Joe Biden, don’t repeat Abe Lincoln’s mistake

Sophia Nelson, Opinion contributor
·5 min read

America is at a critical inflection point and, dare I say, reflection point. We have to decide whether the men and women responsible for trying to overturn a free and fair election, and who later helped to incite a riot and insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, will be given pardon or punishment.

Joe Biden, our incoming president, has from Day One built his campaign for the presidency around the issue of America’s soul and trying to unify her broken factions. He opened his campaign with a video quoting Thomas Jefferson’s famous refrain: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” Biden made clear that the reason he was compelled to run for the presidency was because of the racial horror that unfolded in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017.

Lincoln's mistake

Fast-forward to 2021, Biden will be inaugurated the nation’s 46th president on Wednesday at the same Capitol that was under siege by Trump supporters and domestic terrorists. The question is now that the House has impeached Donald Trump, again, will he be convicted in a Senate trial that will start presumably in late January or in the first 100 days of the Biden administration? And the bigger question is what will a Biden-Harris Department of Justice do with any investigations into criminal allegations against Trump or his associates?

From my vantage point — as someone who was a center-right Republican from age 20, when I could first vote in a presidential election in 1988, until the Trump presidency began in 2017 — this is a very consequential moment not just for the fate of the Republican Party but also for the republic.

Abraham Lincoln on March 4, 1861, in Washington, D.C.
Abraham Lincoln on March 4, 1861, in Washington, D.C.

President Biden must not make the same mistake that the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, made when he forgave the traitors to the Union, when he pledged “malice toward none” and let the Confederates off without punishment. He let Robert E. Lee, the commanding general of the Confederacy, and the men who took up arms against the American Union return to rebuild their lives and communities in the South.

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I understand Lincoln’s heart. I understand Lincoln’s thought process but, in hindsight, it was a mistake not to hold these traitors accountable and publicly deal with their treachery and treason. John Wilkes Booth shot and killed Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre. Wilkes was a Confederate sympathizer and was part of a conspiracy of Confederates who hated Lincoln. Who did not accept that they lost the war. And who could not accept Lincoln’s gracious pardon. Instead, they plotted to kill him and decapitate the government at the time.

What am I saying? President Biden desperately wants to heal the nation. On that we agree. However, healing does not come without apology, regret, repentance, restitution and change. No marriage heals that way. No family heals that way. No friendship heals that way. No nation can heal that way.

What happened on Jan. 6

One reason America has not healed is because we are stuck in denial about what really happened on Jan. 6. It was not a day of patriots protesting. It was a day of white grievances. White rage. And white nationalism run wild. It was a day that we have seen many times before in our nation’s ugly racial past, just not at the U.S. Capitol. We know about the Tulsa massacre in Oklahoma in 1921 and the Rosewood massacre in Florida in 1923 that killed hundreds of innocent Black people during the Jim Crow era. We know about lynch mobs and the little known Wilmington massacre in North Carolina in 1898. All of it happened right here in America.

Here is the hard truth we face in 2021: President Lincoln welcomed traitors back into the Union with no consequence in his quest to “unite” the Union. Regrettably, after his assassination, his vision of a “reconstruction” to bring education and equality to African Americans ended abruptly with the Compromise of 1887. Black people, newly freed, endured eight more decades of racial terror and inequity during Jim Crow.

If Biden allows Trump, Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Josh Hawley of Missouri, House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy and their ilk get away with the big lie that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump, we will endure more violence. We will divide ourselves more deeply. We will damage this republic for an additional 50 to 100 years to come, if we last that long.

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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will go down in history as one of the patriots of this republic because she held Donald Trump accountable by getting the largest bipartisan vote ever to impeach a president. The question is will Biden be Lincoln, or will Biden be different and hold accountable those who engaged in lies and raged in sedition.

Sophia Nelson is an adjunct professor at Christopher Newport University in Virginia and the author of “E Pluribus ONE: Reclaiming Our Founders’ Vision for a United America.” Follow her on Twitter: @IAmSophiaNelson

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Joe Biden shouldn't follow Lincoln's lead in forgiving traitors