim world.

Question: What would be the reaction from the pundits and the talking heads if the President spoke of the U.S. reaching out to Christendom? That word used to describe the collection of countries in which Christianity predominated. You can well imagine. He would be denounced immediately as a theocrat. The very idea of Christian countries offends the cultured despisers of religion. Or, at least it offends the despisers of some religions.

When I hear Western leaders and intellectuals speaking of the Muslim world, I’m reminded of the late Meg Greenfield’s comments at the time the American hostages were being held in Iran. Some of her fellow liberals were so eager to see things from the other fellow’s point of view, she wrote in Newsweek, that if they were missionaries stewing in a pot, they would try to see the situation from their captors’ perspective.

I miss Meg Greenfield’s commonsensical liberalism. I doubt that anyone would have complained if the President had spoken of reaching out to Muslim friends in the Middle East, in South Asia. Or seeking to repair relations with majority-Muslim nations. But when we concede that there is something called a Muslim world, are we not at the same time conceding that there is a region of the world in which Christians and Jews may not go, may not live peaceably, must suffer dhimmi status if they survive at all?

George W. Bush was often accused of wearing his Christianity on his sleeve. He certainly didn’t wear it on his flight jacket. President Bush invited the king of Saudi Arabia to his Texas ranch. There, he was photographed walking hand in hand with King Abdullah.

I confess I prefer the photo of President Franklin D. Roosevelt on board the USS Quincy back in 1945. There, the commander-in-chief sits with Saudi Arabia’s legendary founder, King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud. The two men look serious, but restrained. The pose is formal, dignified, and correct. There’s no gush. No obeisance. No apologies. Maybe that’s why no one thought of throwing a shoe at FDR.

FDR on USS Quincy

We do need a new relationship. We should speak candidly to the Arab states and to those Muslim-majority nations where some claim to be offended by American conduct. We should tell them of our own happy experience with religious liberty. When George Washington wrote to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport in 1790, he said America must be a land where all enjoyed civil liberty and legal equality. He prayed to God and cited the Hebrew Scriptures: “Let each sit under his own vine and fig tree and let there be none to make him afraid.” This bold statement, regrettably, has not always been true in America. Still, it is true that the government of the United States, in the timeless words of George Washington, “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” Where in those regions where Islam predominates can this be said to be true—either in history, or today?

About that “Extra Mile.”

by Robert Morrison

February 9, 2009

I joined about 200 people yesterday in Annapolis for a re-tracing of President Lincoln’s February, 1865, walk. He came to Maryland’s capital only once—to catch a ship to steam down the Chesapeake Bay. He went there to discuss peace terms with Confederate commissioners at Fortress Monroe. Annapolis’ Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission was determined to make a great event of Lincoln’s brief encounter with our town. Lincoln had to get off his special one-car train at the depot and walk across town to the Naval Academy to embark on his short sea voyage.

The handsome tribute booklet published by our Maryland State Archives titles Lincoln’s sojourn “The Extra Mile.” They tell us everything we could want to know about his cross-town walk except where they got the phrase the extra mile.  It comes from the Bible. Jesus tells us we should “walk the extra mile” when required to go one mile. In Jesus’ time, Roman soldiers could force Israelites to carry their heavy armor and gear one full mile. Jesus wanted us to do more than what was minimally required of us.

This fine booklet is another example of what the late Prof. E.D. Hirsch wrote on cultural literacy. Hirsch believed that we could not be culturally literate without a working knowledge of the Bible. I don’t know if Hirsch believed the Bible, but he certainly understood its influence on our culture. He cited India as an example. That giant nation has more than 450 language groups. Only the English language unites the people of India, and only the Bible enables them to understand the language they use.

President Lincoln was literally walking the extra mile for peace. He knew that the peacemakers are blessed. Lincoln had read the Sermon on the Mount. His trip was a spur-of-the-moment thing. He slipped out of the Executive Mansion without his faithful secretary John Nicolay even knowing he was gone. General Grant had persuaded the President that he was needed at Fort Monroe. Even if the Confederates’ peace offerings were unacceptable-and so they ultimately proved to be-Lincoln needed to show his own Union soldiers that he would spare no effort to bring peace.

So Lincoln strode purposefully through Annapolis, a distance of 1 14 miles. He passed by the Union soldiers’ hospital at St. John’s College on his left. As well, he passed the Old State House on his right.  The Maryland legislature was in session then, debating ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to abolish slavery. Lincoln worked hard to get Congress to approve the Thirteenth Amendment. Lincoln went so far as to sign the Thirteenth Amendment, even though the President’s signature is not required for a constitutional amendment.

