I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so. Those who nominated and elected me did so with full knowledge that I had made this and many similar declarations and had never recanted them.

So said Abraham Lincoln at his first inauguration as president of the at-that-point United States on Monday, March 4, 1861. He went on, somewhat more famously, to conclude:

I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

All of which just goes to show how the most noble of intentions, even the most resolutely held of prejudices, can be kidnapped by unanticipated confluences of Events. This is what will inevitably cruel some of the hope with which America and the world greets tomorrow’s inauguration of President Barack Obama. Only time will tell how the pristine promise of his new administration will be sullied by the future’s dark and forbidding realities. The only certainty is that this will happen. It will be Obama’s challenge to forge something even greater from those circumstances than even he might now imagine. As did Lincoln, returning to Washington in 1865:

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 achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

A work — we can only hope — in progress.

Peter Fray

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