Lincoln’s Birthday

Lot’s of commentary about Abraham Lincoln today in light of President Obama’s election. One of my favorite retrospectives of Lincoln is this video because it has great images of Lincoln’s time and the story told is accurate on many levels which reminds us all that leadership is not about popularity but about conviction of purpose and putting what is best for the country above all else. Put aside the the fact that this was produced during the election campaign and has obvious campaign overtones because this fact does not detract from the substance of the story told.

Lincoln, along with Harry Truman, was deeply unpopular during his presidency, which is best remembered as tumultuous and bloody. History now references Lincoln along with the Founding Fathers as being the most consequential of leaders in the nation’s history, and for good reason for were it not for his presidency we would not likely have a united United States of America.

You have to consider that not 80 years before the Civil War the people of the colonies declared most definitively that the states create the federal government and here we were a mere couple of generations later putting that to the test. Many reasonable people could logically argue that if states wanted to break away and form their own government then they were simply adhering to the principles of the Founding Fathers. This is ultimately what the Civil War was about, not slavery although freedom as represented in the Bill of Rights formed his foundation, and Lincoln alone seemed to recognize this; his stance on the rights of states was deeply unpopular in the north as well as, obviously, in the south.

Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, was motivated by this as well as many of Lincoln’s actions of the time, including a declaration of martial law in Maryland and imprisonment of pro-secession leaders of the time, extraordinary measures taken in time of war under questionable Constitutional authority.

At Gettysburg in 1863 Lincoln had this to say in his brief dedication of the military cemetery on the battlefield where 50,000 Americans gave up their lives just 4 months earlier:

“It is for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us, that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion; that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation, under God shall have a new birth of freedom; and that the government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth,”

Lincoln very deliberately used the word “nation” as opposed to the commonly referenced term “union” to describe the country and by referencing 1776 as the birthdate for the country (“four score and seven years ago” with a score being 20 years, which from 1863 would be 1776) instead of the ratification of the Constitution in 1789. What Lincoln did was to reframe the debate about what is a country to one of values instead of the legal framework and as a result we persevered as a country instead of withering as a result of fracturing bonds.