Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Land of Lincoln

Way back when I was a school boy, today was a holiday - the birthday of our 16th President, Abraham Lincoln, in 1809 - the President who freed the slaves, crushed the rebels, and saved the Union, probably our greatest President of the bunch.
Abraham Lincoln would be 204 today, but the Lincoln's birthday holiday is long gone, suppressed by the creation of an artifical "Presidents Day" holiday, part of the general evisceration of our national civic observances that has diminished most holidays and turned them into primarily shopping days. But Lincoln himself is having a sort of renaissance this year. The 2012 film Lincoln is a masterpiece and may well win an oscar this minth. At his inauguration last month, the President used Lincoln's bible (along with Martin Luther King's), presumably linking his own progressive agenda to the legacy of the Great Emancipator and the modern Civil Rights movement. And surely his choice of Lincoln's birthday for his State of the Union address is hardly coincidental.
We are already one year into the sesquecentennial of the American Civil War. That tragic war was the ultimate - perhaps inevitable - result of the compromises made in crafting the constitution and creating our union in the first place. The Founding Fathers set out to create a strong central government to replace the inadequate instrument of the Articles of Confederation. Sectional provincialism necessitated a federal system in which the individual states would retain an excessive degree of sovereignty - diminishing our national unity and ultimately threatening its survival. What exacerbated the problem, of course, was the Founders' deal with the Devil by which they allowed the continuance of slavery in those states which wished its retention. Armed with the reality of states' semi-sovereignty and a destructive ideology of states' rights, nullification, etc, certain states not only were able to retain their "peculiar institution" for almost another century, but also to make it the central issue facing the country, using it first to paralyze American politics and eventually starting a Civil War over it.
Lincoln's political genius effectively focused the resources of the rest of the nation on combatting this sectional folly. His moral genius recognized the institution of slavery as the cancerous cause of disunion and gradually catechized the country accordingly. The final step in the moral transformation of America under Lincoln's leadership is what the movie Lincoln dramatizes in its depiction of the passage of the 13th Amendment in early 1865.
A century and a half after the Civil War, we are still saddled with sectional ideologies that seek to utilize the continued existence of states to subvert national community through such diverse strategies as voter suppression and undermining the Affordable Care Act. The old adage that the more things change the more they stay the same seems confirmed again in our contemporary political impasse. Clearly, we are still far from becoming truly and completely the land of Lincoln.

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