Our little town of Annapolis made the most of Lincoln’s briefest of walk-throughs. They did a fine job. We learned who carried Lincoln’s toothbrush and the fact that he always got seasick. But if the program organizers had noted the origins of that beautiful phrase, “the extra mile,” they might have given us a better insight into the Great Emancipator’s heart. 

America’s Inauguration: A Retrospective—Ronald Reagan: “Nothing Less than a Miracle”

by Robert Morrison

January 20, 2009


January 20, 1981

Surveying a world that had grown increasingly violent and arbitrary, in which freedom everywhere was in retreat, in which America itself seemed to be held hostage, Ronald Reagan reaffirmed our commitment to constitutional government. The peaceful, orderly transition of that day, he said, was normal for Americans, but for others it was “nothing less than a miracle.” Under Jimmy Carter, Americans were told they had to prepare for a future that would be colder, darker, and poorer, an America in which their children would lead lesser lives. A malaise stalked the land. Media chin pullers and professional deep thinkers lectured the people that the Presidency was too big for any one man. Well, it was too big for their one man, but not for Ronald Reagan.

Perhaps Reagan remembered Churchill’s poem, broadcast to America when Britain braved the Nazi blitz: “Westward look, the land is bright!” For the first time in our history, the Inauguration was taking place on the West Front. Reagan the Californian wanted us to look out from the West Front of the Capitol to the history represented on the Nation’s Mall. As he looked over that scene, he paid tribute to the giants of our past—Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln.” Whoever would understand in his heart the meaning of America will find it in the life of Abraham Lincoln.”

Reagan spoke unabashedly about his faith in God. He expressed his gratitude for all the prayer meetings that were taking place throughout America to consecrate the day. Every Inauguration Day, he said, ought to be a day of prayer.

Within weeks, Reagan would need the prayers of all Americans in an urgent way. At age seventy, he nearly fell victim to an assassin’s bullet. “Honey,” he told his wife in a widely quoted quip, “I forgot to duck.” Few then knew how close Reagan came to dying just sixty days into his Presidency. After he recovered, he joined with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who had narrowly escaped an IRA terrorist bomb, and with Pope John Paul II, who had himself been shot by a Soviet-backed assassin. Together these three outstanding leaders worked to lift the Iron Curtain and bring down the Berlin Wall. With faith and courage, they changed the world.

We can still do this. “Why shouldn’t we believe this? After all, we are Americans,” Reagan said that memorable day.

America’s Inauguration: A Retrospective—John F. Kennedy: “Ask not…”

by Robert Morrison

January 18, 2009


January 20, 1961

Washington is a city of northern charm and southern efficiency,” said John F. Kennedy about the nation’s capital. The city’s southern efficiency had never been so much needed as the night before the charming northerner took the oath as President. The city had been blanketed with eight inches of snow the night before the Inauguration. The army, city employees and 1,700 Boy Scout volunteers moved stranded cars, shoveled paths, and swept snow off the Inaugural stands.

At noon on that frigid Friday, the temperatures stood at just twenty-two degrees. The brilliant mid-winter sun glinted off the snow, almost blinding the frail poet Robert Frost as he tried to read his tribute to America. Boston’s Cardinal Cushing offered a lengthy invocation—the first time a Roman Catholic prelate could pray for a new President of his own faith. During the Cardinal’s prayer, the lectern actually caught fire.

When John F. Kennedy rose to take the oath from Chief Justice Earl Warren, the white-haired jurist was administering the historic words to the youngest man ever elected the nation’s Chief Executive. Watching the vigorous Kennedy that day, hatless, coatless in the cold, his forefinger jabbing the air as clouds of breath steamed forward, few would dream that Warren would write the multi-volume report that tried to quell public doubts about Kennedy’s death by assassination in less than three years time.

This day, though, was all ruffles and flourishes. Kennedy the liberal Democrat was determined to show that he could be as strong in standing up to communist tyranny as the old warrior, Dwight D. Eisenhower, had been. To a listening world, he vowed: “We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” Summoning Americans to a long twilight struggle, he challenged his people: “My fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”

Americans were stirred and thrilled by his words. They nodded in agreement when he said: “The rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God.” No one complained about Kennedy’s violating the separation of church and state. No one called him divisive. All Americans believed his words then. Have we stopped believing them?

America’s Inauguration: A Retrospective—Franklin D. Roosevelt: “The Only Thing We Have to Fear…”

by Robert Morrison

January 17, 2009


March 4, 1933

Not since Abraham Lincoln’s first Inauguration in the secession winter of 1860-61 had a President come to power in such a crisis atmosphere. President Herbert Hoover was thoroughly thrashed in the 1932 election. He won just six states (out of forty-eight) and a mere 59 Electoral Votes. Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Governor of New York, had racked up an invincible 472 Electoral Votes. Roosevelt’s mandate was deep and broad. His fellow Democrats had rolled over their opponents in elections for Congress, Governorships, state legislatures. There were even candidates for Recorder of Wills in Sleepy Eye County, Minnesota who were eager to grasp FDR’s coattails.

