We celebrate the life, memory, and legacy of Abraham Lincoln as the 200th anniversary of his birth has at last arrived on this day in history, February 12, 2009. Remembrance ceremonies will be held today in Washington, D.C.; at his birthplace in Hodgenville, Kentucky; his boyhood home memorial in Indiana; and of course at his beloved Springfield, Illinois. Countless other ceremonies from exhibits to speeches to musical performances will take place coast-to-coast across the nation he helped to preserve.
Mr. Lincoln continues to hold a lock on the imagination of our country for reasons that even the most expert of historians sometime struggle to understand or explain. Certainly his life story is compelling and well-known. Born to poor, illiterate parents, Lincoln as a youth suffered the loss of his mother and sister and was never close to his father. The amount of formal education he had in his entire life totaled less than one year. Business attempts as a young man resulted in failure. He married a woman who can be charitably described as difficult and suffered more tragedy by losing two children, including the one who was most like him and who was his personal favorite. He struggled with depression, sometimes so in the grips of it that his friends feared for his life. As if that wasn't enough, once he had final victory in his grasp, he was struck down by a madman intent on revenge.
Yet in spite of these obstacles and almost impossible odds, Abraham Lincoln achieved greatness. He had a burning ambition to succeed and to escape the life his parents endured. His perseverance is astounding. He read voraciously, often walking miles in order to borrow books which were rare on the frontier. He developed an extraordinary writing style which has been seldom matched even by the most accomplished of writers. He taught himself law and became a very successful attorney. And of course he continued to pursue politics, even though he served just one term in Congress prior to becoming president.
But the failures and successes, the tragedies and the triumphs, cannot completely explain why we continue to have a fascination with this man of the humblest of origins. In my opinion, there are two primary reasons.
First, Lincoln never wavered from his principles and beliefs in doing what he felt was right, even in the face of withering criticism from his enemies. Lincoln was under siege from abolitionists who wanted him to destroy slavery immediately; from Northerners who wanted him to simply let the Confederate states leave the union so the War could end; and from elected officials who criticized his leadership of the War. But Lincoln had the vision that this nation was the "last best hope on Earth" for democracy, for government of the people, and stuck to this belief.
More importantly, though, Lincoln also showed an extraordinary capacity for personal growth. While he was against slavery, for example, he was slow to accept the need for universal emancipation. He freely stated that if he could save the union without freeing a single slave, he would do so. And he believed at first that the government had no right to interfere with slavery where it already existed. Yet as the War continued, he at last came to understand that our nation, founded in liberty and freedom, could not truly be a successful experiment in representative government while millions were in bondage.
These two traits of Lincoln combined into making him our greatest president. While it's important to be dedicated to certain principles, it is crucial that one can admit mistakes and be able to understand when those principles might need to be altered.
Lincoln remains controversial for some, a hero for most, an enigma for nearly everyone. We continue to look for the man behind the myth. Some claim he was gay, others that he was a racist, still some who say he was an atheist. In the process, Lincoln has been somewhat taken down from his pedestal. Personally, I think that's a good thing. For in doing so, we learn more about this fascinating, yet highly complicated man.
Happy Birthday, Mr. Lincoln!
Thursday, February 12, 2009
Posted by Geoff Elliott at 7:42 AM