Two hundred and three years ago today, one of the greatest presidents in American history was born in Hardin County, Kentucky. Abraham Lincoln, who had little formal education and spent his entire childhood in abject poverty, learned from an early age the importance of hard work and perseverance. Not unlike many of his contemporaries, however, his life was beset with tragedy. During his adolescence, for example, he witnessed the death of his mother and older sister. And shortly thereafter, during his mid-twenties, he suffered the death of his first romantic interest – Ann Rutledge – which was attributed to typhoid fever.
Yet despite – or perhaps even because of – the enormous hardships he faced as a young man, his rise from poverty and his determination to be successful is an inspiring (and quintessentially American) story. Lincoln, of course, is hardly a president who has escaped our collective imagination. The New Yorker estimates that there have been at least 15,000 books written about him since his death in 1865. An intensely private man – he never kept a formal diary – and historians for generations have struggled to understand his enigmatic life.
As Pulitzer-prize winning historian Eric Foner explains in his award winning book, The Fiery Trial, one of Lincoln’s greatest qualities as a statesman was his ability to change. Indeed, following Lincoln’s post-assassination apotheosis, the ensuing legend that the late president was a congenital champion of black rights captured the hearts and minds of a bereaved nation. History, on the other hand, teaches us that as an elected official Lincoln supported both colonization and gradual emancipation. In fact, he did not support total and uncompensated emancipation until nearly halfway through his first presidential term.
The purpose of highlighting such unsavory facts is not to disparage his legacy, but to cast light on his greatness. Though Lincoln once asserted “if slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong,” it was exceedingly difficult for him (or perhaps any public figure living during the nineteenth century, for that matter) to imagine the United States as a multiracial society. Moreover, during the antebellum period, racism was in many ways as pervasive in Illinois as it was in Mississippi. To be sure, most Northerners and Southerners at the time opposed black enfranchisement and the amalgamation of the races.
And yet the reason Lincoln is remembered today is because his views regarding the “slavery question” did change. Indeed, the courage of former slaves who served unofficially in the Union army during the early years of the Civil War was a major catalyst in changing public perceptions and altering deeply held convictions that blacks were inherently inferior. This, in effect, is what gave Lincoln the political green light to draft and subsequently sign the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. And, perhaps, permitted the commander-in-chief himself the opportunity to reflect and reconcile his own views regarding slavery.
As a result, Abraham Lincoln is considered the paragon of American statesmanship. And his greatest literary achievement, the Second Inaugural Address, ranks among the finest speeches ever delivered by a U.S. president. The reason, in my view, is because his peroration eloquently argued that the only way to rebuild America -- after four years of civil war -- was through unity and reconciliation.
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 lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.
Of course, given Lincoln’s ultimate triumph in suppressing the insurrection, he could have used the occasion to flaunt his own political and military achievements. Or, given the nearly 625,000 soldiers who lost their lives, he could have demonized his Southern compatriots for instigating the conflict. Instead, with extraordinary humility, he explicitly asserted that the Civil War was punishment not for Southern antagonism or aggression, but for the collective sin of American slavery.
In our contemporary situation, there can be no doubt that we live in trying and difficult times. Millions of Americans are unemployed and thousands more have stopped looking for work. And, perhaps worst of all, our nation is deeply divided and resentful. Despite these realities, however, the current occupant of the White House continues to engage in the politics of class warfare and envy to enhance his own reelection campaign.
As President Obama said during his State of the Union address last month:
“We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by, or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.”
The allegation in this short excerpt is that the reason for America’s dismal economy is that a small group of unscrupulous bankers exploited a flawed system for personal gain. While this is in some respects true, what he fails to grasp is that the wealthy in fact account for a highly disproportionate amount of taxes paid. In 2008, for example, the top 10 percent of income earners paid 70 percent of all federal income taxes. By contrast, the bottom 50 percent paid less than 3 percent. In other words, by pitting Americans against one another on national television, the president is exacerbating tensions between income groups and further dividing the country.
The 2012 presidential election may be the most important contest of our lifetime. The American people desperately need a leader who understands how to grow the economy and create jobs. Unfortunately, the president’s refusal to modify his own positions or support job creating legislation that Americans overwhelming support is one reason for the nation’s high unemployment rate and sluggish economic recovery.
While Abraham Lincoln never lived to see the Union fully restored, his vision and leadership were paramount to its ultimate survival and prosperity. President Obama need only look at the annals of history – and in particular at our sixteenth president – to realize his own administration has taken a vastly different and inflexibly divisive course that posterity I suspect will judge severely.