In this era of hyper-partisanship, we have become accustomed to political leaders embracing former presidents of their respective parties – Democrats hailing Franklin Roosevelt, for example, Republicans Ronald Reagan.

So it is striking that, in 1976, when delivering the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention, Rep. Barbara Jordan chose to conclude her remarks by quoting a Republican: Abraham Lincoln, whose birthday we mark Monday.

Jordan was the first Black woman to deliver a keynote address at a national convention. Born in Houston in 1936, she grew up in the segregated South and was the first Southern female African American elected to Congress. She opened by stating she would not, as was customary, use her platform to praise the accomplishments of the Democratic Party and attack the Republican Party.

Instead, she wished to offer a broader vision.

In the wake of conflicts over Vietnam, Watergate and race, she described how many voters were “feeling that the grand American experiment is failing or has failed.” Her ensuing remarks seem prescient today.

“The great danger America faces,” Jordan proclaimed “(is) that we will cease to be one nation and become instead a collection of interest groups – city against suburb, region against region, individual against individual, each seeking to satisfy private wants. If that happens, who then will speak for America? Who then will speak for the common good?”


To underscore the nonpartisan nature of her appeal she invoked these words of Lincoln concerning his position on slavery: “… as I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is not democracy.”

Our nation was never as divided as it was during Lincoln’s presidency and we rightly remember him for having given the full measure of his being to preserve our Union and defend our founding principles. In so doing, he used words that resonate today as we confront another perilous moment in history.

“We are not enemies, but friends,” Lincoln noted in his first inaugural. Though “passion may have strained,” he said, “it must not break our bonds of affection.”

We are fortunate here in Maine to have elected leaders including our governor, United States senators and congressional representatives who operate in a spirit of bipartisanship and refrain from demonizing their political opponents. Yet I’m sure I am not alone in feeling distress over the descent of our national politics and the coarsening of its political rhetoric that strains our bonds of affection.

Lincoln famously invoked “the better angels of our nature” with hopes that in striking the “mystic chords of memory” they would “swell the chorus” of our Union.

Those chords are struck for me by these lyrics from Nanci Griffith:


“I was a child in the ’60s/ When dreams could be held through TV / With Disney and Cronkite and Martin Luther / Oh, I believed, I believed, I believed.”

Many of us still wish to believe in America’s promise just as Barbara Jordan did – even though, as she often noted, African Americans had initially been left out of the Constitution.

“Are we to be one people bound together by a common spirit, sharing in a common endeavor?” she asked. “Or will we become a divided nation?”

Jordan was under no illusions about the difficulty of this task. Nor am I.

But closing this essay as she did her remarks, let me quote our 16th president again. Surely in moments of deep discord, the best way to “bind up the nation’s wounds” is, as Lincoln counseled, “with malice toward none; with charity for all.”

That is a high bar for any of us to attain. But on tomorrow’s day of national remembrance perhaps we can strive, at least, for a little less malice and a bit more generosity of spirit that has long defined – and united us – as a people.

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