As partisans on the “antifa” left and the “alt” right eagerly array themselves to re-fight the Civil War, I find myself casting my mind back to the final weeks of that conflict, and turning to the words of President Lincoln’s second inaugural address for guidance in how to think about the questions of memory and national reconciliation. 

Though the war was not yet over, and Lincoln disclaimed even at that late date any power to foresee its end, reconciliation was the theme. But the address did not begin with the call to bind up the nation’s wounds. Rather, it began by reminding his audience of how those wounds came to be inflicted in the first place, and how to understand the justice of the conflict in which the Union was still engaged.

The cause of the war was sometimes obscured by disputes about the nature of federalism, but was ultimately simple: slavery. Lincoln referred to slavery as a “peculiar and powerful interest,” and the words were well-chosen to underline his understanding of why war was so hard to avoid. It was not simply that the slave states wished to make their own decisions about their future without interference. The enormous population of slaves represented a massive investment in capital. The South had made this investment because the climate and economic structure of their region made it viable for them to do so. But once made, the South was resolutely opposed to anything that would limit, reduce and ultimately obliterate the value of this investment—for the same reason that anyone would resolutely oppose the expropriation of their own livelihood and patrimony.

Moreover, there was nothing unjust about God punishing North and South together by means of the war:

The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

North and South were compacted together within the Union, and both prospered by that union. So both North and South bore the moral stain of slavery, notwithstanding that the slaves themselves were overwhelmingly concentrated in the Southern states, and the social and economic structure of the South changed most by emancipation.

This perspective was what made it possible for Lincoln, in the midst of war, to speak of achieving a just and lasting peace “with malice toward none, with charity for all.” It is easy to argue that such a lasting peace would require honoring the honest—if, in Lincoln’s view, badly mistaken—conviction of men like Robert E. Lee that their actions were not rebellion but a defense of their country. Indeed, it is hard to see what “charity for all” could mean if it did not extend to a man of Lee’s widely-touted honor and integrity, or those who cherish his memory. Reconciliation could be achieved between North and South on the basis that while the political matter of secession was settled on the battlefield, there was honor on all sides. Those were precisely the terms that prevailed from the end of Reconstruction through the era of the Civil Rights movement.

But this, of course, was the period in which freed slaves and their descendants saw their rights and freedoms severely curtailed, and made subject to an oppressive regime sustained by lynch law. The largely successful terms of reconciliation between North and South were in direct conflict with the terms of reconciliation between slave and free, black and white, that were first attempted during Reconstruction, and revived in the Civil Rights era. If charity indeed extends to “all,” it must surely extend to the people who had been reduced by slavery to the status of other men’s economic interest, and nothing more, and to their descendants and all who would honor their memory. How can any honor to those who fought for the Confederacy, a country founded on race slavery as a fundamental principle, be anything but gross dishonor to those descended from those slaves?

This is a fundamental problem for American national memory. Reconciliation in the present means reconciliation of conflicting narratives of the past, finding a place for all of our varied common ancestors. But the axes of conflict between those ancestors may, themselves, be irreconcilable.

We may fool ourselves to think that matters are simpler elsewhere. Attila may be honored in Hungary without upsetting the descendants of the cities he sacked; Bohdan Khmelnytsky may be honored as the father of the Ukrainian nation notwithstanding that his men perpetrated the most horrific massacres of Jews between the Crusades and the Holocaust. But the illusion of integral simplicity is as deliberate as it is false, as the currently bloodletting in Ukraine and the escalating authoritarianism in Hungary should demonstrate.

Regardless, no such illusion is possible in America, which is torn not on one seam but on many. Wounds still bleeding must be triaged for present succor, but our national memory must be capacious enough to acknowledge the whole truth, and not only the truth of victory, for there to be any lasting reconciliation. Lincoln’s insight is still relevant. We should properly judge slavery to be an unequivocal evil, and the Confederate cause to have been unsalvageable because it was fundamentally and overwhelmingly that evil cause—not only of defending but of extending slavery. But we should not delude ourselves that, had we sat in our ancestors seats, we would have judged our own cause any more rightly than they did.

And we must resist the temptation to decide the terms of reconciliation for others, because only parties to a conflict can be reconciled, and only leaders of exceptionally capacious spirit can foster it. Today, we are led by a President as far from Lincoln’s spirit of charity as it is possible to imagine. And so it rests on the shoulders of ordinary Americans to eschew malice. It falls to the descendants of slaves to see men like Lee through the eyes of the descendants of planters, as the exemplar of their country’s virtues, and dispute their place in national memory in a spirit that appreciates that fact. And it falls to the descendants of planters to see him through the eyes of the descendants of slaves, as the American version of Erwin Rommel, Hitler’s favorite general, and let that understanding give them pause when they consider rising to defend his honor.

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book ReviewThe WeekPoliticoFirst ThingsCommentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.