That we here highly resolve 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.
At the same time I could equally argue that the Southern States ought to have been allowed to secede from the Union with the same degree of freedom by which they had joined it – with great reservations as we all know. We need not have lost the lives of 600,000 of our best men. But I know that argument would be voted down – at least by those living in states not in the Old South whose resentment to this day is one of the reasons Lincoln’s birth date is not a national holiday.
Instead I present the following in support of my belief in the greatness of this man. In his short address at Gettysburg, Lincoln succinctly made has case for the Civil War, beginning by restating the history of our nation’s birth. That invoked the ideal – the equality of humans throughout the world – that to him was to him the reason our country was founded. It took those living here back to that state of nature into which we were all born. In that way he was doing much more than just commemorating a battlefield that had become a mass burial site. He was justifying the great loss of life. He showed that he was using the powers given to him as President to promote freedom for all peoples living in this country, including the black slaves of the South. He thus justified taking this new country into a terrible Civil War. He accomplished freeing the African slave, and taking all steps possible to preserve our Union. In so doing, he put into practical effect the idealistic words of our Declaration of Independence.
Some folks will argue that Lincoln was in fact our most consequential President of all, even above George Washington. I take issue with that. George Washington set the bar for accomplishments as President. After leading the Founders who drafted our Constitution, he served as the First President under it, and during his administration formed the idea of a Cabinet (not to be found in the Constitution) including an Attorney General (without a Department of Justice), and Secretaries of War, State, and Treasury. He also oversaw the completion of a home for the President, that we now call The White House, and much, much more. Both men were extraordinary, principled leaders, and we are fortunate to have them as examples today – no matter the number of holidays we get from it.
Think where we would be today without Lincoln! What he accomplished was no less than the completion of the United States Constitution, with the issues of States rights and slavery finally being resolved. His mission was summarized in the following few words spoken at Gettysburg in 1863, which has since been rightfully called one of the most eloquent of speeches ever given – with words which rival those of Jefferson in our Declaration of Independence:
“Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. 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. 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.”
Here Lincoln clearly and succinctly set forth the purpose of the Civil War, as he was commemorating one of its most important battlefields – and justifying the ultimate loss of over 600,000 Americans. He neatly tied this struggle into the language of the Declaration of Independence. And he wrapped it all up neatly in the commitment to honor the dead by finishing the great work of the Constitution – to ensure that all Americans continue to “live free and equal”.
Thereby did President Abraham Lincoln justly take his place as the last of the Founding Fathers, whom we so appropriately venerate today as one who was willing to dedicate his life – and ultimately lose it – to the Founders noble work. This paved the way for new Amendments to be added to the Constitution to preserve and protect the rights that the former slaves newly enjoyed. The Thirteenth Amendment forbade unpaid servitude (slavery itself). The Fourteenth, among other things, extended the rights of citizens guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment to States as well as the federal government. And the Fifteenth prohibited restrictions on voting based on race, creed, or previous condition of servitude. All of these measures benefited all of us Americans, and still do.
And so it was that, because of Abraham Lincoln, some 87 years after our Country declared itself to be free, the African slaves within it also became free. That left us but one major hurdle to surmount: carrying out a plan for the rights of black citizens to enjoy. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950's and 1960's took us part way. Current events inform us that there is still work to do. It is up to us now – in the cause of social justice, equality of opportunity, and brotherly love – to complete Lincoln’s work.
In any case, holiday or not, I will be flying my American Flag on February 12 – his special day.
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