Coping With the Pandemic: Lincoln and the Wisdom of the Ages
Yesterday, a friend and I were commiserating (digitally, of course) about the uncertainty -- and, in some places, misery -- of the virus pandemic sweeping the world. He quoted one of the most famous lines in the Bible: “Thy will be done.” It’s a calming phrase for Christians, one appearing three times in the New Testament: early in the gospels of Matthew and Luke and a second time in Matthew when Jesus is on the cross. It’s also included in the Lord’s Prayer.
My friend cited another familiar line, “This too shall pass,” which I’ve always assumed was biblical as well. It isn’t, as I learned, and I can now tell you precisely when and where it entered the American lexicon. It happened in Milwaukee, on the last day of September in 1859.
The occasion was the Wisconsin State Fair. Then as now, aspiring presidential politicians journeyed from their home states to showcase their talents, and dispense their viewpoints, to a broader swath of voters. Americans already knew Abraham Lincoln as the Republican lawyer and former congressman who’d held epic debates on slavery the previous year with Illinois Sen. Stephen A. Douglas. In 1859, Lincoln would sharpen his arguments in preparation for the presidential election of 1860. But at the fairgrounds, which are now part of Marquette University, Lincoln spoke to the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society, mostly about agriculture, labor, and education. Although it is not a stirring or well-remembered speech, it was Abe Lincoln, meaning that it had its moments.
For one thing, Lincoln promoted to Wisconsin Republicans the virtue of “free” labor (as opposed to slave labor), “with its natural companion, education.” He went on to describe agriculture as conducive to “cultivated thought,” adding, “Every blade of grass is a study; and to produce two, where there was but one, is both a profit and a pleasure.”
One might suppose that Mike Bloomberg wishes he’d read this speech before he disparaged farming as a vocation. As it happens, it was a Wisconsin Republican, Anna Kelly, who posted an old clip of the New York billionaire saying derisively, “I could teach anybody -- even people in this room, no offense intended -- to be a farmer. You dig a hole, you put a seed in, you put dirt on top, add water, up comes the corn.”
Whatever Bloomberg’s intentions, offense was definitely taken. The episode also served as a reminder why, 161 years later, we’re still quoting Honest Abe. It was near the end of his Milwaukee speech that Lincoln mentioned an old Persian saying he attributed to ancient sages in the employ of “an Eastern monarch.”
“They presented him with the words, ‘And this, too, shall pass away.’ How much it expresses!” Lincoln added. “How chastening in the hour of pride -- how consoling in the depths of affliction: ‘And this, too, shall pass away.’”
He ended his speech with another thought, however:
“And yet let us hope it is not quite true. Let us hope, rather, that by the best cultivation of the physical world, beneath and around us; and the intellectual and moral world within us, we shall secure an individual, social, and political prosperity and happiness, whose course shall be onward and upward, and which, while the earth endures, shall not pass away.”