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Jewish World Review
Feb. 11, 2011
/ 7 Adar I, 5771
It's Still the Land of Lincoln
Tomorrow may be Lincoln's Birthday by the calendar. But officially there is no more Lincoln's Birthday. Or Washington's. The old holidays have been telescoped, flattened, mixed and matched, their identities melted into a generic Presidents' Day that honors … well, no one is quite sure. Washington and Lincoln? All the presidents combined? Bargain sales? It is all a blur.
Not that Mr. Lincoln was ever easy to pigeonhole. To quote one of his contemporary biographers, David Donald, "I'm not sure anybody's ever gotten Lincoln down." But historians keep trying. So do a lot of pseudohistorians. Today we want our Wisdom of the Ages bite-sized, user-friendly, convenient, easy to open, unwrap and reseal. Mass-produced, cellophane-wrapped, french fries with that, and no thought required.
It is no surprise that, depicted by that kind of history, history as docudrama, Abraham Lincoln should emerge as just another mod, waffling politician unburdened by any belief he couldn't sacrifice to win an election. History is, after all, the surest reflection of the contemporary. See Professor Donald's own, much acclaimed biography of Lincoln as the ultimate trimmer, which deftly captured the spirit not of Lincoln's time but of our own.
The mystery of Lincoln persists. For he left no close friends, no old cronies, no trusted confidants to sum him up in a single, neat phrase. "This was a man terribly alone," David Donald concludes.
Alone? No. Solitary, yes. Singular, certainly. And never more so than when he was surrounded by people, telling those country stories of his. But in his solitude he was accompanied -- by ideas he'd long been on familiar terms with. Each one was like an old ax he'd relied on for years, honing it, testing it, never letting it grow rusty. They'd grown up together, Abe Lincoln and his ideas. No, sir, he was not a man alone. Quite the contrary.
Maybe the secret of Abraham Lincoln, and the source of his strength, is buried back in the years of his obscurity, long before he had risen to national prominence -- and national controversy. The key to the man may lie in those silent years, the years of gathering strength, the Springfield Years. In 1849, a still young Lincoln had come home to Illinois a failed congressman of a failing Whig Party, and he would not re-emerge in politics until 1854, when the slavery issue was re-ignited.
Mr. Lincoln spent those five years riding the legal circuit, settling down, and thinking, thinking, thinking. He'd prop his long legs on the window sill of his second-story law office in Springfield, Ill., and ponder, preparing his mind, and maybe his soul, for the crisis he could feel coming.
From youth, his mind had been saturated in the King James Bible ("A house divided against itself cannot stand") and he knew his Shakespeare. He read few books, but a great many men. Perhaps because what books he did read were the great, enduring ones. And those he made part of himself.
With the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, the poisonous infection of slavery, which had been contained ever since the Missouri Compromise of 1820, was let loose. The Slave Power took heart: The Western territories now lay open. The Dred Scott decision three years later, in 1857, would seal slavery's "victory." Now there was no state that could keep it out.
But the slavers had not counted on a lanky lawyer in a provincial capital out there somewhere on the dark American prairie. Year after year, he'd been thinking this thing through. And now he would be heard. His supporters urged him to refrain from repeating those ominous words -- "A house divided against itself cannot stand" -- when he debated Judge Douglas during their Senate race in 1858. He wrote back: "I would rather be defeated with this expression in my speech, and uphold and discuss it before the people, than be victorious without it." He was, in short, not your model modern politician.
Indeed, Mr. Lincoln was defeated that year. But he was after bigger game than Stephen A. Douglas, The Little Giant, the author of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and The Next President of the United States! Or so they said. Nor was Mr. Lincoln looking only to capture the presidency two years later. He was out to capture the American mind, and conscience, and will.
After the historic Lincoln-Douglas debates -- we have not seen their like since, certainly not in our televised times -- Abe Lincoln would become a man to be reckoned with in presidential politics. For this much about him was no mystery: He stood for something. And he would fight for it.
If you reached for a single word to sum up what Abraham Lincoln stood for, and stands for still, that word might be freedom. Or maybe Union. Both, really. For after Lincoln, the twain could not, would not, ever be separate concepts ever again. It had taken Mr. Lincoln years to slog his way through all the snap answers of the abolitionists and the smooth evasions of the compromisers, and reason his way through the thicket of notions and interests that had grown up around the old ideal of Liberty and Union, one and inseparable.
The man would remain mysterious to many, for in many ways he was the perfect, fluid politician. He was not only wise but shrewd: He despised the Know-Nothings, but would take their votes. He would make grievous errors as commander-in-chief (like that disastrous frontal assault on Richmond at the war's start) but learn from every one of them. He would break the chain of command he himself had established ("Let this woman have her son out of Old Capital Prison"), and there were times when he seemed to have no policy at all. ("My policy is to have no policy.")
Lincoln's greatness lay in knowing what could and could not be compromised without losing all. It is a great thing to be willing to fight for a principle. It is a greater thing to understand what is principle and what is expendable. His critics could not see what he was effecting: a new birth of freedom. He himself could not have planned it the way it happened. But the war came, and in the course of its terrible greatness, he became a statesman and more.
To those bewildered by his changing course, he would trot out one of his homely illustrations: "The pilots on our Western rivers steer from point to point as they call it -- setting the course of the boat no farther than they can see, and that is all I propose…."
If he proceeded only from point to point, he never turned back. He would follow this river in time no matter how long it took, till it bore both him and the Union home, both profoundly changed, both profoundly the same. However dark the night, his pole star remained the same: freedom. However torturous the course, he always steered in the same direction: toward the light. The light called liberty.
It was Lincoln who once called this America the last, best hope of Earth. Now it has become the first. But this much has not changed: Once again, despite those who would sound retreat, and those who sincerely doubt whether freedom's cause is worth the toil and anguish and divisions and sacrifice, this nation -- this one nation now indivisible -- endures and will endure. It may hesitate, its may pause, it may doubt itself, but, no, it will not give up.
That is the Lincoln of it, you see. It is what he gave us at his own and the Union's moment of truth. It is part of us still. It has not been lost. How be so sure of that? It's like this: Once a Shakespeare has written in a language, it can never be the same. It is forever new. That same thing applies to a nation once a Lincoln has held it together, creating it anew in fire and blood and, always, freedom.
Paul Greenberg Archives
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