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It was great to watch the ceremonies last week commemorating the 200th anniversary of the birth of America’s greatest president, Abraham Lincoln.
With Barack Obama’s ascension to the presidency, and his own much-noted admiration for the legacy of Lincoln, the name of the 16th president had been invoked a lot lately.
There have also been many new books about him in recent years, including one I’m reading called “Lincoln’s Melancholy,” a study of how he spent his whole life battling a tendency toward gloom and depression.
Another recent book chronicles how Lincoln practically invented the role of Commander in Chief, setting the standard for civilian control of the military as he plotted war strategy and looked for the right general to carry it out.
Lincoln’s greatness lies in the fact that he was always calling the nation to a vision of freedom that he knew was essential to the Declaration of Independence. In his mind, “all men are created equal” had to apply to the colored as well as the white, but that was an explosive and radical notion in his day.
He was not a racial pioneer who believed whites and blacks to be equal socially or intellectually. But he saw the practice of slavery for what it absolutely was: a moral wrong, pure and simple. It had to end sooner or later, one way or the other.
Prior to his presidency, he never called for its outright abolition. This made the abolitionists wary of him. He did, however, argue consistently against allowing slavery to be extended to the Western territories. This made the pro-slavery forces of the South and in the national Democratic Party furious.
Lincoln essentially turned his 1858 U.S. Senate race against Stephan Douglas into a referendum on the future of slavery. He thought Douglas a cheap politician with no moral principles whatsoever, devoted only to his personal success.
Through his “popular sovereignty” doctrine, Douglas simply wanted states to decide for themselves whether they’d be slave or free. Lincoln knew that pro-slavery forces had the money and the political power to extend their will anywhere the nation might expand. Stopping the spread of slavery was the first key to ending it everywhere.
After his loss to Douglas, Lincoln was convinced his political career and his life were a failure. But the Oct., 1859, attack on Harper’s Ferry, and the differing reactions to it from North and South once again put the slavery issue above all else.
Lincoln’s principled opposition to slavery had made him the logical Republican candidate for president in 1860. Most of the Southern states wouldn’t even put him on the ballot. Their fear of losing their peculiar institution, and the riches they’d reaped from it, made war inevitable.
All through the conflict Lincoln held fast to the idea that, above all else, the Union had to be preserved. Our democratic experiment couldn’t succeed if one half of the states were allowed to build a separate country still based on the evils of slavery.
The Emancipation Proclamation was issued not just as a move toward finally abolishing slavery, but giving the Union cause a link to “a new birth of freedom,” the words the president used in the Gettysburg Address.
Much has been made of his Second Inaugural Address, and for good reason. It’s probably the best and most profound speech ever given by any president in the midst of any circumstance. The defeated rebel states would not be further punished, but welcomed back to their real home.
Abraham Lincoln had no equal in his time, and we will not see the likes of him again. All presidents really do work in the shadow of what he achieved.
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Rick Howell, a Bedford native, is a member of the Roanoke City Democratic Committee, and can be reached by e-mail at NewCenHowell@aol.com