Monday, February 19, 2007


Not big on Presidents Day. A tad too inherently royal or worse for my tastes. Add to that that I really don't see many presidents in our history worth admiration. The country has basically survived most of its presidents despite their best efforts. In my lifetime there've only been a couple who weren't either psychopaths or sociopaths, and only one who didn't outright lie to us about something really big, who's going to Heaven (even though he's still the one least likely to expect it and I still would never invite him to a party). But, as I've mentioned here from time to time, there's one I place in my private pantheon of heroes whose insight into himself, into his time, his species remains pretty much unique among our past leaders, hell, our past philosophers.

And as I've thought about Abe Lincoln on this day, I've thought as well about what his take on corrections sentencing in America today would be. More importantly, what he might tell us would work. IOW, W.W. A. D.?

At first you might think the guy who quoted this from the Bible would be pretty hard-line about justice and just deserts:

Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh.

But of course you know that Lincoln was not that hard line. He had practiced defense law. He had a view of humans as capable of improvement and furthering themselves, hence his dislike of slavery which threathened individuals because it took a person's work from them and which threatened society because it substituted a system of a person's own labor and its subsequent reward with the forced labor of others. Contrary to the conservative view of government's first object being public safety, Lincoln said that the "leading object of government is, to elevate the condition of men . . . to afford all, an unfettered start, and a fair chance in the race of life."

Lincoln saw a human sameness, a "there but for the grace of God," that is lacking in much of our corr sent policy today. We don't have to wonder what he would think about alternative sanctions and treatment for substance abuse, for example; he told us:

Another error, as it seems to me, into which the old reformers fell, was, the position that all habitual drunkards were utterly incorrigible, and therefore, must be turned adrift, and damned without remedy, in order that the grace of temperance might abound to the temperate then, and to all mankind some hundred years thereafter. There is in this something so repugnant to humanity, so uncharitable, so cold-blooded and feelingless, that it never did, nor ever can enlist the enthusiasm of a popular cause.

Okay, maybe he was wrong about whether the "popular cause" could be enlisted, but his view is clear. It is that of someone who knows his own frailities and others' simply because they are human and from that common humanity charity should derive. When did you last hear the word "charity" used in our deliberations in this sense? This was a person who, through the tragedy of civil war, came to realize that God, the universe, fate, whatever you prefer is bigger than mere humans and those who claim to know what God wants are substituting fiction for fact. Nowhere did he make that clearer than in his judgment on the Civil War itself:

Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. . . . If God now wills the removal of a great wrong, and wills also that we of the North as well as you of the South, shall pay fairly for our complicity in that wrong, impartial history will find therein new cause to attest and revere the justice and goodness of God.

So W.W.A.D. concerning criminal justice and corrections sentencing? People were supposed to be free to pursue their talents to their utmost, and government's job was to clear away the obstacles to that pursuit, not to lead, direct, or force them but to make sure their paths could be traveled. People were responsible human beings who would and could make mistakes and, in their own injustice, would and should be punished for those mistakes. But never without "charity," never without a sense of our own possible failings, never without understanding that we are simply humans, not God, and our judgments are subject to the dark as well as the light, as was revealed to him about a great civil war based on the subjugation of one race of people to another by two complicit sections of our nation.

We all claim our heroes would want what we want. That's why we pick them as heroes. So I clearly believe that Abe's view on corr sent today would have been much like mine. But I grew up with Abe and his view so maybe he made me. I just know that, at the end of the worst war on our soil, with the possibility for vengeance and self-righteousness at hand and likely, understandable, demanded, just as we hear every day in our crim just policies, Abe looked at that world and saw it only led back to a place we didn't need to be. He failed to get his view across before his death and our nation continues to suffer today for that failure, particularly in our corrections sentencing policies. But, as we ponder where we want to be in the future, we could do far worse than to base our actions on what amounted to his last words to our nation:

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 a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.

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