The United States Could Use Another Visionary Like James Harlan

COMMENTARY: The Iowa senator in 1863 introduced a national fast day.

Senator James Harlan
Senator James Harlan (photo: Public Domain)

On the Feast of the Epiphany in 1970, William F. Buckley Jr. hosted Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen on his public affairs show, Firing Line. The pairing of two of the most notable Catholic intellectuals in the United States at that time must have drawn a rapt audience. 

The program, however, got off to an awkward start when the host asked Archbishop Sheen what he was implying when he quoted Abraham Lincoln. The archbishop had quoted the 16th U.S. president many times and responded by stating that for Lincoln, the United States’ greatest threat was not from without but from within. 

Unfortunately, that was not the quote that Buckley had in mind. “I will refresh your memory,” the host said, “though I thought that your memory never needed to be refreshed.” It was an article penned by Archbishop Sheen in 1967 that Buckley was referring to and one that he wanted to use as a springboard for the show’s discussion.

Buckley began reading what the archbishop had cited: 

“We have been preserved, these many years, in peace and prosperity. We have grown in numbers, wealth and power, as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us!”

It was a powerful paragraph and sounded very Lincolnesque. The question Buckley then put to his distinguished guest dealt with the notion of retribution. Is the war in Vietnam that is currently raging, an example of God’s retribution on a society that has rejected him? 

Archbishop Sheen was emphatic in denying that this is what he implied by quoting Lincoln. He then stated, quite simply that there is a moral order and there is retribution. Sodom and Gomorrah are biblical examples of God’s retribution visited upon an immoral society. Robert Bork’s 1997 book, Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline, hailed as one of the most important books of the 1990s, deals with this theme of moral decline and retribution. 

Archbishop Sheen wisely refrained from applying his theology to any current set of circumstances. Nonetheless, he maintained that moral disorder can invite Divine retribution.

It often happens that a dignitary receives credit for what someone else did. John F. Kennedy’s celebrated work, Profiles in Courage, was ghost-written, as was Canadian Prime Minister Rene Levesque’s “autobiography” Straight from the Heart. Ghost writers may be paid well, but they often remain uncredited. 

Abraham Lincoln was, among U.S. presidents, the most eloquent writer and speaker. His legacy does not need to be enlarged by adding statements that he did not author. The laurel for the noble sentiments, which both Buckley and Archbishop Sheen misattributed to Lincoln, really belong to Sen. James Harlan, R-Iowa, who, on March 2, 1863, introduced the proclamation, “Appointing a National Fast Day.” The resolution was adopted on March 3 and signed by Lincoln on March 30. It was co-signed by Secretary of State William Seward.  One month later the day was observed. 

Sen. Harlan (1820-1899) is also notable insofar as his daughter, Mary, married Abraham Lincoln’s son, Robert. The couple named their son Abraham Lincoln II. 

The purpose of the proclamation was made clear in its opening sentence: 

“Whereas, the Senate of the United States, devoutly recognizing the Supreme Authority and just Government of Almighty God, in all the affairs of men and of nations, has, by a resolution, requested the President to designate and set apart a day for National prayer and humiliation.”

Fifty years after the Buckley-Sheen interview, the same issue is discussed in the year 2020. Is the COVID-19 virus God’s retribution on a society that has lost its moral compass? While it is problematic to assert a positive connection, the present situation presents us with undeniable factors. The mounting moral disorder we observe in the present-day United States and elsewhere, including the breakup of marriage and the family, together with abortion, euthanasia, pornography and political corruption, seems to invite some kind of retribution. Have we forgotten God? 

One state governor has declared that we do not need God to control the coronavirus. Our belief in God, to a visible extent, has been replaced by a belief in science. A National Fast Day seems appropriate, though it seems highly unlikely that another senator and another president will affirm the proclamation inaugurated by Harlan and Lincoln back in 1863. It is left, therefor, to us to pray and do penance, individually or in whatever groups remain possible to us at a time when the policy of quarantine has infringed upon communal gatherings.

A nation’s moral life is the foundation of its culture. Buckley, Sheen, Harlan, Lincoln, and Bork would all heartily agree on this point. The Bible tells us that where there is no moral vision the people will perish. Sen. James Harlan was a visionary. Let us sing his praises. We need more like him in this time of moral and social decline.