Jewish World Review Feb. 11, 2011 / 7 Adar I, 5771
It's Still the Land of Lincoln
By Paul Greenberg
Tomorrow may be Lincoln's Birthday by the calendar. But officially there is no more Lincoln's Birthday. Or
Not that Mr. Lincoln was ever easy to pigeonhole. To quote one of his contemporary biographers,
It is no surprise that, depicted by that kind of history, history as docudrama,
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,"
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,
Maybe the secret of
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
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.
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
Indeed, Mr. Lincoln was defeated that year. But he was after bigger game than
After the historic Lincoln-Douglas debates -- we have not seen their like since, certainly not in our televised times --
If you reached for a single word to sum up what
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
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.
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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.
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