In just about three weeks, the nation - nay, the world - will celebrate the 200th birthday of our greatest president - maybe the greatest American - Abraham Lincoln. Born in the most dispiriting circumstances on Sunday, February 12, 1809, tested as few statesmen ever have been, he successfully quelled our nation's gravest crisis, and though martyred mere days after its conclusion, he is revered and remembered for his kindness, humor, humanity, generosity of spirit, and exceptional skill with a quill. For these reasons and more, Abraham Lincoln is my hero of heroes, my holy of holies, a man I have been proud to share birthdays with for nigh on 46 years.
I have been looking forward to this bicentennial celebration for years. After 9/11, I prayed that the world would still be habitable on February 12, 2009. I am today thrilled that President Barack Obama, whose hand rested on Lincoln's Bible while reciting the oath of office yesterday, is the presiding leader.
About two years ago, I contacted the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, asking how I could get involved. I felt I wanted to play some part in the occasion. I corresponded numerous times with David Early, communications director for the ALBC, who was grateful for my interest but had his hands full. He asked me to write one short piece that potentially would be used as part of a school kit. I don't know what became of it, if anything, and it's just a first draft, but rather than let it be forever chained to my hard drive, I thought I'd share it here. The topic David asked me to address is "Why Lincoln Still Matters." Please note that it was written in April 2007.
I will write more about Lincoln, and my life with Lincoln, in the coming weeks.
Why Lincoln Still Matters
By Jason M. Rubin
Two hundred years after his humble, homely birth, Abraham Lincoln not only still matters to us, he matters to us more than ever before. That is because we are more removed from – and more in need of – his principled statesmanship, his unbending commitment to fairness and justice, his honesty, and his humor than ever before. In times like ours, when battles for equal rights are still being fought, when bloody wars cry out for meaning and Constitutional crises beg for courageous leadership, Lincoln is the model, the ideal we seek.
Renowned Lincoln scholar David Herbert Donald once wrote about how each generation tries to “get right with Lincoln.” Invoking the Great Emancipator’s posthumous imprimatur elevates and grants legitimacy to any movement. In the last century, Lincoln’s name and words were often invoked by those fighting for human rights, civil rights, equal rights, and voting rights. He is quoted by both Republicans and Democrats, and is considered the quintessential American to people around the world.
Why is this so? Was Lincoln not reviled in his own time? Did he not fail at nearly every endeavor and in nearly every political campaign prior to becoming president? Was he not unsure, depressive, and often maddeningly inconsistent? Yes, all of these are true. And yet we continue to look to Lincoln for guidance and inspiration – he continues to matter to us – because of three things: he is the archetype of the self-made man, the embodiment of what came to be known as the American Dream; his pragmatic leadership and devotion to the principles of democracy preserved the Union and enabled the United States to become the world power it is today; and his compassion for the downtrodden and ability to articulate the evils of slavery are ever-relevant in a world where groups continue to be targeted for persecution and genocide.
The right to rise
Lincoln’s story is so archetypical, so seemingly mythical, we forget sometimes that it is true. He really was born in poverty to illiterate parents. He really did have minimal schooling. His journey from log cabin to the White House was, in fact, fueled by his own ambition and talent rather than by wealth or the influence of powerful friends. What Lincoln valued most about the Founding Fathers was that they rejected state-imposed limits on what citizens could make of themselves. He benefited from what he called the “right to rise” and his example has given generations of Americans reason to believe that they, too, can better their station in life through hard work and determination.
Without Lincoln, rather than “one nation, indivisible,” the land mass we inhabit would be home to a loose collection of disaffected factions, vulnerable to internal feuds and external forces. Lincoln believed that the “noble experiment” of democracy must endure. Though many in the South chose to secede from the Union, and many in the North were glad to see them go, Lincoln understood the dangerous precedent being set: that any group, dissatisfied with the federal government, could break off and form their own separate nation. Yet the Constitution already protected against despotism and dictatorship; any Administration can be legally and peacefully removed through quadrennial elections. Lincoln saw the American form of government as “the last best hope of earth” and fought to save it. In our own time, where violent revolutions and evil regimes restrict freedom and stability in nations throughout the world, the United States remains – imperfect as it is – the world’s model for a free, democratic society.
“As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master.” “Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves.” Such simple yet powerful ideas were considered quite radical in Lincoln’s time. Yet there were many in his inner circle who thought he moved too slow to free the slaves. Looking back in hindsight from the present, it has been suggested that Lincoln was a reluctant emancipator. But in fact, there was a major obstacle that stood between Lincoln’s personal beliefs and his public policy: the Constitution. The very document that Lincoln was fighting to preserve as the law of the land protected slavery. It was only by a radical – and still controversial – use of emergency war powers that Lincoln was able to free the slaves. And once done, he fought for passage of the 13th amendment to ensure that the slaves would truly be forever free.
Why does Lincoln matter? Simply because thanks to him, a free, democratic United States still exists 200 years after his birth to honor his memory and to continue to learn from his eloquent words and extraordinary deeds.