My first visit to our nation’s capital was a hectic day of battling DC traffic, checking into our hotel, and general things that needed to be done. Before I knew it, evening had arrived. My frustration was at palpable levels. Here I was, in Washington, DC, and I had seen little of importance other than the Washington Monument in the distance.
It wasn’t right, and I vowed to correct the problem by dragging my reluctant family to the National Mall. Since we had already experience one harrowing cab ride that day (pre-Uber days) and I hadn’t conquered the mass transit system yet, we walked south from our hotel.
As we neared the National Mall, darkness has fallen. We aimed for a glowing area where people were milling around. It was the Lincoln Memorial.
At the top of 145 steps, we came face-to-face with a larger-than-life statue of our 16th president. It’s hard to describe the feeling I had at this moment. Part of it was awe at the power in this statue of the bearded one (with no apologies to NBA’s James Harden). Sculptor Daniel Chester French did an excellent job communicating the dignity and strength of Lincoln.
As I started to read the quotes on the walls of the memorial, I realized that Lincoln represented something larger than myself. Fatigue at the end a long day was such a minor thing when faced with one man trying to do the right thing during a turbulent time in history.
Since that time, I have made the trek to the Lincoln Memorial on almost every trip to Washington, DC. I have seen it so many times that I have lost count. I have gazed up at Lincoln, and I have faced away from him to see the iconic view of the National Mall with the reflecting pond positioned between monuments honoring our first and sixteenth presidents.
But Lincoln holds a special place in my heart. I’ve visited where he lived and worked in Illinois, the location of his assassination, and his final resting place. And as we near his 211th birthday on February 12, I wanted to capture why I’m drawn to this iconic man.
We all enjoy stories of the self-made man (or woman) who pulls themselves up from their bootstraps. Abraham Lincoln did not have a wealthy Daddy nor was he a legacy enrollment at fine higher institutions. No, Lincoln was born in poverty. He knew hard physical labor. He taught himself the law, and he earned his stripes working as a circuit lawyer. How could you not admire that?
Unifying the Nation
Lincoln was president during perhaps one of the worst times in U.S. history. State against state, brother against brother. Never did he vilify the South. The states that seceded weren’t the bad guys. In Lincoln’s eyes, the nation was broken and he did everything in his power to heal it.
Role in Ending Slavery
Perhaps Lincoln’s great legacy was acting on the belief that no one should live in slavery. In 1854, Lincoln gave a series of speeches calling slavery “unjust.” Yet, he entered the presidency not knowing quite how to end it. Lincoln distanced himself from abolitionism because of the harsh rhetoric against Southerners.
Lincoln struggled with whether a gradual reduction in slavery would be more effective? Where would freed African-Americans live? Should they return to the land of their ancestors? Do you compensate southern landowners? What about racism? Lincoln finally realized that America must be an interracial society. Period. Thus, he signed the Emancipation Proclamation and made slavery illegal.
Could it have been done better? Probably. Lincoln didn’t live to see the difficult and dangerous time of Reconstruction. But the Emancipation Proclamation was a step in the right direction. It paved the way for the 13th through 15th Amendments, which later paved the way for the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.
Many of Lincoln’s words have become immortalized and deservedly so. Just hearing “Four score and seven years ago” reminds you of the simple power of the Gettysburg Address. Some of my favorite Lincoln words are:
- 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.
- As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy.
- A house divided against itself cannot stand.
- I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence.
- The people — the people — are the rightful masters of both congresses, and courts — not to overthrow the constitution, but to overthrow the men who pervert it.
Connection to Martin Luther King, Jr.
Dr. King is one of my heroes too. And every time I hear his voice ring out with the I Have a Dream speech, I tear up. On August 28, 1963, Dr. King stood 18 steps from the top of the Lincoln Memorial and spoke words that touched a nation. Today, a marker marks the spot.
It is commonly believed that Dr. King spoke from the Lincoln Memorial because of Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. King often spoke of Lincoln. Both had a dream of a better America.
Was Abraham Lincoln perfect? Absolutely not. Did he make mistakes? Absolutely. He was human. But he did the best he could with the circumstances he was given. That’s all we can ask of ourselves. We should accept nothing less from our leaders.