The Mystic Chords of Memory
Posted Fri, Apr 8, 2011

American presidents today officially take their oath of office on January 20th. The framers of the US constitution, however, originally fixed presidential inaugurations to take place on March 4th. With Election Day in early November, that was the timeframe they deemed necessary in the late 18th century to determine the outcome, inform the winner and allow him to get to Washington, D.C.

As such, earlier last month we celebrated the sesquicentennial of the first inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, for my money the greatest US president to have ever served in the highest office in that land.

Of course, not everyone was enamoured of Lincoln’s victory. South Carolina regarded the election results as the last straw in a decades-long sectional struggle and led an exodus of southern states out of the Union. For Lincoln, then, the long gap between winning the election and officially becoming President meant something that no other president in US history has ever had to face: By March 1861, seven states had seceded and the country was on the brink of civil war. In fact, barely a month after the inauguration, Confederate forces bombarded the US position at Fort Sumter, South Carolina and the war was on.

The day after the November election, a newspaper in Charleston, South Carolina declared that, “The tea has been thrown overboard.” With this reference to one of the tipping points of the American Revolution, the paper attempted to clothe the South’s actions in the garb of patriotism, casting the South into the role as guardians of the true revolutionary spirit of 1776. The South, it was argued, was the true incarnation of American first principles which the urban, industrial North had betrayed.

Interestingly, Lincoln would make the same pitch to these historical ties, not to elevate the North to a superior position but to bind the wounds of the divided nation. The “fourscore and seven years ago” with which he began his 1863 Gettysburg Address took Americans back to 1776 and the founding of the great republic whose future was in grave jeopardy mid-way through the Civil War. In a few majestic lines, Lincoln hallowed the sacrifices of the dead on both sides of the pivotal battle and infused new meaning into the sacred trust of the American experiment of republican government and democratic rule.

Lincoln was a past master at fusing the ideological themes of the Declaration of Independence with the practical nature of American politics. He drank deeply of the Founding Fathers’ enlightenment perspective of infinite human progress and saw himself a steward of the bedrock of the American experiment, namely, the Constitution of an indissoluble union.

As such, in a wry comment to his Secretary he noted that his first necessity as civil war loomed was to prove that, “popular government was not an absurdity.” That this should have been necessary mere decades after the ratification of the Constitution reveals much about the North-South divide that dangerously widened in the first half of the nineteenth century and then breached altogether in 1861.
Nonetheless, Lincoln tried desperately to assuage the South’s overarching fears that his election signified the abolition of slavery and the collapse of the civilization constructed around their “peculiar institution”. Above all, his objective on the first day of his presidency was to forestall armed conflict.

In his extraordinary first Inaugural Address, Lincoln appealed for both peace and union, making an impassioned plea for a conciliatory end to the secession threat and the impending armed sectional conflict. In closing, he eloquently evoked the common sacrifices of the Revolutionary War throughout all of the American colonies as they broke free of British control and set the new country sailing on the uncharted waters of independent self-government. Speaking to those whom he still considered his Southern compatriots, Lincoln said:

“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.”

What are we to make today of this notion of “mystic chords of memory”? How does this fit into our understanding of the bigger picture of nationalism and the role of the State as an expression of self-determination or territorial collectivity?

We have witnessed in recent history the horrific consequences of excessive nationalism, often manifest on a scale of evil from xenophobia to genocide. Here in Canada, by contrast, we often wonder the opposite; that is, whether we have enough? We’re all generally proud of our nationality but are there mystic chords of memory that reverberate in our consciousness? And if they exist, are we doing a proper job of transmitting them to younger generations and new Canadians?

We tend to shep nachas from certain contemporary individuals like Terry Fox or Lester Pearson but our history is lost in the mists of time, poorly taught in our schools if at all. We qvell over Canada’s peacekeepers and troops and designate made-in-Canada programs like health care and multiculturalism as touchstones of our national pride. We make fun of what we perceive as the hyper-patriotism of the United States while elevating Tim Horton’s and hockey to symbols of our own national identity. The Vancouver Olympics seemed to create an instant cross-country bond but only fleetingly, it seems to me. Maybe in the end all of this is sufficient, or maybe our collective attachment is ultimately too tenuous for our own good.

In Israel, discussions continue among pundits and commentators of what “post-Zionist” Israeli society looks like. Are the foundational ties that used to bind, in fact, fraying? The mystic chords of Jewish memory may go back millennia but do those connected to the rebirth of the modern State of Israel continue to ring loudly? Although it sadly may not be something that will be answered anytime soon, the question has been asked, “Can Israel survive peace?” In other words, without the unifying force of external existential threats are there sufficient points of contact for a national collective consciousness in the Jewish homeland?

In pondering all of this, it may be a cautionary tale that ultimately Lincoln’s plea for unity fell on deaf ears. Several other Southern states seceded, formed the Confederate States of America and went to war for states’ rights and defense of their agrarian, slave-based way of life. As the soldiers themselves would quickly discover on the battlefield, it is exceedingly difficult to move an opposing force out of entrenched positions.

It’s also worth remembering that precisely a century after Lincoln’s first inauguration another hopeful American president spoke to the nation as his first task as Chief Executive and encouraged his fellow-citizens to intensify their connection with what it meant to be American. Appealing to them to be the current links in an enduring chain of history, he said:

“And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe - the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God. We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.” And so he implored Americans not to ask what their country could do for them, but what they could do for their country.

I imagine the mystic chords of memory reverberated loudly in John F. Kennedy’s ears that day in 1961 but, like Lincoln, he too would later fall to the bullets of the false revenge.

BY: Eric Vernon, Director of Government Relations and International Affairs, Canadian Jewish Congress (

One of Canada's leading experts on antisemitism and human rights, Bernie M. Farber is the National Chief Executive Officer of Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC).

Mr. Farber has spent more than 20 years with CJC, battling hatred and racism and strengthening relationships with police services, government and other ethnic and faith communities across the country.

The recipient of countless awards, Mr. Farber is an associate member of the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police, and was recently selected by the Ontario government to serve as a member of the Hate Crimes Community Working Group. He also serves with the city of Vaughan Mayor's Task Force on Community Safety and Security and the York Regional Police Community Crime Prevention Advisory Council.

Mr. Farber is a published author and has contributed numerous articles on the Jewish political scene, human rights issues, the Holocaust, hate crime and white supremacy to newspapers and periodicals including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, the Toronto Star, and many others.


Eric Vernon was born in Toronto in 1953. He was educated at the University of Toronto, University of Waterloo and Ohio State University, in history and political science.

For over twenty years, Mr. Vernon has been the principal lobbyist in Ottawa of the Canadian Jewish Congress, the lead advocacy organization for Canada's Jewish communities and UJA Federations.

In 1987, he established the Ottawa Advocacy Office of Canadian Jewish Congress and is currently the Director of Government Relations for CJC. In these capacities he has written numerous briefs, op-eds, position papers and correspondence on national legislation, public policy, and international issues affecting Canada and its Jewish community, including antisemitism, Israel and Holocaust commemoration.

Mr. Vernon has performed a wide range of advocacy duties with federal Members of Parliament and Senators, senior public servants, government agencies, members of the diplomatic corps and representatives of other non-governmental organizations. In conjunction with these duties he has staffed several Congress committees, represented CJC at inter-faith tables, organized conferences and been involved in legislative and social policy development for CJC on a variety of domestic and international issues.