As divisive as these times may be, at least Donald Trump won’t be sneaking into Washington, D.C., on a midnight train like Abraham Lincoln.
After the election of 1860 Lincoln became the most anti-slavery president since John Quincy Adams a generation earlier. Six slave states immediately seceded from the Union, while others threatened to join them. In the winter of 1861 President-elect Lincoln took advice that he later regretted. Fearing an assassination plot in the slave state of Maryland, Lincoln avoided the most obvious route to Baltimore.
Instead, Lincoln donned a simple black felt cap in place of his trademark stovepipe hat. He stooped to appear shorter than his equally distinctive six-foot-four frame, which was towering by standards of the time. Then, late at night, he and a guard rode from sleepy Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to Philadelphia. There they caught a nearly empty train to Baltimore, before ducking onto a different train to Washington.
Lincoln was embarrassed, however, when on the Washington train a former Congressional colleague recognized him. His friend nevertheless helped usher the president-elect safely into the capital.
Despite the awkward transition, President Lincoln would go on to save our Union amid civil war and begin the slow but steady expansion of American liberty for all. Nevertheless, I’m sure he would have preferred to leave office the same way, given the chance.
Flashing forward, Donald Trump has his own private helicopter. That’s one way to dodge the perils of a divided country. No night trains or funny hats for him, unless you count those red “Make America Great Again” ball caps. (And I suppose you should).
This week Trump becomes the 45th President of the United States. With the Friday morning inauguration ceremony, America continues its long tradition of mostly peaceful and occasionally polite political transition.
While the country isn’t as literally divided as Lincoln’s America, we know new division in these times. Cultural and political acrimony now extends beyond state and even regional borders. People in the same families and communities descend into arguments over whether up is down or down is up. The civil war is in our smartphones. The traitors don’t carry muskets; they bear unverified Twitter accounts and cloaked IP addresses.
We know from life that transition is constant and necessary. Everything that is born must die. Everything new becomes old. It is values, stories, and energy that endures.
On Jan. 7, the columnist and longtime jazz writer Nat Hentoff died at age 91 at his home in New York. Readers of the Hibbing Daily Tribune might remember Hentoff for his many syndicated columns that ran on the editorial page.
I certainly didn’t agree with all of Hentoff’s opinions, nor would most of you. He routinely criticized Democrats because of his staunchly pro-life views, while lamenting Republican policies on civil rights and privacy. But there was a moral clarity to Hentoff’s columns that outlasted one new president after another.
I’m reminded of Frederick Douglass in Lincoln’s time. The runaway slave-turned-intellectual abolitionist was a constant moral beacon both before and after Lincoln’s administration. He didn’t just apply his views to slavery and rights for African-Americans, he spoke passionately on behalf of women’s rights, too. To presidents and the press, Douglass was seen as a constant irritant. An agitator. Only now, with the benefit of time, we see with crystal moral clarity that he was right. Without Douglass, there could be no Lincoln.
The tradition of American inaugurations represent the fact that presidents come and go, by design. Those presidents become known by what they say and do, factors far beyond our control — sometimes even theirs. History’s pathway contours more closely with the work of people like Douglass, or Hentoff, or perhaps even us, in how we conduct ourselves.
What we believe and value should be the same under any president. Our views should be shaped and enhanced by truth and understanding. The rest? Just a big show, albeit one far more consequential than reality TV.
Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Jan. 15, 2017 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.