The title of my book The Better Angels comes from Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address given on March 4, 1861.
At the time of the inauguration, seven southern states had already seceded. Within weeks shots were fired at Fort Sumter beginning the Civil War. The last paragraph of Lincoln’s address, a plea to preserve the union, is as follows:
I am loath to close. 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.
William Seward, who would become secretary of state, had suggested that the last line refer to the “guardian angel of the Union,” but Lincoln decided on “better angels of our nature.” The historian Ronald C. White Jr., in an opinion piece for NPR, says Seward’s term was impersonal. Lincoln’s brilliant revision made the plea “deeply personal.”
White is correct. Lincoln’s appeal is to each individual listener. He pleads for each person to act–to join the chorus of the union. The speech would have had a different, and lesser, impact if it simply referenced hope for aid from a guardian angel. It is a reminder that history is not just a listing of famous people and events. History confronts and envelops all of us. We are all participants.
White’s opinion piece was written in 2011, on the 150th anniversary of the first inaugural address. It can be found at https://www.npr.org/2011/03/04/134162178/150-years-later-lincolns-words-still-resonate