(Rockwell's famous 1662 "Lincoln
for the Defense," depicting the man in
his younger years as a lawyer)
On my trip out here to Omaha, my father and I had the occasion to visit Lincoln's Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, IL. Its a stop I cannot recommend more to people who love this country's better ideals. The museum offers a wonderful, immersive journey though his life and the fierce human rights and political debates he lived through. Its an incredible place, with many quotes and lessons that are still quite timely.*
My favorite quote, of all of them:
"Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation we began by declaring that 'all men are created equal.' When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read 'all men are created equal, except Negroes and foreigners and Catholics.' When it comes to this, I shall prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty -- to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy hypocrisy."
Lincoln was speaking of xenophobia in his own Republican party and the grave threats to liberty. The Republicans, which he helped found contained, despite their strong abolitionist wing also an alliance with bigoted groups that considered my own Irish ancestors, and many other religions and cultures, even European cultures a danger to America and not worthy of equal rights. It could not be more timely, as we as a country face waves of pre-election islamophbia and hysteria. Lincoln rightly connected the debates of his time on whether blacks were fully human with the questions of the equality of ALL people and right to live here in freedom.
This is not, of course an attack on the Republican, or any single party (the Democrats of the time were for slavery!), but a gentle reminder that liberty is something we must always defend with vigilance- no matter our politics. None of these debates are new.
* Including many other parallel's to today- Lincoln, for example was not even a professed Christian OR church-goer but, like Obama faced religious attacks- in his case of atheism. He defended himself quite admirably, while being honest on his non-affiliation. He was, never the less quite the theologian, particularly when it came to making sense of the inscrutability of God's will in the midst of Civil War where both sides claimed to be Christian.
I was amazed, in fact of how passionately Lincoln openly invoked God in politics, while also refusing to be pinned down on his religious beliefs. He was quite possibly the greatest debater in our history-- yet his religious arguments did not seem disingenuous. One feels he truly believed them, but also valued his freedom of thought and belief. A guide at his tour told me, with some wry humor that certain Christian groups are trying to claim a last minute death-bed confession of faith to be able to "claim" this all too complex national hero.