President Abraham Lincoln stands out as one of our greatest presidents, especially given his tenure during our troubled times during the Civil War. Vilified by some but praised by most, his legacy has stood the test of time with continued scrutiny and analysis 160 years after his years as our president. His writings and his deeds do show the fallibility of human nature yet demonstrate his deep faith and commitment to moral change.
I am continually reminded of President Lincoln when seeing the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC. When visiting the memorial many years ago, I was awestruck by the engraving of his second inaugural address on the north interior wall. That address – 703 words long, organized in four paragraphs, delivered in 6-7 minutes, full of alliteration, infused with poetry and steeped in Biblical references – was a fervent plea (“at this second appearing”) for a divided nation to recognize its common humanity.1 Frederick Douglass, former slave and ardent abolitionist, described the event as “wonderfully quiet, earnest, and solemn…There was a leaden stillness about the crowd…The address sounded more like a sermon than a state paper.”
One month away from Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Lincoln was not there to gloat. An estimated over 623,000 men died during the Civil War, with one out of eleven men of age to serve killed. If a comparable proportion of our population were killed during WWII, there would have been 2.5 million American men killed in the 1940s. Whether Union or rebel soldiers, they prayed from the same Bible and usually had a small pocket bible on them during the war. Yet one side chose to fight for the perpetuation of an unjust cause (slavery), and the other side had to accept war as the consequence of opposing such and adhering to the intent of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
Why my fascination with Lincoln? Some might remember past blog posts that cite Lincoln’s cherished phrase “with malice toward none, with charity for all.” 2,3 I see great wisdom and humility in the words and deeds of President Lincoln. An admittedly fallible person who struggled with many issues of the time and didn’t always “practice what he preached,” he sought over the course of his life and political career to pursue the right as best he could.
A recent visit to Ford’s Theater, the site of his Good Friday assassination on April 14, 1865, struck an internal chord, a call to action if you will. And now diving into historian Jon Meacham’s latest book on Lincoln, I find powerful messages worth repeating.4
There are innumerable messages but let me present a few and let me couch some of the them in the context of parenting. As parents, we have the most cherished job to raise our children to be good citizens (folks that care for, care about and tend to others). The nineteenth century statesman, Abraham Lincoln, presents a template worth noting.
- “Driven by the conviction that the Union was sacred and that slavery was wrong, Lincoln was instrumental in saving one and in destroying the other, expanding freedom and preserving an experiment in popular government that nearly came to an end of his watch.”4 (Prologue)
- This commitment came at significant personal sacrifice, yet he persisted.
- “To Lincoln, God whispered His will through conscience, calling humankind to live in accord with the laws of love…[believing] in a transcendent moral order that summoned sinful creatures, in the words of Micah, to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with their God.”4 (Prologue)
- Such is the duty of parenting – to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly – guiding our children to adulthood and their subsequent service and to guide ourselves now and in the future.
- “For Lincoln, a world in which power was all, in which the assertion of a singular will trumped all, in which brute force dictated all, was not moral but immoral, not democratic but autocratic, not just but unjust…Goodness would not always be rewarded. The innocent would suffer. Violence at times defeats virtue…but to Lincoln the duty of the leader and of the citizen was neither to despair nor to seek solace and security with the merely strong, but to discern and pursue the right.”4 (Prologue)
- Indeed, this is the role of parenting – to reject violence that protects the immoral, to seek justice, and to discern and pursue the right. Anyone who ever stated that parenting is an innate, easy process in today’s society isn’t living in reality. Too many extraneous forces and voices lure or tempt the leaders away from the right and cloud the duties of the citizens.
- “A president who led a divided country in which an implacable minority gave no quarter in a clash over power, race, identity, money, and faith has much to teach us in a twenty-first-century moment of polarization, passionate disagreement, and differing understandings of reality…[Lincoln’s] story illuminates the ways and means of politics, the marshaling of power in a democracy, the durability of racism, and the capacity of conscience to help shape events…It is a fact of American history that we are not always good, but that goodness is possible. Not universal, not ubiquitous, not inevitable—but possible.”4 (Prologue)
- Parents of today are often conflicted over many of the same things mentioned in this quote. We will not always get it right. Indeed, we often get it wrong. But goodness is always possible. With a willingness to receive grace, to extend mercy, to love others, and practice the reciprocal nature of forgiveness (forgive others and ask for forgiveness), we can continue to create a more just society by our words and deeds.
- “Racism—the conviction that one could view and treat people differently based on innate characteristics such as skin color—was, and is, a formative force in American life…Lincoln defended Black Americans as fellow human beings whose fundamental rights were protected in the Declaration of Independence…Lincoln did much good—and left much undone. Taken all in all—which is how we should take him, all in all—he was a human being who sought to do right more often than he did wrong…The saga of racism in America is a tragic one—and it unfolds still. In Lincoln’s hour upon the stage, many hoped that he would go farther along the road to equality that he did; many feared any step at all. But on he walked.”4 (Prologue)
- The struggle of racism goes on and is not over even one hundred sixty years after the Civil War. As citizens and as parents, our quest should be to do right more often than wrong. We need to be bold enough to recognize our frailties and our humanity as we journey on to improve the lives of our families, our fellow citizens, and our communities. We need to be committed to keep walking.
My intent in this post is to remind of us of our history, of our role as citizens and of our role as parents. In the immortal words spoken on March 4, 1865, let us remember –
With malice toward none, with charity for all; with firmness in the right as God gives us the right, let us strive, 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.
- White RC. Lincoln’s Great Speech: The Second Inaugural Address. Simon & Schuster, 2002. 254 pp.
- Meacham J. And There was Light: Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle. Random House, 2022. 720 pp.