“He said he had just awakened from a peculiar dream which had haunted him at intervals through several preceding years. He had been in a singular and indescribable vessel, but always the same, moving with great rapidity toward a dark and indefinite shore. He was always silent, and no one ever spoke to him; but he was conscious of a vague and awful fate impending over him. He had this dream just before every great and important event of the war; for instance, before the firing on Sumter; the battles of Bull Run, Antietam, Gettysburg, etc.”
According to Noah Brooks, a journalist and friend of Lincoln, these were the President’s words to his cabinet on April 14, 1865—the same day he was assassinated. Dreams are often symbolic, and this recurring dream of Lincoln’s is rich in symbolism. The ship must be the American Ship of State. The shore must be the destination, the goal of the United States. For Lincoln, that goal was the preservation of the Union—an objective which he wished to attain “with great rapidity.” However, as he strove for this end, “no one ever spoke to him”—a phrase which reflects the solitude of a President making the decisions that would preserve or destroy the American Union.
It occurs to me that Lincoln’s dream can be applied to the present day. In 2023 our Ship of State is headed toward an “indefinite shore”—either a renewal of our democracy or the destruction of that democracy by a right-wing, sometimes violent faction. No one can speak for those of us who embrace democracy and the principle of toleration. Of course, “In God we trust,” but we also know that “God helps those who help themselves.” Only if we struggle mightily can we tame the forces of polarization that have plunged us into a political civil war. Only if we work diligently will our nation attain to what Lincoln called “a new birth of freedom.”
~ Richard Russell
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