Wednesday, July 29, 2009
Oh Captain! Oh Captain! Why I am Thinking of Lincoln and You Should Too.
(I am a huge admirer of President Lincoln. This was written in January 2009.)
Whenever I hear someone defending or advocating slavery, I feel like trying it on him personally-."Abraham Lincoln
Until the philosophy
which hold one race superior
And another Inferior
Is finally And permanently
Discredited And abandoned
Everywhere is war
Me say war -Selassie/Marley
I just read that President-Elect Obama has decided to use the Bible that President Lincoln used when he is sworn in as President January 20, 2008.
I applaud this move by Obama. Part of a President's job is to lead Americans by example in connecting with and cherishing our common American heritage. Obama goes even further in honoring Lincoln since he has named his inaugural "A New Birth In Freedom", which is lifted directly from Lincoln's Gettysburg address.
By evoking Lincoln on Inauguration day, Obama is suggesting that this moment is bigger than him, and that the blood & lives of others lived & died to make it possible. Bravo to you, Mr. President-Elect.
That he picked President Lincoln is spot- on appropriate. You see, just as Lawrence Taylor is the greatest defensive football player of all time, Lincoln is BY FAR THE GREATEST PERSON THIS COUNTRY HAS EVER PRODUCED.
Lincoln is the Indispensable American. The mind recoils in horror in what might have happened if someone else was President during the Civil War. All of our lives would be different-for the worse- if Lincoln was not President.
Blacks in the South would have been sold into bondage for God knows how long, the America we now know would be more like North Korea & South Korea, ethnic wars and border wars would have been commonplace, and so much of our resources would have been used just to defend one section of this land vs. another.
The number of soldiers who died between 1861 and 1865, an estimated 620,000, is approximately equal to the total American fatalities in the Revolution, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, and the Korean War combined. The Civil Wars rate of death, its incidence in comparison with the size of the American population, was six times that of World War II. A similar rate, about 2 percent, in the United States today would mean six million fatalities.
Lincoln could have made peace with the Confederacy without one shot being fired. He could have signed a treaty with the Confederacy any time during the Civil War. He faced pressure from every group imaginable: those who wanted no war, zero tolerance abolitionists, those who thought that the loss of life did not justify the war, and draft rioters. He felt each loss of life personally, and eventually became a casualty of the war himself. ( Tragic loss was something that Lincoln lived with: his mother died when he was nine, an older brother & sister died during his childhood, and most tragically, his 11 year-old son little Willie died in the White House while Lincoln was President conducting the Civil War.)
But Lincoln held tight to the the ideas of our founding fathers, this unique experiment in self governing, was worth fighting and dying for. Remember, the American form of government was a unique world experiment, the rest of the world was full of monarchs and empires. Also, the experiment was still in its infancy, as the time period from Washington's Presidency to Lincolns' was roughly equivalent to the time from Pearl Harbor to Obama. Lincoln saw himself as a caretaker of the promises made by the founding fathers.
Why am I focusing on Lincoln? Its simple: If you look for it, you will notice that in 2009, there will be a celebration of all things Lincoln in this country. Why is that? Well, February 12, 2009 is the bicentennial of the great man's birth. Just as in 1976 we celebrated the nation's bicentennial, in 2009, we do the same for Lincoln.
Because of the extraordinary challenges he faced, the unparalleled leadership he exhibited, his unmatched ability to communicate, and his unique capacity for growth in office, Lincoln stands alone.
He is the most written about person in American history. (I went to Borders Bookstore on lower Broadway the other day, they had five shelves just on Lincoln. ) In fact in the next 18 months, at least 60 new books will be published on Lincoln, many with new historical documents, including a 1865 obituary on Lincoln written by Fredrick Douglas.
I am not the type of person who joins causes. I don't wave picket signs, and you will never find me at a street protest. Even here, during the Presidential campaign, I never asked anyone to follow my lead, I just laid out my beliefs, which you were free to accept or reject.
But I am going to ask you to do something in 2009. And that is to learn about Lincoln. Read a book, go to an exhibit or a conference. I promise you, the more you learn about the man, the more you will find that you cannot help but be moved by his life. Plus, its part of your history. Why not embrace it? Why not celebrate and honor the best of the best?
I previously wrote about Lincoln on the Emancipation Proclamation and his Order of Retaliation in which Lincoln proclaimed that he would execute one Confederate Prisoner for each Union Army Black solider executed by the South.
Here are some other Lincoln stories you may find interesting:
Lincoln contracted a mild form of small pox while returning from Gettysburg. Lincoln had a black servant, William H. Johnson who died of smallpox in January 1864. Lincoln was beside himself thinking that Johnson may have contracted smallpox by being exposed to the President.
