“The Better Angels of Our Nature”

“The Better Angels of Our Nature” October 14, 2021


A pensive Lincoln
The official White House portrait of Abraham Lincoln, America’s first Republican president
(Wikimedia Commons public domain image)




My wife and I got back about an hour ago from the event that Deseret Book and Excel Entertainment put on to celebrate the release of the Interpreter Foundation’s dramatic film, Witnesses, on DVD.  I think that the program went very well.  Most of it, though not quite all of it, was occupied by a conversation onstage that was led by Tammy Uzelac Hall, who hosts the Sunday on Monday podcast for LDS Living.  The participants in the conversation, which often responded to clips of specific scenes from the film, were Camrey Bagley Fox (who played Emma Smith),  Mark Goodman (the director of Witnesses), Lincoln Hoppe (Martin Harris), Daniel Peterson (executive producer), Russell Richins (producer), Caleb Spivak (Oliver Cowdery), and Paul Wuthrich (Joseph Smith Jr.).  Also featured on the program were the Truman Brothers, members of the Nashville Tribute Band, who performed four songs.  This was the last of the four:


“Give Me This Mountain”


The program was recorded, and my understanding is that it will eventually be made available online.  I don’t have a particular date for that, but I assume that it will happen relatively soon.




While I was in the visitor center at Mount Rushmore, South Dakota, late last July, right under Mr. Lincoln’s watchful gaze, I bought a little book entitled Leadership Lessons of Abraham Lincoln: Strategies, Advice, and Words of Wisdom on Leadership, Responsibility, and Power, edited by Meg Distinti (New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2011).  The title is almost as long as the small book itself.


Believe it or not, the book is directly relevant to one of my intermediate-term writing projects.  So, in accordance with my renewed resolution to use this blog as a means toward writing the books that I want to write, I’m going to extract some quotations from Leadership Lessons of Abraham Lincoln that, in some cases at least, are directly relevant to my vision of that future project.  (Some are not.  Some are simply passages that I liked and wanted to share.)  Moreover, I regard Abraham Lincoln as, along with Thomas Jefferson, arguably the greatest prose stylist among our presidents.  I offer his Second Inaugural Address, the Gettysburg Address, and his November 1864 letter to Mrs. Bixby as my evidence, and I rest my case.  But I’m just generally a fan.


I liked this passage from a letter that Mr. Lincoln wrote to one Anson G. Henry on 19 November 1858:


Though I now sink out of view, and shall be forgotten, I believe I have made some marks which will tell for the cause of civil liberty long after I am gone.  (1)


He was inaugurated as the sixteenth president of the United States of America on 4 March 1861, less than two and a half years after he wrote the sentence above, and, in the minds of at least some of us, he proved to be a very consequential president, even a great one.


Here’s his 19 October 1860 response to a famous letter that arrived at the White House from Miss Grace Bedell:


My dear little Miss, Your very agreeable letter of the 15th is received.  I regret the necessity of saying I have no daughter.  I have three sons — one seventeen, one nine, and one seven years of age.  They, with their mother, constitute my whole family.  As to the whiskers, having never worn any, do you not think people would call it a piece of silly affectation is I were to begin it now?  (112)


I identify, to some degree, with that response.


I confess that I also resonate with this comment from Mr. Lincoln’s 21 August 1858 reply to Stephen A. Douglas:


When a man hears himself somewhat misrepresented, it provokes him — at least, I find it so with myself; but when misrepresentation becomes very gross and palpable, it is more apt to amuse him.  (33)


On that matter, here is some good advice from Lincoln’s last public address (given 11 April 1865) that some have an easy time following (the late Richard Lloyd Anderson was remarkable in this respect) and that others (such as I myself) find more difficult:


As a general rule I abstain from reading the reports of attacks upon myself, wishing not to be provoked by that to which I cannot properly offer an answer.


In a speech that a quite young Abraham Lincoln delivered to the Young Men’s Lyceum on 27 January 1838, he admonished his audience as follows:


Let reverence for the laws be breathed by every American mother to the lisping babe that prattles on her lap; let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges; let it be written in Primers, spelling books, and in Almanacs; let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice.  And, in short, let it become the political religion of the nation; and let the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the grave and the gay, of all sexes and tongues and colors and conditions sacrifice unceasingly upon its altars.  (19; I have modernized the punctuation just a bit)


It was in that same speech that he made another comment that I’ve already recently cited here but that, like the passage immediately above, seems acutely relevant to the unpleasant political situation in which we Americans currently find ourselves:


At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected?  I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us.  It cannot come from abroad.  If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher.  As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.  (55)


And this rather familiar but still wonderful passage comes from his First Inaugural Address, which he delivered on 4 March 1861:


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.



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