Leading Ethically Only is an educational outreach of Leadership Ethics Online (LEO). Essays range widely--from ethical analysis of the news, to ethical challenges to leaders in society, to personal reflections of an ethical nature. We welcome your thoughts and criticisms to make us better.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Lincoln Penny: Moral Reflections on Saving A Divided Nation

The face of Abraham Lincoln is on our U.S. one cent piece, our penny.  Most Americans think nothing of Old Honest Abe when they receive or give the lowly penny in daily financial transactions.  I used to be puzzled why such a great President was honored in such a lowly denomination.  But eventually I realized it was our highest high compliment to him.

The penny is found in every pocket, from the poorest to the wealthiest.  The penny is The Everyman Coin.  You may never see or hold our highest paper currency, but you always will have access to a penny.  Every other denomination we have is only a multiplication of our lowly Lincoln Cent.  If only every owner of our U.S. One Cent were reminded of Lincoln's character and morals, which led him to become the great leader he was.
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.
Lincoln ended his Second Inaugural Address wit those words.  The Civil War was nearly over, though the nation would remain divided for years to come.  Lincoln wanted healing, not punishment; renewed unity and mutual love, not division and enduring hate.  "A just and lasting peace" both for the U.S. and with all nations was his closing prayer, though a bullet would still the brain that held out that dream.

It is a great irony that many of today's problems in the United States are due to the penny.  People high and low have done every immoral and unethical thing to accumulate the Lincoln Cent, multiplied many hundreds of millions of times over.  Forgetting "malice towards none and charity towards all," the values of Lincoln have been replaced by the new golden rule:  "Who has the gold, rules."

Above Lincoln's hallowed image is inscribed, "In God We Trust." Many have pointed out that America's real god has been money and, from that fact, that it is fitting that we imprint on our material god our allegiance to it.

E Pluribus Unum:
No Longer True

Flip over the penny and you will see a picture of the Lincoln Memorial. Right above it, you will see the Latin phrase, "e pluribus unum," which translated means, "out of many [peoples], one [nation]." This is a historically, literally true statement. We are a nation of immigrants, and always will be. But being members of the same nation, under the same U.S. Constitution, does not make us one people united in any other way. And that is our problem today.

America's truer motto should read, "out of one [nation], many [factions]." Whether you call our current situation a "plutonomy" or an oligarchy, a small minority controls the most money and power over the great majority of citizens. There is among the oligarchs, contrary to Lincoln's values, "malice towards most, and charity for the few."

Parallels Between Lincoln's Day And Ours

The secession of the Confederate States from the Union was based on the same principle, "malice towards most, and charity for the few." The slaveholders were like today's oligarchs. Their personal profiteering off the backs of millions of slaves was more important than the suffering they imposed on them. When their money supply was threatened, they flaunted the U.S. Constitution and broke away from their own nation, all for money.

Lincoln loved his country. When the "money at any human cost" alliance, with its supreme loyalty to profits more than nation, showed their contempt for the United States of America, Lincoln accepted the war they started. The Civil War was about reinstating e pluribus unum, not allowing our one nation to remain fractured by those who loved money more than our democratic republic.

In our time, our money-hungry and money-driven oligarchs have not caused any states to secede from the Union. No, but what they have done is far more insidious, for it all is legal. They have purchased the loyalties of many in the U.S. Congress who make the laws for all of us. They have protected their money-interests by ensuring that the Few will continue to exploit the Many.

Prior to the Civil War, many speeches were given by Congressmen in southern states that resemble speeches made today. They said, if the status quo was not maintained, the economy would collapse. The Many under the yoke of slavery was not so bad. The Many were better off than they would have been, but only for the benign oversight of their Few masters. Progress was needed, yes, they said, to control a bad Few; however, the entire system was too vital to national interests to remove.

Today's Few have said the same. They refuse term limits. They refuse radical reforms in campaign contributions. Now, the Supreme Court--with a seated majority representing the interests of the Few--has ruled in favor of our oligarchs in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that "corporations are people."  The Few now can pour their unlimited funds to elect, with greater assurance than ever, Representatives and Senators for the Few, against the Many.  The inversion of Lincoln's sentiment--with malice towards the Many, with charity for the Few--now is legally reinforced.  The democratic process, where the Many elect the Few, is permanently infused with the cancer of money.

Lincoln's Dead, But Not Patriots Like Him

I have been thinking about the millions of good Americans throughout our history who made our nation great.  The United States of America, with all our problems, remains great because of the Many, not the Few.  People of every racial, ethnic, religious, and cultural background always have and always will make up the Many.

In all our past wars, and in our current ones, the Many have set aside their differences to defend freedom. They put aside differences at home, to preserve their common home. Out of many nations, one nation was formed, remains, and in all of its people have hope today.

Abraham Lincoln was killed by a man who wanted to preserve the status quo of the Few over the Many. We have endured and survived much since Lincoln's death. But I hope that the Many will remember their numbers, their U.S. Constitution, and their duty to preserve freedom here at home from those who would rule them as slaves.

When you look at your lowly Lincoln penny, remember who you are, and the man who loved his nation. Resurrect Lincoln's spirit by your own courageous patriotism.

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