Four days after the Battle of Gettysburg, a Union victory that turned the Civil War toward eventual national reunification, a large crowd gathered at the White House to serenade Abraham Lincoln and demand a speech.
There was much to celebrate: It was three days after the Fourth of July, four months before Lincoln would forever link the sacrifice of those who gave the “last full measure of devotion” in his Gettysburg Address. Ulysses S. Grant’s army had on July 4 captured Vicksburg on the Mississippi River. Together the Union victories in Pennsylvania and Mississippi marked the beginning of the end of the Confederacy.
Lincoln said a few words to the gathering crowd, including phrases foreshadowing his short, for-the-ages address a few months later. He borrowed imagery of devotion and rebirth from New York Times correspondent Sam Wilkeson, who a day earlier had published perhaps the most powerful battlefield dispatch of that or any other war while sitting at the freshly dug grave of his son, a Union soldier killed on the first day at Gettysburg. The dead who had sacrificed so much at Gettysburg, Lincoln told the multitude, were “to be envied” and part of a “glorious theme.” But he mostly begged off.
Gettysburg would eventually be “the occasion for a speech,” Lincoln said, “but I am not prepared to make one worthy of the occasion.”
And so the president whose language helped hold together a nation, who even then was fretting over how he could help heal postwar wounds and reunite South with North, politely declined to go on.
The crowd was disappointed. If there was ever a time for eloquence in a moment, for declaring the inevitability of a Union victory and gloating about the Confederacy’s devastating defeats, that seemed to be it. But Lincoln recognized that there were times when presidents had nothing to add, that talking across the divides could hurt more than help.
Now, as President Donald Trump prepares to take over Washington, D.C.’s traditional Fourth of July celebration in a bitterly divided nation, this would seem like another one of those moments when the nation needs a break from the fractures of the times.
Republicans and Democrats like fireworks — the real kind that light up the night sky, not the rhetorical brand that steams up the talking-head sets on nightly cable. Democrats and Republicans and independents alike love their country. Blankets on the ground, rousing marches and all-American music in the summer air are pacifiers and unifiers no matter what you believe on any particular issue. In an era when almost everything else divides us, and as we rush toward an ugly election year, this Independence Day in particular seems ripe for celebrating patriotism without politics.
But Trump, who rhetorically equates support for him with patriotism, and who labels the news media or those who question his administration’s actions enemies of the American people or even treasonous, will give a speech from the Lincoln Memorial. It is shaping up as Trumpism vs. anti-Trumpism on a day that’s supposed to immerse us in the solace of star-spangled love of country. Instead, it will be just another Thursday, with Trump assuming center stage in the roiling that he attempts daily, a stage that on this Independence Day will be heavily financed by taxpayers.
There are reportedly plans for an Air Force One flyby; meanwhile, Trump opponents have received permits to fly a “baby Trump blimp.” It has all the makings of political carnival or worse, and certainly no picnic in the park. His political enemies accuse him of turning a patriotic day into a partisan campaign rally. Three House Democrats, including Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, wrote Trump complaining about costs and warning that what traditionally had been a nonpartisan celebration was in danger of becoming “a televised, partisan campaign rally on the Mall at public expense.” When the Trump Show rolls into the Mall, protests are possible; the likely result of the official Fourth of July celebration will be more division. Given Trump’s effect on public opinion (Gallup recently reported that “opinion of Trump remains sharply polarized” with 89 percent of Republicans, 37 percent of independents and 6 percent of Democrats approving of his job performance), it is impossible to see how this president could give a patriotic speech that would satisfy a majority of Americans. (Trump is not alone in sending patriotism spiraling into the political abyss: The left’s “Patriotic Millionaires” have for years politicized the definition by equating patriotism with paying higher taxes to a government that can’t even balance its budget.)
There is one way Trump could surprise and head off disaster, though. If he has to speak, he could go back and read what George Washington said about patriotism, about the dangers of pitting groups and regions and political parties against one another in this new America. Washington viewed the country as an “experiment” that could fail if leaders equated political fealty with patriotism.
When the nation’s first president delivered his Farewell Address in September 1799, Washington — like Lincoln — was a reluctant messenger. But Washington, weary in body and mentally tired of the political infighting of the nation’s formative decade, felt compelled to inform the people about why he would not seek another term. He then used that moment to lay out his views on self-rule, leadership and patriotism.
Washington described a patriotism that’s the polar opposite of the one Trump is trying to carve and exploit.
“The name of AMERICAN, which belongs to you, in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of Patriotism, more than any appellation derived from local discriminations,” Washington said in an address heavily influenced by James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. The ideal of national union and the striving for it was the essence of patriotism — not the ideological or regional identifiers that Washington knew would test the bands of the new republic. And those who claimed moral or political superiority as license to define what it meant to be a patriot were the biggest threats of all.
“With such powerful and obvious motives to Union,” Washington wrote, “ . . . there will always be reason to distrust the patriotism of those, who in any quarter may endeavour to weaken its bands.”
His latest successor could let the bands that still hold us together as Americans rest on Independence Day. Stay home, Mr. President. We can watch the real fireworks together, in peace.