Lincoln, an identity of social justice

lincolnStanding on a stage in Cooper Union, NY before a collective of supporters, a gangly man reached into his stove pipe top hat. He pulled out a folded piece of paper, cleared his throat and spoke.

“…Wrong as we think slavery is, we can yet afford to let it alone where it is, because that much is due to the necessity arising from its actual presence in the nation; but can we, while our votes will prevent it, allow it to spread into the National Territories, and to overrun us here in these Free States? If our sense of duty forbids this, then let us stand by our duty, fearlessly and effectively…”

Abraham Lincoln, or “Honest Abe” as his lawyer friends referred to him, evolved into a man and a president most people still admire. As we celebrate the month of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, let’s introspect a little. What makes us think he trandsends us? We picture him as a luminary, but he was just a man.

Many of us learned in our history classes that Lincoln was the 16th President of the United States who served during the Civil War. We learned he was a great speaker and gave some very famous addresses one being, “The Gettysburg Address.” Lincoln also is credited to freeing the slaves with his “Emancipation Proclamation” in 1863. But who else was this man?

While growing up, Lincoln was often abused by his father, yet, adored by his mother. Unfortunately, she died when he was only nine years old, but her influence may have already shaped his identity. We may also have experienced these struggles. Did they knock you down only to never get up? Or like Lincoln did each struggle make you stronger?

Consider his life as a youth, living in a one room log cabin in Kentucky. A life so different than the one in which we now live, or is it? Teaching himself to read and write. So often we tend to make excuses about why others don’t learn or can’t learn under adverse conditions. Yet, Abraham Lincoln lived through worse conditions. Was he just an exception to the rule or did he possess certain internal characteristics that allowed him to succeed?

Standing erect at 6 foot 4 inches tall, compared to our standards he would appear 6 foot 8 inches, his lankiness made him awkwardly uncoordinated.  He also had large ears and extra-large hands. (As a tall teenager, I wonder if he was bullied?) To add insult to injury, that wasn’t the only thing which made him feel uncomfortable, Lincoln also suffered from depression. He suffered many serious episodes before and during his presidency. One such spell occurred after the Republican Convention of 1860. Lincoln often referred to his spells as “suffering from melancholy.”

“His melancholy dripped from him as he walked,” said William Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner. This noted in an article by Joshua Wolf Shenk, writer for Atlantic Magazine.

Aside from his daily struggles, Lincoln loved learning and only attended formal school for about one year. (Can you imagine?)The remainder of his education he earned by his own hard laboring, walking miles to simply borrow a book from someone. He even passed the Bar Exam and received his license to practice law through self-study. He did what many of us do. He used education to better himself and better those who he served.

What really amazes me about Abraham Lincoln is, from the get go, Lincoln opposed slavery. Some say this might have been due to his father’s harsh treatment of him, which historians believed allowed Lincoln to empathize with the brutality of slavery.  Similarly, many of us advocate for causes that have effected our lives or have touched the lives of people we know.

While living in our nation’s capital, Lincoln witnessed the demeaning nature of slavery as he sauntered from his boarding house to the capital each day. He saw African men and women chained, beaten and sold at open slave auctions on the street. Wives tugged away from husbands and children separated never to see their siblings again. Disgusted, he proposed an amendment  around 1847 to end slavery there, to no avail.

In 1858, Lincoln re-entered politics with slavery again being the central issue. Only now it had to do with his outrage at the expansion of slavery into the new territories. Lincoln knew that slavery was “the ultimate cause for war” as he so eloquently put as the introduction to his Gettysburg Address. Lincoln like many of us practiced perseverance.

“Fourscore 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.”

Though Lincoln’s view on the morality of slavery as an evil was definite, he believed that Blacks would never be seen as totally equal. He understood that they wouldn’t be allowed to vote, hold office, marry whites, or serve on juries. He succumbed to the politics at the time by proposing paying slave-owners money to free their slaves, then have those newly freed individuals shipped back to their homeland. This may seem an evil action in its own right. But Lincoln knew and spoke with full acknowledgement of all the repercussions. He had bigger dreams, the presidency. He knew then he could change the country and he knew how to get there.

“A house divided against itself cannot stand… I believe this government cannot endure permanently half-slave and half-free…It will become all one thing or all another.” Lincoln said.

He was a true reformer and advocated for social justice. He fought a different fight, thinking about the welfare of others over himself. How many of us can say we’d behave in the same manner under the circumstances? Many wonder if he hadn’t been assassinated, would there have been a need for a man like Martin Luther King Jr. The spirit that guided him was clearly that of his Second Inaugural Address, now inscribed on one wall of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. .

“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds…” -Abraham Lincoln

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