Remembering Abraham Lincoln

I’ve had the opportunity to visit the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. as a child and as an adult, to climb the stairs and gaze up at the giant sculpture and to read the words inscribed on the walls. The words from the close of his second inaugural speech remain among the most powerful words ever spoken by a U.S. President:

“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

Meaningless comparisons are often drawn between Lincoln and modern presidents. The comparisons are meaningless in part because the circumstances are so different. The name of Abraham Lincoln is often invoked to justify a particular behavior or action of a sitting president and when this occurs it is almost always done in such a way as to trivialize the contributions of our nation’s 16the president.

Abraham Lincoln was president during what may have been the most divided time in the history of our nation. States literally took up arms in an attempt to divide the nation. Brother fought against brother in a bloody violent war that left scars that still are evident in our nation to this day. It takes more than words to heal, but inspiring rhetoric can call people to elevate their actions and aspire to a more just and equitable society.

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with fairness in the right, as God give us to see the right . . .”

I watched a dozen or so folks with their pickup trucks assemble at the Trump shop last evening as I drove home from work. They were shouting and gesturing and preparing for another evening of attempting to stand off against the much larger group of demonstrators who peacefully gather each evening in our city. It isn’t necessary to take sides or to have a publicly-expressed opinion in order to see that this is a group that could benefit from taking Lincoln’s words to heart. They definitely were not feeling “malice toward none.” They had no intention of expressing “charity for all.”

I quickly drove by, headed for a walk in the park with my wife before heading home for a late supper on our deck on a beautiful calm evening. “Malice toward none,” invites me to closely examine my feelings and reactions to people with whom I disagree. “Charity for all,” includes charity for those whose actions and words are offensive to me. 155 years after he spoke those words, Lincoln’s legacy continues to play out in our world today.

We are a nation divided. And there is no shortage of politicians who are willing to exploit those divisions for personal gain. With money and power at the center of American politics, those who lack both often feel that their voices are not being heard. But it is hard to ignore nightly protests in virtually every city in our nation. It is easy to see that our system has left a large number of people who feel that they don’t have a voice in everyday conversations of government.

Politicians spout rhetoric about economic recovery when wage earners see year after year of declining wages. What is a recovery to someone who is working 60 hours a week and cannot make rent and groceries? What is a recovery to a person whose retirement was forced by the pandemic and a lack of income for businesses and public services agencies? What is a recovery to students who are shut out of classes into a learning environment where the person with the most money and technology has the most access to teaching and learning? Arguing about the numbers and counting the unrealized gains of a volatile stock market do little to “bind up the nation’s wounds.”

Here in the Black Hills we have a different monument. Mount Rushmore is a huge mountain carving that was directed by Gutzon Borglum and his son Lincoln, completed in 1941. It depicts George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt all together and just a short distance, set apart, is Abraham Lincoln. There are structural and engineering reasons for the arrangement of the faces. They aren’t exactly as originally envisioned by the artist, but when you look at the giant faces, you can’t help but have a sense of awe and notice how Lincoln is set apart from the others.

Comparative greatness is meaningless. All four contributed to the nation in many different ways. All four deserve to be remembered. But whenever I visit the monument, I admit I take a bit of extra time to stare into the face of Lincoln. He was a moody man, prone to bout of depression, having experienced more than his fair share of personal tragedy. He was a humble man, at times self deprecating and plagued with self doubt. He was not at all sin the style of contemporary politicians who seem unable to admit mistakes and whose advertisements claim perfection, who surround themselves with admirers and distance themselves from all criticism. They say Abraham Lincoln was his own worst critic. The manuscripts of his famous speeches, including his second inaugural address, are filled with strike-throughs and re-writes. He was constantly editing himself and questioning his words. But the words he left behind are worth noting.

In a month there will be a carefully orchestrated rally as part of the campaign for the fall election of the president of the United States. The event will not be aimed at creating unity. It will not be undertaken with malice towards none. It will not be a charity event in any sense of the word. Crows will cheer. Fireworks will be displayed. Security will be tight.

And, as is the case with history, Lincoln will rise above it all.

We would do well to read and talk his words to heart.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!