Friday, March 28, 2014

Abraham Lincoln: The Self-Educated President

The following is an excerpt from a work-in-progress called A Brief History of American Literature.

Abraham Lincoln was born in a backwoods cabin in Hardin County, Kentucky in 1809.  His father and mother were barely literature farmers.  Young Abraham received little formal education.  He was, essentially, a hick.  In 1830, he set off on his own and decided to become a lawyer.  He did not attend law school.  Rather, he educated himself by reading the major law books of his day, passed the bar exam in 1836, and became a lawyer.  Throughout the 1840s and 1850s, he was elected to various political offices, culminating in his election to the presidency in 1860.  It is, needless to say, astonishing that a man with almost no formal education, and no degree, could become the most powerful man in the country.

As president, this self-educated man was faced with the most difficult challenge America has ever faced--the Civil War.  It is even more astonishing the he rose to this challenge and, through his political skills and eloquent speeches, guided the country through these turbulent and bloody times.  He was by no means a perfect president.  Like all presidents, he was as complex as the times in which he lived, but what strikes me as I read through his speeches is the simple power of his writing, the clarity of his thinking, and how some of his words have become fundamental to how we, as Americans, see ourselves.

The famous "Gettysburg Address" has become so cliche that we tend to forget the context and content of that short, but powerful, speech.  It was delivered at the dedication of a cemetery, on the site of an especially bloody battle of the Civil War.  The speech is a meditation on death and life, and what they mean in the context of a war that was was literally ripping apart the United States.  In this speech, Lincoln plays on the dual meaning of the word "dedicate."  The cemetery at Gettysburg is "dedicated" to those who lost their lives in battle.  Lincoln writes:  "We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that this nation might live."  But the real "dedication," Lincoln explains, is for those who remain alive, "for us the living…to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced."  The task of the living is to remain dedicated to winning the war, preserving the Union, and ensuring freedom for future generations, particularly for slaves.  Lincoln ends with these famous words:

"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 this earth."

In his second inaugural address, as the war neared its closing, Lincoln foresaw a time of healing after the great conflict.  His words attempt to provide a kind of guiding light forward, for a severely wounded and traumatized nation:

"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; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan--to do all which many achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations."

Within a year, Lincoln would be killed by assassination, but his words would live on--the words of a man from humble beginnings who went on to lead our country through its darkest hour.  I realize that Abraham Lincoln was a complex man with as many faults as any man.  But his words remain, and these words still ring true to me, as a representation of what America can be, and ought to strive for---a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.  

Abraham Lincoln 1809-1865

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