In his Time column “Lincoln’s wisdom,” Bill Kristol considers Andrew Ferguson’s “brilliant new book” Land of Lincoln. Bill summarizes Lincoln’s Young Man’s Lyceum Address of 1838. He draws an analogy between the challenges that Lincoln anticipated and those that face us. (It was Harry V. Jaffa who, in chapter IX of Crisis of the House Divided, originally demonstrated the depth and importance of Lincoln’s 1838 speech. Jaffa’s chapter on the speech is itself a tour de force. Edmund Wilson also drew attention to the speech in the Lincoln chapter of Patriotic Gore, his book on the literature of the Civil War.)
Playing off Lincoln’s 1838 speech, Bill writes:
Now we find ourselves in a situation oddly similar to the one Lincoln faced in 1838. Lincoln delivered his Lyceum Address 62 years after the Declaration of Independence. We are now the same time span from the end of World War II. Our victory in that war–followed by our willingness to quickly assume another set of burdens in the defense of freedom against another great tyranny–marked the beginning of the U.S.’s role as leader of the free world. Through all the ups and downs of the cold war and through the 1990s and this decade, the memories of World War II have sustained the U.S., as it did its duty in helping resist tyranny and expand the frontiers of freedom in the world.
The generation of World War II is mostly gone. The generation that directly heard tell of World War II from its parents is moving on. We have exhausted, so to speak, the moral capital of that war. Now we face challenges almost as daunting as those confronting the nation when Lincoln spoke. The perpetuation of freedom in the world is no more certain today than was the perpetuation of our free institutions then. Of course, we have the example of Lincoln to guide us. And Ferguson’s wry and sardonic account of the ways we remember him is heartening and even inspiring, almost despite itself or despite ourselves. But the failures of leadership of the 1840s and 1850s should also chasten us. Nations don’t always rise to the occasion. And the next generation can pay a great price when the preceding one shirks its responsibilities.
It’s a brilliant column on a brilliant book.