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A Bicentennial Note of Thanks


It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask Godís assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other menís faces; but let us judge not that we not be judged.

-Abraham Lincoln, 2nd Inaugural


Many of us grew up with a mythical view of Lincoln as a larger-than-life figure that liberated the slaves.But, in this simplistic view, we shortchange the real sacrifice and terrible suffering endured by the flesh and blood man on behalf of the nation, and give fodder to the cynic and the prideful ingrate.


Itís strange, in a way, the Christ-like quality of the man who in his early years said he did not believe in Christ.And ironic were those surprising happenstances that seem to suggest divine involvement.The way the dark clouds parted on his 2nd inauguration to shine a ray of light on his face just as he approached the podium and began to deliver the national sacrament that was his 2nd inaugural speech.The way he died on Good Friday.It was only as he progressed through the war years into a new realization of human equality and freedom that he began to invoke ďthe LordĒ into his speech.Not the way most leaders often do, claiming that God is on their side; but in a more humble way: admitting that we canít possibly know what are Godís intentions, we can only aspire to meet them.†† And yet, if ever there was a man who suffered the sins of his people, and died to redeem them and give them a new birthright in justice and liberty, it was he.


Many cynical revisionists, people who like to appear sophisticated and above common conceptions, who always get a kick out of showing how the noble arenít so noble - who in fact donít really believe that anyone is actually noble, these delight in pointing out Abraham Lincolnís shortcomings.They critique Lincoln as viewed by our current standards, from the safety and comfort of our peace and prosperity (many enjoy a good life and attend fashionable events, and fancy themselves as intellectually wise and superior to common Americans, as above the credulous belief in the Lincoln myth).


Itís true that Lincoln, though always against slavery, wasnít initially in favor of a war to free the slaves, and that he at one time harbored mild racist feelings in wondering if blacks were the equal of whites (even here, though, he only wondered about it).But Lincoln, like all human beings, was first, a man of his time.We are not somehow genetically superior to the people of the 1800ís in a way that makes us able to see moral right better than they.We are morally advantaged by the new understanding of liberty and justice that Lincoln brought to the nation.What is remarkable is that having come from his time, Lincoln learned and grew, came to a fuller understanding of human equality, and handed it to the American people as he forged into the national conscience a new idea of the kind of people we ought to be.This is why Frederick Douglas, an uncompromising black abolitionist, and probably the most important black man of his time, initially disappointed by Lincolnís slow moves against slavery, came to admire him and be his friend.


Lincoln had always hoped that slavery would go away without war.But, it was not to be.After a period of questioning his purpose in life, he was galvanized by an attempt to allow slavery into the new states entering the union.He campaigned for president against the expansion of slavery beyond the South.When he won, the South seceded.Six hundred thousand Americans died (12 times the number in Vietnam) in a nation only one-tenth as big as we are today.Among the first to die were Lincolnís closest friends.It is believed to have been the bloodiest war in human history up to that time.The nation was divided, and with the war going badly even the North was divided as to whether the war was worth it.During that period, Lincolnís young son Willie died, and his wife went half-mad.He received dozens of death threats, and was often ridiculed and attacked in the press.He questioned his decision to send so many to die.At one point, Lincoln said that if there was a worst place in hell, he was in it.Through it all, he visited and comforted the soldiers personally, and was generally kind to every human being that encountered him.Finally, he came to believe that slavery had to end without further delay.Many counseled him against making the Emancipation Proclamation, fearing that he would lose white support even in the North, and that North soldiers might abandon the fight.But, Lincoln decided that the war could no longer be only about secession.So, this one sad and lonely man set America on a new course, towards ďa new birth of freedom.Ē  


And so it was that a new nation was born.We were now to be THE United States, not these United States.And we were now to understand and accept the full meaning of the Declaration of Independenceís proclamation that ďall men are created equal.ĒIn victory, he told us to be magnanimous, and in moral clarity, he told us not to judge those who did not understand.The shortcomings of history between then and now aside, today we have him to thank for the way we think of what American liberty and justice ought to be.


As black crowds swarmed around the president after the Emancipation Proclamation, some knelt in gratitude.The president told them not to kneel, but to stand.When they bowed, he bowed back, to the horror of some whites who could not fathom the sight of a white man, no less the president, bowing to a former slave.  This was a man born of his time, who moved beyond it, and then pulled an entire nation along with him. 


Most historians say that the more they learn about Lincoln, the more they come to admire and respect who he was and what he accomplished against very heavy odds, and through great personal suffering.By some accounts, it was only on the last day of his life, with the war at an end, and feeling the nation finally on the mend, that his own pursuit of happiness was fulfilled.


We invite you to take the occasion of his bicentennial, or any quiet time that comes your way, and learn more about our Abraham Lincoln Ė this country lawyer, this poet, this president, this, our national savior.



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