Lincoln personally interceded to get Johnson’s pay and distribute it according to his wishes. The President arranged for his funeral, helped his family, and erected a headstone after burying Johnson at Arlington. It read: “William Johnson, Citizen.”
Since one of the raging debates at the time was whether newly freed blacks would actually get not just freedom but also full rights of citizenship, Lincoln, in his behavior and his inscription, was making a quiet, affectionate, firm declaration.
The 2nd Inaugural Speech
We all pretty much know that FDR was known for communicating through radio airwaves, Reagan through television, and Obama through the Internet. Each man took the technology to a new level in communicating with the American people. But as for the written word, Lincoln blows every other President away.
Look at the paragraph below, from Lincoln's second Inaugural Address. The Great War was winding down, and Lincoln himself only had weeks to live. Notice the brevity on how he describes how the War came about:
On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago, all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it-- all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war-- seeking to dissolve the Union, and divide effects, by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war; but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.
I know I might lose a few of you here, but screw it. Read Lincoln's word's below on both sides evoking God during the great War, how both prayed to the same God, how those prayers could not be answered in full, and how slavery is such an Offense that the Almighty may have ordained the WAR and its devastation as a price to pay for the removal of such an evil institution:
Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes his aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces; but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered--that of neither has been answered fully.
The Almighty has his own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offenses! for it must needs be that offenses come; but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through his appointed time, he now wills to remove, and that he gives to both North and South this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to him? Fondly do we hope--fervently do we pray--that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn by the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, "The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."
The End of the War
Ten days before he was senselessly murdered, the war was just about over, as Richmond, the Capital of the South had fell. Lincoln wanted to go the Richmond, to walk its streets.
No one knew he was coming. He arrived quite unexpectedly by rowboat. Crowds began to assemble around him. Blacks began worshiping at his feet. "Praise God we're delivered! Praise God, bless Abraham!" Lincoln was uncomfortable with the adulation: "Don't do that. You cannot do that. Pray to your God; don't pray to me."
He strolled through the capital of the confederacy, he even got to sit at Jefferson Davis's desk. I can only imagine what Lincoln was feeling; it would be like if FDR got to sit in Hitler's bunker! This was Lincoln in rare triumph; after all the death & despair, there was some light at the end of the tunnel.
It was one of the greatest public moments of his life, and he was killed ten days later.
Although it is called the Gettysburg Address, I think a more instructive title would be " Why We Fight".
The carnage and loss at Gettysburg was beyond comprehension.
Lincoln's goal in giving the speech was to tell the people why we were fighting, and that the agony and loss was for a just cause. He tells the nation that the American experiment in democracy was worth fighting to preserve, that slavery must be abolished, and that we must live up to the ideals & promises of the Declaration of Independence & The Constitution. It's an incredibly hard thing to do, and Lincoln pulls it off in a mere ten sentences and 270 words.
Here is the Gettysburg Address in its entirety:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
The Death of Lincoln
Lincoln was murdered by the Tom Cruise of his day. John Wilkes Booth was a famous actor and an ardent supporter of the Confederacy. Three days before he killed Lincoln, with the War at end ,Booth heard a jubilant Lincoln give a speech from a White House window in which Lincoln publicly proclaimed the right of blacks to vote in Louisiana, and how the rest of the South would follow suit during the upcoming Reconstruction period.
It drove Booth crazy.
Booth shot Lincoln point blank in the back of the head with a 41 caliber Derringer while Lincoln was viewing a play in the Ford Theater in Washington. (Booth knew every inch of the theater, as he performed there numerous times.)
Booth then jumped onto the stage and yelled "Sic semper tyrannis" (Latin for "thus only for tyrants" which was the Virginia state motto) and literally exited stage right.
There were plenty of doctors in the theater, and they quickly diagnosed that the President, while still breathing, was mortally wounded and the only thing they could do was make him as comfortable as possible in his time of dying.
Lincoln was moved to the Petersen House across the Street from the Ford Theater.
He lingered for nine hours. He died at 7:22 AM on April 15, 1865, surrounded by family and his cabinet. Immediately upon his death, Secretary of War Edward Stanton proclaimed "Now he belongs to the ages."
There has never been a funeral like Lincoln's in America. About 25% of all Americans viewed his remains or witnessed the funeral train which stopped in 10 cities. The funeral train went from Washington up the east coast to Baltimore than Harrisburg, onward to Philly & New York City; up to Albany, Syracuse and Rochester, over to Buffalo and then Cleveland, onward to Columbus, Chicago & the final resting place, Springfield, Illinois.
Stanton was correct: Lincoln does belong to the ages. Its our duty to celebrate this man's life and to do our best to ensure that future generations of Americans never forget our greatest MAN.
Please join me in doing so.