SAN JOSE, February 12, 2013 – The 2012 Steven Spielberg film, ‘Lincoln’ has revived the image of President Abraham Lincoln in this year that stands as the 150th anniversary of the enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation. Today is the day the nation used to honor Lincoln’s birthday; the birth of a boy in a small log cabin in the backwoods of Kentucky in 1809. This remembering of Lincoln’s birthday was in America prior to the 1971 legislation that created a “one day fits all” President’s Day. Since then, the memory of Lincoln’s greatness seems to have gradually diminished in the minds of the American public. Before Spielberg’s biopic last year, the faded memory of Lincoln was mainly limited to the study of his presidency in U.S. history classrooms.
The “one day fits all” President’s Day doesn’t really do justice to some of the truly great presidents that have graced the office. Lincoln is one of the truly great ones, and it shows up in Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” but his biographic slice of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency primarily deals with Lincoln’s efforts to push the Congress to approve the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution and get it out to the states for ratification. Lincoln knew that his Proclamation of Emancipation was essentially only an executive directive that had the authority of the Constitution while the Union was engaged in conflict with the Southern States. Lincoln knew that his Proclamation of Emancipation was essentially meaningless when the Civil War came to an end.
Lincoln believed that winning the war was linked to the abolition of slavery; but ironically, if the Union prevailed in the war, and had only the Proclamation in place, it would have meant that over 620,000 men and boys would have died in a ridiculous war without accomplishing much more than ripping the nation apart. By the summer of 1862, the war had taken its toll on the president as well and he expressed his concerns when he wrote later that “Things had gone from bad to worse, until I felt that we had reached the end of our rope on the plan that we had been pursuing; that we had about played our last card, and must change our tactics or lose the game.” He reached this point of decision that the Union could only prevail and win the war if he could pursue the course of emancipating the slaves.
By mid-1962, Lincoln was intent on freeing the slaves, but he knew that there was no way to legally do so because as the Dred Scott decision determined, there was not really anything in the U.S. Constitution that specifically prohibited slavery. Lincoln’s Proclamation of Emancipation fell far short of freeing any of the slaves in the South, but it did refine Lincoln’s resolve to truly emancipate the slaves. Unfortunately, it took an incredibly horrible Civil War that tragically tore at the very foundation the Union. But even the Civil War did not end slavery. Ending slavery required the dead serious will and sure determined actions of an extremely focused president to set in motion the governmental machinery to ensure that slavery was ruled unconstitutional in the U.S.A.
But for Lincoln, ending slavery was also linked to the very foundation of the Union. He said it clearly in the short speech he delivered in Gettysburg: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” he stated. Lincoln got it. Our founders had fought a war to end tyranny and slavery was just another name for tyranny, and tyranny just some term which essentially meant slavery. Most people have forgotten that slavery was a universal phenomenon and an institution of mankind that had existed since the dawning of mankind’s development on the planet. This nation was one “conceived in Liberty” and dedicated to equality. Lincoln came to remind America of the original ideals of the Founders.
Such lofty ideals were hard to live up to and hard to live by. That is not a hard concept to understand intellectually, but it is a hard concept to grasp actually. Realists and pessimists find it easy to point to the failures of our leaders to live up to any ideals. However, the Founders set in motion a set of beliefs, ideals, and a system of government that could actually establish a Land of the Free — for all people. Lincoln got that. And Lincoln got to the point where he could do something about it in a time when the Land of the Free wasn’t completed. He knew this as clearly as others of his time, but he made a choice to remind the nation of the ideals of America’s birth.
Essentially President Lincoln challenged the nation to not only remember the ideals of the Founders, but to live up to them as well. He made his request of the nation and hope for the future were in that same Gettysburg Address:
It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us… that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Lincoln understood that America had been founded as a nation dedicated to freedom; but the existence and toleration of slavery meant that the ideals of the Founders had yet to be completed. The Founders had only managed to create the foundation for the Land of the Free; they had managed to plant the seeds for freedom to grow and mature and so it is that each generation of Americans are challenged to tend to the further development of the Land of the Free. It is the continual challenge of a nation conceived in Liberty to continue to develop and further such ideals or lose recognition of their value. It is the continual challenge of whether any nation so conceived, and so dedicated can continue to endure.
Abraham Lincoln is one of our greatest presidents and it is certainly fitting that Americans remember the achievements of a truly great president, and remember that Abraham Lincoln rose to the occasion during a terrible time when the nation may have easily destroyed itself. He exercised great resolve in his leadership of a nation on the edge of disaster. Americans cannot afford to forget Lincoln. Americans would do well to not just remember, but to praise the few great Americans who rose to meet the incredible challenges of their day and who did all they possibly could to further the ideals of the Founders and to be vigilant in the care of the Land of the Free.
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