“There is many a good fellow that wears the shoulder straps going under the sod before this thing is over.” -Abraham Lincoln
Today, the hard work begins as the respective politicking between Barack Obama and John McCain resumes its appropriate place in the context of our nation‘s history (read as: meaningless hot air.) Like Abraham Lincoln so many years ago, our new president - whomever it may be - faces enormous challenges before they even take office; though nothing even close to the scale of what towered before our 16th president as he prepared for his first inaugural in 1861.
In a way, it‘s appropriate that we‘ll be celebrating the bicentennial of Lincoln‘s birth in February 2009 - just three short months away - right after the 44th president of our country takes the helm. Like Lincoln, either Obama or McCain faces major difficulties right from the get go, with the U.S. mired in $11 trillion worth of debt, engaged in combat in Afghanistan and Iraq abroad, while dealing with major energy, manufacturing, and job issues here at home (among MANY others!)
Whoever wins, though, could learn a tremendous amount from Abraham Lincoln, whom I consider the greatest of all U.S. presidents. The why is pretty simple: he chose to stick to one single, overriding principle to the near-exclusion of everything else during his term in office (until his tragic assassination) - saving the United States of America, referred to perfunctorily as “The Union” back then.
“My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery,” he said - this from the man who would later be hailed as the “Great Emancipator,” the destroyer of that foul institution. “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”
This isn‘t to denigrate Lincoln‘s achievements - he in fact loathed slavery (“Whenever I hear any one arguing for slavery I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally,” Lincoln once said) - but it‘s well-known that his famous “Emancipation Proclamation” issued after the bloody Battle of Antietam in Sept. 1863 only freed slaves in enemy territory (read as: the Confederacy) and specifically not in those areas where Union troops held sway (Maryland, most notably)
[The aftermath of Antietam, referred to as the Battle of Sharpsburg by the Confederates.]
Why is this so important? Because Lincoln knew that slavery could never be abolished permanently unless the North won the war - unless he could save the Union. That‘s why he focused on saving the Union above all else - why he moved against slavery in only half-measures; why he continued to prosecute the Civil War with a literally revolving door of generals; why he refused to even contemplate an armistice with Confederacy.
“The probability that we may fall in the struggle ought not to deter us from the support of a cause we believe to be just; it shall not deter me,” Lincoln said. “If I were to try to read, much less answer, all the attacks made on me, this shop might as well be closed for any other business. I do the very best I know how - the very best I can; and I mean to keep doing so until the end. If the end brings me out all right, what‘s said against me won‘t amount to anything. If the end brings me out wrong, ten angels swearing I was right would make no difference.”
[One of the few memorials to the African Americans who fought for the Union side -- this one is in Washington D.C. -- and paid the ultimate price.]
So Lincoln focused all his energies on the saving the Union - continuing on in that quest, through dark nights and days of lost battles, incompetent generals, ghastly totals of dead, wounded and maimed soldiers, the drumbeat of criticism from all corners (we forget he was one of the most hated presidents while in office, by abolitionists and pro-slavery forces alike) until the war was won. Can you imagine where we‘d be if he‘d deviated from this path? My home state of Virginia would be part of an entirely different country, with a completely different history - no doubt one with many more wars fought with the North where my co-workers all reside. Talk about nightmares!
So to whichever candidate wins in today‘s historic election, remember to be steadfast above all else to Lincoln‘s principle - save the Union. Pay down the deficit, restore our manufacturing and transportation infrastructure, establish a solid energy strategy, and keep our defenses strong ... do what we need to do to get our nation healthy. It‘ll hurt - all of that requires big tax increases and huge cuts in all sorts of federal spending but we gotta do what we gotta do. The time is past for pushing the tough choices off to the future, for the next generation to figure out.
[The war and the loss of a son to illness while in office took a huge physical toll on Lincoln, as this last portrait -- taken a day before his assassination by famed photographer Matthew Brady -- shows all too well.]
“If all do not join now to save the good old ship of the Union this voyage, nobody will have a chance to pilot her on another voyage,” Lincoln noted not long after taking office in February, 1861. Whatever our personal political leanings, this much is true: it‘s our country. And while nothing going on today is anywhere near as bad as the Civil War suffered in Lincoln‘s time, (or the Great Depression Franklin Delano Roosevelt grappled with) there‘s still much that needs repair in the U.S. these days - and it‘s up to all us to fix it.