Lincoln saw “drunkards” and slaves as in the same basket. Both were not free.
American people and politicians, he thought, needed to have a moral as well as a practical response to people who were in bondage. That was the brave idea he presented to the Washington Temperance Society in February of 1842. Lincoln is America’s Whisperer.
He shocked Southerners by pointing out that slaves were not really happy being slaves. And he shocked the good people of Springfield, Illinois, by saying that drunkards, his word for addicts, were not to be blamed any more than slaves were.
Democracy to Lincoln was really a moral idea. People were equal because people had value, even slaves and drunks. Especially since no one ever really wanted or deserved to be unfree. Being in bondage, either to the slaver owner or to the bottle was not just a personal problem it was a civic problem. Government and society needed to help people be free, because that is what democracy is for.
We know, from the 13th Amendment and the Emancipation Proclamation, how Lincoln addressed government’s role in slavery.
Here is how he addressed our civic response to people in addiction, for us the most pressing would be those caught in the tragic and huge opioid crisis.
“If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him you are his sincere friend.” If society shuns and stigmatizes the addict he will close himself off, retreat into himself, close off all avenues to his head or his heart. But with the sweet honey of “approachability” you will “catch his heart” and put him “on the high road to his reason.”
In other words addicts don’t like being addicted and with a little respect they can start trying to recover their life, their own heart and hope, their minds. Without that recognition of common humanity the slaves would have stayed enslaved, and so now addicts would be addicted until they die.
Lincoln’s great gift to social policy was heart. America was a moral place. In that idea addicts need a safe place to begin recovery and to stay alive. They need to know that society does not stigmatize them as sinners but welcomes them as fellow citizens.
Lincoln was able to be secular and religious. He thought that George Washington was the mightiest name in civil liberty and in moral reformation, and he also understood the Christian idea that God came to earth in human form and so we should also condescend to help our fellow humanity.
A moral do-no-harm response to the opioid crisis could guide our response to HR 949 safe injection site bill.
Rev. Dr. Duncan Newcomer lives in Belfast, and is a retired Ordained Minister in the United Church of Christ. He has been a licensed psychotherapist and a Behavioral Scientist on the Faculty of the University of Connecticut Medical School. His radio feature, “Quiet Fire: The Spiritual Life of Abraham Lincoln” can be heard on WERU 89.9 & 99.9 Wednesdays at 7:30 A.M.