As the winter deepened, so did the economic crisis. President Hoover was increasingly desperate. Banks were failing daily. The government had to put armed guards on U.S. Mail Trucks. Then, just days before the Inauguration, the President-elect faced an assassination attempt while riding in an open car in Miami. FDR was unhurt, but he calmly ordered the Secret Service to take the mortally wounded Mayor of Chicago to a hospital.

When Roosevelt finally took the oath in Washington, all eyes in the nation were on him.

His rich baritone rang out: “Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself!” His words were like an electric charge running through the country.

Many of his policies were wrong. Many failed. Still, Roosevelt’s indomitable confidence, his commanding presence, his unquestionable courage are what made millions of Americans love and support him. They honor his memory to this day.

FDR’s confidence was not in himself alone. He concluded his inspiring address with these words: “We humbly ask the blessing of God. May He protect each and every one of us. May He guide me in the days to come.”

Thus did the nation’s most liberal President conclude this First Inaugural Address. He alone would deliver three more Inaugurals.

America’s Inauguration: A Retrospective—Lincoln’s Sacred Effort

by Robert Morrison

January 16, 2009

March 4, 1865

The Capitol dome now finished; it was topped by a 19-foot Statue of Freedom. Those young black men who first muscled that statue into storage were slaves in the District of Columbia. But by the time they hoisted her into position atop the Capitol, they were free. Four long and bloody years had accomplished this much, and so much more. Not all the President’s hearers had come to applaud. John Wilkes Booth can be seen in grainy photographs of the event.

President Lincoln, defying all expectations (including his own), had been powerfully re-elected the previous November. Four years after appealing to “the better angels of our nature” to avoid civil war, 620,000 young Americans had fallen in a war of brother against brother.

Suddenly, at noon on that overcast Inauguration Day, the sun broke thought the clouds. Seeing victory in sight, Lincoln sounded no note of triumph, gave no hint of self righteousness. The war came, he said, and it was a judgment of heaven upon north and south alike. God could have given the victory to either side, many times. But it was not His perfect will. It would be our task, the President said, “to bind up the nation’s wounds.” He continued: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in.”

The seven hundred and one words of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address have been carved in stone in his memorial. Every American should read them every year. After the ceremony, Frederick Douglass, the great abolitionist orator and editor, went to the President’s House. He wanted to shake Lincoln’s hand. He was the first black man invited to a Presidential Inaugural. Barred from entry by an officious policeman, Douglass simply climbed through an open window. Lincoln spotted him in the receiving line and called out to him: “There’s my friend, Douglass.” The President asked for his opinion of the speech, and Douglass replied: “It was a sacred effort.” And so it remains. Just weeks later, Abraham Lincoln would belong to the Ages.

America’s Inauguration: A Retrospective—Abraham Lincoln: An Oath Registered in Heaven

by Robert Morrison

January 16, 2009


March 4, 1861

Wheezing old General Winfield Scott, gouty but doughty, was determined. The hero of a score of battles since 1812 would not let rebels disrupt the inauguration of the first Republican President. Virginia-born but Army-bred, great Scott stationed sharpshooters on the roofs of all the prominent buildings along the inaugural route. If anyone tried anything, Scott thundered, he would use his cannon to “manure the Virginia hills” with their bodies.

Scott’s brave show worked. Abraham Lincoln’s path to power was unimpeded. Lincoln rose before the as-yet-uncompleted Capitol building. As he spoke, seven states had already declared themselves out of the Union. They had set up their own rival government in Montgomery, Alabama. Lincoln weighed his every word. If he came down too strongly, he could tip Virginia and Maryland against the Union—and then the nation’s capital would itself be surrounded. But if he did not take a strong enough stance, his own supporters would be disheartened.

Holding Lincoln’s stovepipe silk hat on that Inaugural stand was his defeated rival, Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois, the Democrat. Another Democrat, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, author of the infamous Dred Scott decision, would administer the oath. Taney had said “the black man has no rights which the white man is bound to respect.”

Lincoln appealed to reason. Secession, he said, was illegal. And it was impossible. A husband and wife can get a divorce, but how can sections of the same country separate? He spoke eloquently of those “mystic chords of memory stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone.” He urged his “dissatisfied fellow-countrymen” not to take the momentous step of civil war, reminding them: “You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the Government, while I shall have the most solemn one to ‘preserve, protect, and defend it.’” Finally, he called upon “the better angels of our nature” to avert the looming catastrophe. Those better angels would not abandon this troubled land—despite four long and bloody years of fratricidal conflict.