The current political climate in America is perhaps as stressful it has ever been in history. As a historian and teacher, I have spent a great deal of time thinking of a period in the past that could equal or exceed this. I have only been able to come up with one. The time spent meditating on this has enabled me to take the current political conflict and stress in greater stride. I hope it helps you too.
The only time in American history that I can equate to today would be Lincoln’s 2nd election in 1864. By this time, the nation had suffered through 4 long years of war, and they were tired. Lincoln faced a challenge from a famous former general who had led the Army of the Potomac. A general that Lincoln had fired in 1863 for his failure to pursue Lee back into Virginia, following the battle of Antietam.
The Nation was exhausted and frustrated and just wanted the war to end. Lincoln was pushing for unconditional surrender, which required a clear victory. McClellan campaigned for a negotiated settlement to end the war immediately. Had McClellan won, the South could have negotiated its continued independence and the preservation of slavery. The nation we know today would not exist. It would have also doomed the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, which officially ended slavery.
In the late summer of 1864, even Lincoln thought he would lose the election. The war was at a standstill, and Americans were tired. In early September of that year, General Sherman’s victory in the Atlanta Campaign broke through the stalemate and reinvigorated the Union’s hope. Lincoln was able to ride the momentum from this military victory to a political victory, winning a second term as President.
There are some striking similarities between America today and America in 1864. Although we have not suffered through an actual Civil War, the last four years have both exposed and caused great division. This ideological division, combined with modern technology, the unbearable length of the election cycle, and Coronavirus have conspired to exhaust America. All of us are tired, and probably most of us just want it to be over. But there is still another grueling month, and it seems that so much is at stake.
So as a historian and a teacher, allow me to provide some needed solace and relief. A history teacher rarely has an opportunity to provide such a valuable service. So here goes.
On November 3rd, you get to vote for the President of the United States and many additional statewide offices. You get to experience this rare privilege because you are free. That is a tremendous source of hope. In addition to your donations of time or money and your prayers, voting is the only thing you can do. It is a solemn duty that we, as Americans, have the honor and privilege to perform. But this responsibility both empowers and limits us, at the same time.
In addition to voting, there is little legally that we can do to affect an election. Although this may seem to diminish our role to a seemingly small contribution during such a dramatic time, this should also provide important solace. All we can do is serve and vote with as much diligence as possible; the rest is up to God.
There is great freedom in doing the best we know to do, then letting go and trusting God to do the rest, however He sees fit. Only God knows the beginning from the end. It’s not in our hands.
Nobody, not even Lincoln, knew how much was really at stake in the 1864 election. Only God knew, and only He could have brought it about. And He did.
By letting go and letting God, we relieve ourselves of taking unhealthy spiritual responsibility for things we can not control anyway. This allows us to rest from the pressure of assuming power we do not have.
Not only are we free citizens, in a free country, but we also have limited power, which is paradoxically what makes us free. The most influential people in the country, like the least, only get one vote. This limitation frees us to do what we can but also frees us from ultimate responsibility for the results.
Learning to let go of ultimate control or responsibility for something as significant as a national election will help us grasp more loosely numerous other things in our life over which we also have little or no control. There is great peace in trusting God to be God.
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7)
This peace will also free us from fear, exaggerated by our egos, and allow us to focus our attention on things that are noble, pure, wholesome, and lovely, as we rest in the love of God from which no earthly thing can separate us. (Philippians 4:8)
In November of 1864, despite an exhausted and often confused electorate, God had His way, and Abraham Lincoln won a second term. Although it proved tragically short, it also proved immensely pivotal in securing the government he gave his last ounce of devotion to save; so that a government for the people, by the people, and of the people, shall not perish from this earth.
I believe, despite all the current stress and conflict, there is still a role for such political liberty in God’s plan for the world, and also, a continued plan for America. And, thankfully, it is ultimately in God’s capable hands.