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August 27, 2010

Beware the People Weeping

When President Lincoln was assassinated by the actor John Wilkes Booth in 1865, Herman Melville wrote a poem called "The Martyr," based on the atmosphere and mood of the people of his day. The observations contained therein, however, are prophetic for all peoples of all times, when they feel they have been wronged but have recourse for severe retribution.

There is sobbing of the strong,
And a pall upon the land;
But the People in their weeping
Bare the iron hand:
Beware the People weeping
When they bare the iron hand.

In his famous Second Inaugural Address, given while the rebel army was on its heels but still in te fight, Lincoln made his intent to be merciful clear (and in doing so, perhaps, sowing seeds of hope in the Confederate soldiers' minds that the Union might offer terms for surrender that allowed them to live in dignity and honor after the war's conclusion):

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan -- to do all which may acheve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.

Melville not only acknowledged this intent, he led with it. Melville's opening stanza brilliantly contrasted Lincoln's magnanimity and his assassin's (which was not limited to Booth alone) bitterness:

Good Friday was the day
Of the prodigy and crime,
When they killed him in his pity,
When they killed him in his prime
Of clemency and calm--
When with yearning he was filled
To redeem the evil-willed,
And, though conqueror, be kind;
But they killed him in his kindness,
In their madness and their blindness,
And they killed him from behind.

Take notice of how he says "they killed him in his kindness." Not "he." 

It's clear that Melville knew that the entire South would be blamed for Booth's actions, and the vacuum left in Lincoln's place lacked his pity. It was filled with the iron fist of empowered retribution. 

In the aftermath of the assassination, measures were taken to deal harshly with the southern states that were in rebellion.

Take heed. That posture threatens us today.

Everyone seems to entertain, if not harbor, a paralyzing anger of fear about something. 

Business has taken a pretty big hit over the last few years given the state of the economy. Accusations of malfeasance and unfairness have motivated the peddlars of victimhood to rally the people (to the extent they needed them) to call for the consolidation of power that gave them control over the outputs of their professions: Pharmaceutical companies. Health care. Wall Street. Walmart. You name it.

We live in interesting times. The actions we take may affect us for the next hundred years, just like happened in the aftermath of the Civil War and Reconstruction, when the people sought the "iron fist" rather than mercy after their captain had been murdered.

We seem to see it as a paradox similar to Thomas Jefferson's outlook on slavery in his day, "We have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go."

I might suggest an alternative outlook to Jefferson's. This one belonged to Booker T. Washington:

"There are two ways of exerting ones' strength: one is pushing down, the other is pulling up."

Just so. The power to create is the power to help. The power to help is the power to change. 

By contrast, the power to destroy requires no creativity at all. All it requires is an iron fist. 

Instead of seeking ways to punish, repress and destroy, we ought to, like Lincoln and Washington, be seeking ways to create and to help. Sometimes things work our way, sometimes they don't. 

But helping others through the sweat of your own brow (not demanding the sweat of others, which is the very definition of slavery), regardless of how they treat you, is always a winning formula for success. - Cam Beck

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Comments

I don't believe that Booth did it for revenge: as his letter to his mom, his "To whom it may concern" letter and the diary all paints him as a soldier as his motivation. If these people can at least back up their theories it would help in their credibility as experts. Now as Booth being a racist anyone would agree a racist would not have any sympathy for any other race and Booth had even said "Yet Heaven knows no one would be willing to do more for the negro race than I. Could I but...

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