Thursday, February 12, 2009

Happy Birthday, Mr. Lincoln

Today, Abraham Lincoln would have been 200 years old. He was 56 when died, spending his last 5 years on earth as the President of the United States. Growing up in Illinois, I cannot help but have a connection with him. He is considered the state's favorite son, and places like Springfield and Salem are shrines to him.

Even though he was born in Kentucky and raised most of his childhood in Indiana, Lincoln defines Illinois like the Native Americans of whom the French named the state after. Lincoln was a man of his time. He grew up poor, he was self-educated, he was rugged yet refined. He overcame adversity in his personal and his political life to be considered one of the greatest U.S. Presidents in history.

He evolved into an open-minded and respectful man towards African-Americans, yet his political philosophy aided our struggle for citizenship for generations. He was a passionate and honorable public servant, and more over, he was a complex, good-natured human being.

One of the fascinating facts about Lincoln is that he may have lost the U.S. Senate seat to Stephen Douglas in 1856, but he wooed Mary Todd away from Douglas. He always managed to come out on top like that, despite whatever setbacks he may have encountered. A lesson to be learned from Lincoln is that he did not let his original station in life dictate his fate.

Although it was not uncommon for a man in those days to educate himself to become a lawyer, i.e. Andrew Jackson, his tenacity, temperament and thoughtfulness is what set him apart from others. Lincoln was one-of-a-kind. Again, as a child growing up in Chicago, I remember learning about Douglas and Lincoln, their great debates about slavery and their success in politics.

However, to show the distinction between them, to show why one is revered and one is almost forgotten, I have memories of Douglas' grave, with its towering monument, his statue atop that monument, back turned toward the Black community that settled in the residential development he created. Then I think of Lincoln Park, the openness and serenity of it, with a zoo where people can learn about other inhabitants of this planet, where beauty, not vanity, is appreciated, where people of all races, creeds and classes have equal access.

I always look at that as symbolic of those two men and made me understand why Lincoln is special. Lincoln may have been a man of his time in some regards, but because of his willingness to be enlightened, he transcended his time. We should all be that blessed.

As a tribute to Lincoln's Bicentennial, I present to you one of the greatest speeches in U.S. history, The Gettysburg Address:

"Four score 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.

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."