If Abraham Lincoln were alive today, he would surely be telling stories, helping us recall our roots, identity, aspirations, and “better angels.” Likely disappointed, he would not be resigned, perhaps more parental – as in his day.
Lincoln would not like our tendency to bombast, cut each other down, and rewrite our past. He saw lots of that, knew where that led, and warned us against it.
Lincoln’s was a rare temperament, but one – if we chose – we could adopt, even today. And by that simple act, we would teach those around us what is possible.
Could we? We could. Think about it. Who lived with more frustration than Lincoln? Came from more poverty? Rose with more resolve and good cheer?
Who suffered more with chronic melancholy, mother gone at nine, wife wrestling depression, and three children lost in childhood – yet carried on?
Who suffered more attacks for his love of both freedom and equality and educated his countrymen unto death? Who was more vilified for his beliefs, yet did not yield –rather like his farmer father and just kept at it, cultivating the field?
One day, reported a friend, Lincoln, returned from a meeting. Given to pondering, he mused. “I don’t like that man…I must get to know him better.”
There you have the essence of Lincoln. He knew his mind, history, and purpose. He knew power and limits. He knew too, and we can, the value of his fellow man.
Lincoln – under pressure all his life, self-taught, slow to anger, quick to stories – knew too what he did not know. By all reports, even detractors, he was humble.
What do you get from a person who sees themselves as no better than others, dutybound to teach and to learn – schooled on biblical lessons, a child when the Founding Fathers still walked the Earth, who always felt himself blessed?
You get a leader – someone so confident, so ready to improve, that he can be magnanimous, at ease, ready to embrace danger, unafraid to learn from a stranger.
Lincoln’s finest trait may be his uncanny appreciation for where he lay on the great arc of our nation’s history. No words say it better than his Gettysburg Address.
Recalling for his time and ours the arc and power of understanding, he wrote: “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.”
Tell me, is there a better way to place us on that great arc, reminding us it all began in a noble place, and so listen closely to what is due – what that means for you?
He explained, mid-war, what the battle meant, the significance of so many dying within sight of where they all stood. He explained so they could not forget.
The conflict ahead was life-and-death for the Republic. It was “testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”
Why specifically there? “We are met on a great battlefield…to dedicate a portion…as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.” They were there to think, pray, and give thanks.
Lincoln then checks himself. In doing so, he checks his audience. “In a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.”
Put differently, then and now, the willingness to die for freedom and equality, to risk all you have for this blessed Nation, is without parallel. It exceeds all words.
Words are just words, easily forgotten, utterances on the wind, but “the world…can never forget what they did here.” And we must never forget.
As if turning to speak to us – now eight score years since that day – Lincoln then said this: “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.”
Then: “It is rather 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 government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Lincoln gave those words thinking we would understand them, recall, ingest and digest them, accept and believe them – as he did, as those standing before him did.
So, what do his character, temperament, and the Gettysburg Address mean today? It means digging deeper and thinking harder. It is a plea to all of us to lift our eyes, hearts, and minds higher and rededicate ourselves to preserving the future, as Lincoln did. That is it, nothing more, nothing less.
Robert Charles is a former Assistant Secretary of State under Colin Powell, former Reagan and Bush 41 White House staffer, attorney, and naval intelligence officer (USNR). He wrote “Narcotics and Terrorism” (2003), “Eagles and Evergreens” (2018), and is National Spokesman for AMAC.
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