Abraham Lincoln And The American Dream.
Abraham Lincoln's influence on the history of the United States was so great that poet Wait Whitman maintained that Lincoln's legacy would be even stronger and more lasting than that of George Washington. This year in 2009, two events worthy of reflection will occur: the 200th anniversary of the birth of Lincoln, and the inauguration of the first black president in the history of the United States.
Lincoln had to face one of the most complex challenges in the history of the country: the collapse of a world based on slavery and the emergence of another world in which a truly united United States could undergo dramatic and sustained development and become the most powerful country on the planet. At the time, it was not only the unity of the states and territories that was at stake, but also the principles on which the United States had been established. The clash of two worlds and two visions gave rise to the War of Secession, or Civil War, with the Union states of the North pitted against the Confederate states of the South. It ended in the deaths of a half a million Americans, but also made possible the emancipation of three million black slaves.
Lincoln's biography has been written many times so it is difficult to say something that has not already been said. But every time we get a glimpse of his personality and what he actually accomplished, we find life stories, memorable phrases, and incredible feats that corroborate what we already know: a man's destiny is shaped by the obstacles he faces along the way. Lincoln was the best example of this. He came from very humble origins and made a living with simple jobs (wood cutter, failed merchant). He then went on to become a legislator of Illinois, an advocate against the extension of slavery, a candidate of the nascent Republican Party, the President of the United States, and, finally, a martyr of democracy.
Lincoln was a sell-educated man. His Me experience, insightful observation of human nature, and keen intelligence made him who he was. In a simple autobiographical note in 1859 he said: "Of course, when I came of age I did not know much. Still, somehow, I could read, write, and cipher to the rule of three; but that was all. I have not been to school since. The little advance I now have upon this store of education, I have picked up from time to time under the pressure of necessity." Lincoln's years as legislator in Illinois gave him political experience and helped him to become a lawyer. Most biographers recognize that he was a great reader of the Bible and that he knew Shakespeare inside and out. In fact, he quoted from both sources frequently in his speeches and letters. But perhaps the most extraordinary thing about Lincoln is that he was, above all else, a man of principles, a politician sui generis who believed in the essential virtue of democracy for resolving conflicts. He believed this in spite of the fact that history placed him at a crossroads in which he had to go to war to save the nation. He knew that slavery would be curtailed and eventually suppressed only if the Union held together and, conversely, that the foundations of the Union would be undermined if slavery continued. History proved him right, but unfortunately Lincoln didn't have time to think about the immense legacy he would leave or the great changes that would accompany the victory of the Union.
One of Lincoln's strongest personality traits was his reconciling spirit. Not even in the worst moments of a war as cruel as the Civil War did he look at the Confederates with hatred. He had a great capacity for putting himself in the shoes of the other. 'Would I not do the same thing if I were in my enemy's position?' he asked himself. He maintained that integrity and that way of approaching problems in both his public and private life, as story after story about him attest. One of his famous quotes is: "Do I not destroy my enemy by making him my friend?" And his emblematic words at the closing of his first inaugural address on March 4, 1861 reflect the same spirit: "We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."
Even Lincoln's most fervent detractors (some of whom were members of his cabinet) were not subject to his disdain, only to his irony. Lincoln only cared that they were loyal to the government and that they performed their duties as required. Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, for example, hated Lincoln, but after Chase resigned his cabinet position, Lincoln had no problem appointing him president of the Supreme Court. He also kept Edwin Stanton as Secretary of War in spite of a great deal of friction because he knew he was a top-notch military strategist.
Lincoln's life had many ups and downs. He had his share of political defeats and even great family tragedies, like the death of his two children, which affected his sensitive temperament profoundly. He never gave up, though, and even though he did not belong to any church that we know of, he had a deeply rooted religious faith that guided him in times of trouble. One of the most decisive moments in his history occurred when after a series of political failures in 1849, he decided to dedicate himself exclusively to the practice of law-a kind of spiritual retreat at a time when it seemed his political star had faded. But one event took him forever out of his winter quarters: the Kansas-Nebraska Act sponsored by his great adversary, Steven Douglas. The Kansas-Nebraska Act set aside the Missouri Compromise (which had balanced the entrance into the Union on one slave state with one free state) and established "popular sovereignty," or the right of the settlers in these new states to decide whether or not to allow slavery. That was the turning point. Lincoln became a national figure quickly, primarily because of a series of debates with Douglas over the issue of popular sovereignty. The arguments made in those debates are memorable and are a true lesson in democracy. They convinced the North American public of the statesmanship of Lincoln and catapulted him towards the presidency of the United States.
From the emancipation of the slaves in 1863 to the present, African-Americans have continued to contribute greatly to the society of the United States and its economy. In the recent past Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X organized and spoke strongly about the need to eliminate segregation and all forms of racial discrimination. When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white person on the bus in the segregated South, this simple act sparked a movement that would become a second emancipation. President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1965, 100 years after Lincoln's death.
All of this was not enough, however. Discrimination and legal segregation faded slowly, but while racism continued to intrude on the thinking of many older North Americans, younger generations were more free of the confrontational concepts of race. The Civil Rights Act meant that a young man from Kenya could study at a university in Hawaii on equal terms with others. He was a free man who came to the United States like most immigrants, in search of new opportunities. He fell in love with a white woman--love seems to be the one ingredient that can truly break down walls--and they had a son: Barack Obama, the current president of the United States.
Thus, the work that Lincoln began culminated in the election of a black man who follows in his path and became president 144 years after his death.
That a black man could become president was totally inconceivable at the time of the Civil War and a farfetched idea even 50 years ago, during the years of the civil rights struggle. Something has changed to make this possible, something that is still difficult to pinpoint, but which renews Lincoln's hope and challenge that the United States should" ... have a new birth of freedom--and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, will not perish from the earth." He also said the following beautiful and radical words about democracy: "As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy."
More than one journalist and political analyst have discovered coincidences and similarities between Lincoln and Obama: both men were politically educated in Illinois; their wives were born there; both possess reconciling spirits and minds capable of deep reflection; both lacked administrative experience before becoming president; both came from modest homes but were able to take their message to common citizens because of their intelligence and strength of character. When Lincoln became president, he had to face a divided nation whose economy had in part been built on the backs of slaves. Obama must now face the twilight of the age of oil. But one difference between the two men is still stark in 2009. Lincoln's dream has already been realized, while Barack Obama's dream is yet to unfold on the uncertain road ahead.
Hector Pena Diaz is a journalist from Colombia and a frequent contributor to Americas.
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|Author:||Diaz, Hector Pena|
|Publication:||Americas (English Edition)|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2009|
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