Lincoln, six feet one in his stocking feet,
The lank man, knotty and tough as a hickory rail,
Whose hands were always too big for white-kid gloves’
Whose wit was a coonskin sack of dry, tall tales,
Whose weathered face was homely as a plowed field-
Abraham Lincoln, who padded up and down
The sacred White House in nightshirt and carpet-slippers,
And yet could strike young hero-worshipping Hay
As dignified past any neat, balanced, fine
Plutarchan sentences carved in Latin bronze;
The low clown out of the prairies, the ape-buffoon,
The small-town lawyer, the crude small-time politician,
State-character but comparative failure at forty
In spite of ambition enough for twenty Caesars,
Honesty rare as a man without self-pity,
Kindness as large and plain as a prairie wind,
And a self-confidence like an iron-bar:
This Lincoln, President now by the grace of luck,
Disunion, politics, Douglas and a few speeches
Which make the monumental booming of Webster
Sound empty as the belly of a burst drum.
Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown’s Body
Today is the 207th birthday of Abraham Lincoln. Faithful readers of this blog know that I am an admirer of our sixteenth president. My admiration is not a matter of mere historical antiquarianism. I believe that many of the issues of Lincoln’s day are with us in our time under different guises.
- Are all men created equal, or may we treat part of the “great family of man”, as Lincoln called humanity, as sub-humans, mere disposable property?
- Who should decide the great issues of our day: the Supreme Court or the voters at the ballot box?
- What are the proper roles of the state governments and the federal union?
- Does God punish nations for sins?
- Are the Founding Fathers merely men of the past, or did they establish a movement that we should adhere to today?
- What is the meaning of freedom?
- Is this nation worth dying and killing for?
- Should the Constitution be amended to address the problems confronting us today?
- Are their evils like slavery that must be confronted no matter what the cost?
- Is a Republic a viable form of government long term?
When pondering these issues, I think Lincoln has much to teach us.
What constitutes the bulwark of our own liberty and independence? It is not our frowning battlements, our bristling sea coasts, our army and our navy. These are not our reliance against tyranny. All of those may be turned against us without making us weaker for the struggle. Our reliance is in the love of liberty which God has planted in us. Our defense is in the spirit which prizes liberty as the heritage of all men, in all lands everywhere. Destroy this spirit and you have planted the seeds of despotism at your own doors. Familiarize yourselves with the chains of bondage and you prepare your own limbs to wear them. Accustomed to trample on the rights of others, you have lost the genius of your own independence and become the fit subjects of the first cunning tyrant who rises among you.