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Abraham Lincoln

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Abraham Lincoln is a resonant figure in American History.  His efforts in the civil war, the things he said and accomplished, his senseless and untimely death, and the Great Emancipation of the American Negro have earned him one of the most honored niches in our nation’s history.

Lincoln was one of those rare individuals to whom greatness came and was recognized in his lifetime.  Of the president, Walt Whitman wrote, “I see very plainly Abraham Lincoln’s dark brown face, with deep cut lines, the eyes always, to me with deep latent sadness in the expression… Earlier in the summer I occasionally saw the President in the face fully, as they [his escort] were moving slowly; and his look abstracted, happened to be directed steadily in my eye.  He bowed and smiled, but fare beneath the smile a noticed well the expression I have alluded to.  None of the artists or pictures have caught the deep though subtle and indirect expression of this man’s face. There is something else there. One of the great portrait painters of two or three centuries ago is needed.”

Abraham Lincoln presided over a time of great national distress.  When he came into office seven states had already succeeded form the country. Lincoln was desperate to strengthen the Union and addressed the South in his inaugural speech, informing them that he did not feel he had the right as president to interfere with slavery, however opposed he might be to it morally. Slavery was an issue to be decided by the states, not the federal government.  In fact, upon receiving a letter from Horace Greeley, the editor of the New York Tribune, wherein he was encouraged to abolish slavery, Lincoln responded by saying, “My paramount objective in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy Slavery.  If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would do that.”

In September, 1862 Lincoln issued the Emancipation, freeing slaves in the states that rebelled.  He however did not free slaves in pro-union states where it was legal, thus fulfilling his promise to Greeley, that he would do what it took to preserve the Union, even if it meant freeing some slaves and leaving others alone.  The war being far from over, Lincoln was careful not to alienate the slave holding states that supported the Union’s cause.  The proclamation also effectively eliminated the threat of France and England supporting the southern states, which had been a very real concern.

The sum of Lincoln’s life, his character, and his reputation reached its culmination at Gettysburg, where he delivered his most famous speech. It is a speech that many historians consider the most important speech given in the history of the country.  With it, Lincoln hoped to bury the animosity from the war, and to bridge the divide between North and South.  Lincoln went to Gettysburg to dedicate a portion of the battlefield as a cemetery for the men who fought and died there. Legend has it that the speech was hastily written on a scrap of paper en route.

Ironically, the speech contains the humble words, “The world will little note or long remember what we say here…” but Lincoln was wrong.  The speech has come to epitomize the American view of her soldier, and of her attitude toward wars.  We are a nation unique in the history of the world, for when we wage war it is to liberate the oppressed, not subjugate or make of them our territories. 

Abraham Lincoln’s words have endured for more than a century, but perhaps the true character of the man is nowhere better shown than in a letter to Mrs. Bixby, who lost five sons to her country’s cause.  from it we perceive that Lincoln felt each death keenly, and that he was deeply moved by the sacrifices of these men and their families.  

“I deeply pray that the Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.”

His words echo down through the corridors of time, bringing consolation to the millions who suffered the loss of a loved one in the course of defending liberty.

The nation still in the grip of war, Lincoln came to office for a second term and offered up consolation to the country that the war was in the hands of God, that if providence so deemed the war to rage on, “… until every drop of blood drawn by the lash, shall be paid by another drawn by the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so it must still be said, ‘the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether’”   He concluded his inaugural address with the famous words, “With malice toward none, with charity toward all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, les 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 lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

Lincoln established himself as a great humanitarian through his life and in his works.  Thanks to his prolific writings we have a far better understanding  of him than we do of any other president from this period.  What is surprising is this remarkably accomplished man was never formally educated, yet he practiced law, and had a formidable reputation as a lawyer.  What he knew of law was self taught from books he read on the subject, not from attending law school.  And in the course of his legal career, Lincoln established three very successful law firms. 

Again, Lincoln’s character shines through in his advice to other lawyers of his day, advice sorely missing from law practices in our day. 

Never stir up litigation. A worse man can scarcely be found than one who does this. Who can be more nearly a fiend than he who habitually overhauls the register of deeds in search of defects in titles, whereon to stir up strife, and put money in his pocket?

Discourage litigation. Persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can. Point out to them how the nominal winner is often a real loser — in fees, expenses, and waste of time. As a peacemaker the lawyer has a superior opportunity of being a good man. There will still be business enough.

And while Lincoln epitomized hard work, in his youth he was known for his laziness. So well known, in fact, that when someone spotted him hard at work the joked that the lad must not be Abe Lincoln because he was so industrious. The young man responded, “My father taught me the value of hard work,not the love  of it.”  Consequently, Lincoln never shirked a hard job that needed doing, and when his nation was torn by slavery, it fell on the lazy boy from Illinois to save it and mend its wounds.  With literally no formal education, Lincoln almost single handed pulled the country from the brink of destruction and restored it to the principles of freedom.

On April 14, 1865 John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln while he attended a play at Ford’s Theater.  He died Saturday morning, the fifteenth of April. As those in attendance at his death drew the covers over his face, Secretary Stanton remarked, “Now he belongs to the ages.”

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