Words of Wisdom About Elections

Every four years, we hear people say that “this is the most important election of our lifetime”. Those people have short memories. While our nation is politically polarized and emotions run high now, I would remind people of the two Civil War elections, 1860 and 1864. In both of those years, Abraham Lincoln was elected in a nation that was divided by secession and warfare. And in his inaugural addresses, he offered words of wisdom that we would be advised to heed in our day.

The First Words of Wisdom

Recall the context of the 1860 election. The nation had been divided by the slavery issue for decades, and the issue had come to a head in the late 1850’s with the Dred Scott decision, the Fugitive Slave Act, and intermittent combat in “Bloody Kansas”. Lincoln was well-known as an anti-slavery advocate, and his election led southern states to attempt to secede from the Union. Everyone feared that a civil war was imminent once Lincoln took office.

In his inaugural address, Lincoln sought to reassure the nation that he wished for a peaceful reconciliation. But he was also clear that the decision depended on whether the southern states took up arms to interfere with the activities of the federal government.

But most important, he closed with a soaring appeal for reconciliation, a magnificent example of political rhetoric:

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, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.


Nobody expects a bloody civil war to break out now. But political violence is becoming more common, as we have seen in many cities, including our own. A shocking number of people – one-third of both Republicans and Democrats – tell pollsters that they believe that violence is justified to achieve their political goals. Even more have said that violence is an acceptable response if the other side wins the election. That is very scary.

We need to remind ourselves of Lincoln’s words, and focus again on our bonds of affection and mystic chords of memory that unite us as Americans. We certainly have our political differences, and we can deeply regret the election results, but we must still love our country – and our neighbor.

The Second Words of Wisdom

The election of 1864 was even more fraught. It was taking place in the middle of the Civil War. All the southern states were still fighting against the Union. Hundreds of thousands of American men had been killed or wounded. The Emancipation Proclamation had taken the first step towards the full liberation of the slaves. The Thirteenth Amendment, which would finish the job, had already been passed by the Senate but was stuck in the House. Everyone understood that if Lincoln lost the election, the new president might end the war and recognize the independence of the Confederacy.

It was a political triumph that our nation was even able to conduct a smooth election during a major war, and a blessing Lincoln was re-elected.

When Lincoln rose to give his second inaugural address, the war was virtually at an end. He gave the most powerful and beautiful speech in American history, with the possible exception of his own Gettysburg Address. After reflecting on the deep spiritual meaning of the war, he closed with another plea for reconciliation and unity:

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, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.


Those were challenging words then, and they are so now. It is tragic to read about families divided and friendships ended over politics. But there is no question that we must follow Lincoln’s advice going forward if we are to live in peace together. For Christians, this is a very serious obligation – we must help our nation heal.

Final Words of Wisdom

No matter how this election comes out, we will all go about our normal lives. We will pray, read the Bible, say the Rosary, go to Mass and Confession, and “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). We will continue to do the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy to show our love for neighbor. For the vast majority of us, the results of the election will have little or no effect on our daily activities. Elections matter, but they are far less important than our relationship with God.

The best way I can close is to quote some words of wisdom not from Lincoln, but from Pope Francis. In his most recent encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, he calls for us to overcome our divisions and create a society based on fraternity and friendship:

Let us dream, then, as a single human family, as fellow travelers sharing the same flesh, as children of the same earth which is our common home, each of us bringing the richness of his or her beliefs and convictions, each of us with his or her own voice, brothers and sisters all. (8)


Comments are closed.