He failed in business in ’31.
He was defeated for the legislature in ’32.
He again failed in business in ’33.
He was elected to the legislature in ’34.
His sweetheart died in ’35.
He had a nervous breakdown in ’36.
He was defeated for speaker in ’38.
He was defeated for elector in ’40.
He was defeated for congress in ’43.
He was elected to congress In ’46.
He was defeated for congress in ’48.
he was defeated for the senate in ’55.
He was defeated for vice-president in ’56.
He was defeated for the senate in ’58.
He was elected president in ’60.
His name was Abraham Lincoln.
He never admitted defeat.
Next week, on Feb. 12, we will remember the birth and life of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln. With barely any formal education, born in Kentucky to a poor family, he studied on his own to become a frontier lawyer. In time, his deft leadership held the nation together through its worst crisis. All these years later, historians and laypeople alike regard him not only as the foremost president, but as well arguably the greatest American.
By his own slow, laborious hand, he left us writings, speeches, letters, and more that have offered wisdom and guidance worldwide. In fact, if you quantify them simply in terms of words, Lincoln’s writings and speeches number 1,078,365. This compares to 926,877 words in the Bible, and 1,025,000 in the works of Shakespeare. But it’s the inspiring quality of what he said that endures. As a man and as a leader, he survives the closest scrutiny far more honorably than any historical figure. If public and private leaders today emulated his example only to some degree, they would do much for our country and our communities, with a renewed spirit of cooperation among their colleagues.
Lincoln had abhorred slavery from his youngest days. “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong,” he would say. He first publicly called for the abolition of slavery as a state legislator in the 1830s (which, interestingly, is when he also advocated extending to all women the right to vote). When elected to the presidency in 1860, his well-known opposition to slavery prompted Southern states to prepare to secede from the United States.
First, though, a proposal arose in Congress after he was elected president but just before he was sworn in, known as the Crittenden Compromise, which kept the South from seceding as they were threatening to do until this “deal” was voted on. The Crittenden Compromise, if approved, would have kept the Union together and avoided civil war. But it also would have legalized slavery permanently in the South and some future territories. For that reason alone, President-elect Lincoln actively led the fight to oppose it, despite the risk of breaking up the Union.
It was a dramatic choice between slavery and the Civil War, which came to pass, and Lincoln was steadfast for abolition at all costs. This episode alone rebuts the Lincoln doubters who today dismiss his commitment to abolition. And by the fall of 1861, the first year of the war, Lincoln had finally linked the war for saving the Union with the abolition of slavery, followed in 1863 with his pioneering Emancipation Proclamation.
Yet the Lincoln doubters ply their revisionism in many classrooms, even from some pulpits. They will point to some of his statements during the war where he seems to give priority to preserving the Union over everything else, and where he reversed one of his general’s orders to free all slaves in Missouri. These were, however, necessarily measured steps by Lincoln to calm numerous storms of division in the North, and in hindsight proved instrumental along his righteous path of ridding America of what he called slavery’s “despotism of class rule and human servitude.”
And it is true that Lincoln contemplated the colonization abroad of the freed slaves. Clearly, however, his deeply humanistic spirit would never have forced this upon freed slaves who would desire to stay.
Lincoln’s tenacity to win victory for the Union and the slaves’ freedom was met with horribly enormous battle casualties, brutal and relentless criticism of his character (to which he would not respond – a cogent lesson for today’s politicians) and constant political opposition, even in his own cabinet. When he ran for reelection in 1864, while the war raged seemingly endlessly, one of his own leading generals was the Democratic candidate against him, running albeit unsuccessfully on a popular peace platform of compromise at all costs with the South.
Nor was Lincoln spared devastating personal misery, including an intensely stressful marriage and the death of his precocious, 11-year-old son. He coped with his prolonged melancholy by telling jokes and frontier yarns, often to the disgust of his more polished cabinet members, most of whom had earlier been his political rivals, a factor he ignored when he appointed them.
Indeed, as with so much else about him, Lincoln’s self-deprecating humor has become legendary. During the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates, the Democratic candidate Stephen Douglas branded Lincoln as “two-faced.” Lincoln replied, “I leave it to my audience. If I had another face, do you think I’d wear this one?” Newspaper reporters once pressed him about a seance allegedly with spirits in the after-life, which First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln had hosted in the Red Room of the White House. Lincoln replied that it “sounded very much like the talk of my cabinet.”
Lincoln wrote all his speeches. What he offered at his second inauguration in 1865, just prior to the war’s end, most deserves our attention. Lincoln felt it was the most important speech of his public life. The briefest ever made by a president, his Second Inaugural Address was expected to be a victory speech, where many eagerly awaited a pledge of dire punishment for the rebel South. Quite the contrary, he spoke slowly and movingly of “malice toward none, and charity for all,” and of his plan “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 may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves and with all nations.”
There followed great praise for this speech. Frederick Douglas, the African-American abolitionist reformer and editor, himself a former slave, who grew close to Lincoln, was riveted to its every word as it was delivered, describing it as an “address sounding more like a sermon than a state paper.” The Philadelphia Enquirer, published the day after, said, “The address is characteristic of Mr. Lincoln. It exhibits afresh the kindness of his heart and the large charity which has ever marked his actions toward those who are his personal enemies as well as enemies of his country.” His message resonated profoundly with heads of foreign nations and their citizens.
The speech was also greeted with indifference, even hostility by many in the Union. But soon it came to be revered as one of the greatest in the nation’s history. Where Lincoln offered merciful reunification and not revenge, these 703 words were described by one modern author, Ronald C. White Jr. as “the culmination of Lincoln’s moral and rhetorical genius.”
Not long after his Second Inaugural, Lincoln’s shocking murder at the hands of a white supremacist left the fate of the nation to lesser souls.
A leader of smaller vision or vacillating will may well have failed to save the Union. Had Lincoln lived to serve out his second term, a true Reconstruction would have blessed these United States. The racist Jim Crow Laws of the late 1800s would likely never have soiled the statutes and courts of many states. He surely would have built upon the final end to slavery in the U.S. Constitution’s Thirteenth Amendment, whose drafting and adoption he had skillfully made possible before his death. The seeds of racial harmony that he certainly would have continued to sow would have grown far and wide in America today. Were there ever a figure in our nation’s history so well able to achieve such a daunting legacy, it would be he.
It is significant that hundreds of thousands of young Americans from the North followed his lead and gave their lives, specifically to end slavery. Many actually enlisted during religious services in the very churches that stand today here on our North Fork strictly for the purpose of abolition. Abraham Lincoln’s tragic end took him from us far too soon, but the share we did have of his unique gifts truly does “belong to the ages.” A Happy Lincoln’s Birthday to all! May this Ode to Abe be a worthy gift.
Greg Blass has spent his life in public service since he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a teenager. He has worked in the private sector as an attorney and served six terms representing the East End in the Suffolk County Legislature, where he was also presiding officer. Greg has worked as an adjunct professor at Suffolk County Community College, as Greenport village attorney, as N.Y. State family court judge and as Suffolk County social services commissioner. Now retired, Greg is active in volunteer work and is a member of the board of directors of several charities. A resident of Jamesport, he and his wife Barbara have two grown children.
Send Greg an email.
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