Lincoln in the light of history
Learning Lincoln is a lifetime affair. He’s one of the great humans in history—a man with tremendous faith, strength, persistence, and courage, who saved the United States and freed American slaves, all while dealing with a large portion of the citizenry who wanted to kill him, egotistical and incompetent generals during the early years of the Civil War, tens of thousands of casualties, an erratic wife who threw pans at him, and depression. To me, the collection seems crushing.
Yet he’s the one American to whom the nation has bestowed the nearest equivalent of a religious shrine that can exist in a country that doesn’t worship mortal men. The words on the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC are powerful, written after years of war carnage; they speak of the blood that has been drawn by the sword and will be drawn, until the last drop of blood drawn by the bondsman’s lash has been repaid.
History puts in a long-term perspective the actions that were severely criticized at the time. One night, as I was meandering around the medieval town of Enna in central Sicily, I came upon a statue of a slave with his arms reaching to the sky while chains dropped off his arms. Because of my rough knowledge of the Italian language, I didn’t understand the full inscription, but I did read the word freedom and I did see the name Lincoln. I thought to myself, “How remarkable that here in a rural hilltop Italian town in the center of agricultural Sicily, I would run into Lincoln or, more accurately, I would run into a symbol of appreciation for what he did.” His and others’ reversing of slavery—after its millennia of existence—is one of the watershed moments in human history.
Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace and to his boyhood home
I recently visited Lincoln’s birthplace and his boyhood home in Kentucky. As always, the National Park Service does an outstanding job representing the significant elements and people of American history. I learned that Lincoln’s family (father, Thomas; mother, Nancy; and siblings) lived humbly (“I was born, and have ever remained, in the most humble walks of life.” — Abraham Lincoln), but they did not live in destitute poverty, despite what mythology portrays. The one-room log cabin on the Kentucky frontier was simple and functional, as it had to be, but Thomas Lincoln was a hardworking and resourceful farmer, carpenter, and furniture maker. As the national park brochure states, “They could visit a few stores, but they were mostly self-reliant for food, shelter, and tools.” The family attended a church whose parishioners were against slavery, and Abraham Lincoln’s first education was at a school led by, as the brochure states, “an outspoken emancipationist.” Lincoln learned basic values at his boyhood home in Kentucky.
Abraham liked to read, and he was mostly self-taught, having had only two years of formal education (I forgot to ask the rangers how he obtained his law degree). Abe’s later speeches evidenced the Bible verses and the Aesop’s Fables that he had available to him during his childhood years, and a copy of the well-used Lincoln family bible is on display at the boyhood home visitor center.
He served his purpose well.
“David served God’s purpose in his generation” — Acts 13:3
I hope to visit Springfield, Illinois someday, a place where Lincoln as a young man began his law practice, and where I could see what other early influences developed the character of this man who saved the United States despite crushing obstacles. I have read some books (there are many) about Lincoln, and like everyone I’ve seen his inspirational quotes and his visage at towns, parks, schools, statues, convention centers, and on the $5 bill. Honest Abe, the Great Emancipator, Savior of the Union—history shines an adoring light on the long-term significance of Lincoln’s actions, though at the time—and this is important to remember—he was ridiculed and hated by many. All of us in our times deal with conflict and look at others through the lens of our human fallibility.
Slavery was a great evil. Our union and democracy—representing an evolution of human society into freedom for all—had to be preserved. Lincoln was the man that God sent (as far as I or any mortal knows) for that purpose. Abraham Lincoln served his purpose well.
Us now and the climate crisis
We live in a time of huge challenge and of conflict, and what we and our legislators do this year and the next few years about America’s approach to the climate crisis will determine our existence and that of other species. In some sense, our challenge is greater than Lincoln’s. People in his time could see the bodies and blood (though, before the war began, they did not realize that the destruction would be so severe) and they could navigate to some degree within the well-known ocean of war. Send forth the armies and navies and someone will win. When the war ends, so will the destruction.
We in the twenty-first century, though, have not yet personally experienced the full carnage that climate change will wreak, nor do we know how much it will be, but when it occurs the changes will be baked in for thousands of years. We do have prophets (unlike in Lincoln’s time) who can tell us to some degree what’s coming. Our scientists, with their monitors in the air, land, sea, and space, model the destruction we’ll have as dictated by the parts per million CO2 we allow into the air, so we know the options for our future to some extent. Past certain levels, though, our ocean is unknown.
Lincoln led when leadership was needed to save the Union and to eradicate slavery. We live when ours and other species’ existence will be determined by our actions this year and the next couple of years. We know our possible futures to some extent, but at this critical time in our history, we need at least a few men and women like Lincoln—leaders with tremendous faith, strength, persistence, and courage—who can lead us in the fight to save ourselves and other species. This year and the next few will justify us or discard us.
Lincoln: a man who gives hope
It’s inspiring to see Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace and boyhood home. His were humble beginnings during which he incorporated important values. This real man, with real fallibilities and limitations, triumphed over tremendous challenges—by virtue of his tremendous faith, strength, persistence, and courage. His example gives us hope.
For those visiting the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park (which includes the birthplace (Sinking Springs Farm) and the nearby boyhood home (Knob Creek Farm), both near Hodgenville, Kentucky, the drive on highway 31E takes you through rural Kentucky with its small towns, farms, crops, mowed fields, and greenery.