"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."
— Abraham Lincoln, first inaugural address
On Election Night 2008, the "mystic chords" of memory stretched from the Illinois prairies and Washington, D.C., of Lincoln’s own time, down through the years to Grant Park in Chicago, where President-elect Barack Obama delivered his victory speech.
They stretched around the country, as Americans everywhere recognized the special significance of Obama’s election, whether they voted for him or, like me, for John McCain.
Certainly Lincoln’s mystic chords stretched to "every living heart" of African-Americans, among them Ann Nixon Cooper, the 106-year-old Atlanta woman who voted Tuesday.
They connected past and present, people living with people dead, individuals with one another, race with race.
It was a powerful few minutes in American history, carrying any thoughtful American deeply into our wounded past. It signaled another big step in America’s long and slow and twisting journey away from the blight on our founding.
Were these chords "mystic," transcending human experience, having spiritual significance?
Those who believe in coincidence — chords of coincidence — would say it was mere happenstance that America’s first African-American president was elected from Lincoln’s adopted state.
Memories aren’t mystic; they’re just memories. Likewise for those who believe it mere coincidence that next year when we celebrate the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth our first African-American President will have taken office less than a month earlier.
But for those of us who believe there is something vibrating in this confluence of events, the chords are mystic; they indeed have a larger, spiritual significance.
By Lincoln’s measures, the chords would be mystic in any case, whenever and wherever the first African-American was elected President. He saw the reach of history.
Clearly, the celebration of Lincoln’s 200th birthday in Kentucky next February will be heavy with mystic chords. Anyone who has visited Sinking Spring Farm where Lincoln was born or the Knob Creek Farm up the road where Lincoln’s first memories were formed — the first vibrations of his own mystic chords — can imagine how moving it might be.
The President-elect himself strummed the mystic chords when he called on our shared memory of A. Lincoln, noting that he was the first Republican president. More important, in several instances, he drew on A. Lincoln’s words, calling on these opening lines from the closing of Lincoln’s First Inaugural: "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."
Lincoln’s mystic chords already link our 16th president and our president-elect, and the ties will become stronger in the months ahead.
Our times are not as troubled as when Lincoln took office and spoke of "the mystic chords of memory," but they are troubled.
We can hope and pray — fondly and fervently — that this new president will be able to call on "the better angles of our nature" as he begins to lead a fragmenting nation. We are not enemies.
Tack Cornelius is a writer who lives in Gainesville and who votes Republican.