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What Would Lincoln Do?

We have seen a sad spectacle play out on the national stage over the past few months.  The debt ceiling debacle has been called Washington gridlock or bitter partisanship, but ultimately it is supremely frustrating to Americans who simply expect more from our elected officials.  As I followed the budget non-negotiations, I was struck by the simple fact that I didn’t see leaders rising above pettiness to articulate principles. Don’t get me wrong.  The issues are of extraordinary importance.  Our Government must improve how they manage the assets of our nation if we are going to pass a legacy of hope on to future generations.  But that’s not what I witnessed.  The steady stream of press conferences, media interviews, and political headlines only proved our leaders know how to speak past each other and over each other – but not to each other.  Bellwether ideals have given way to backbiting and bickering. In all of my frustration, I was struck with a simple question:  What would Lincoln do?


Lincoln was in office just more than one term but was no stranger to controversies and crises.  He had to manage a civil war, a growing Federal debt to finance that war, the national controversy over slavery, and then there were the defections from his own Cabinet and by Generals in the field.  But through it all, he was a leader.  And he led on principles.   In December of 1862, he sent his annual remarks to Congress.  In that message, he made a statement that is eerily appropriate for the current administration and Congress:  “Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history.  We of this Congress and this administration will be remembered in spite of ourselves…. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation.”


What I find so lacking in today’s political debate and dialogue (if you can call it that) is the lack of high ideals.  I know this sounds trite and idealistic and even naïve to many. But our leaders today stand on party planks more than they do the guiding principles on which this country was founded.  Lincoln had one bright and shimmering ideal that guided his every debate, his every political move, and his every military decision. Lincoln’s clear and high ideal was simple:  save the Union.


While today, we tend to think of Lincoln as the Great Emancipator, the fact of the matter is freeing the slaves was a means to achieving his ideal.  In a famous letter to Horace Greeley, one of Lincoln’s fiercest critics from within his own party, Lincoln explained the policy he was “pursuing.”  “I would save the Union.  I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution,” he wrote.  Then Lincoln explained his stance in what are striking terms that echo some of the recent sentiments expressed in the debt ceiling debate.  “If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them.”  You see, Lincoln had utter clarity on the one ideal that led him through every obstruction, frustration, and negotiation:  save the Union.  The leaders today aren’t focused on saving the Union; they are focused on their petty political positions.


For Lincoln the nation’s good was the greater good. I admire the man’s ability to articulate a high ideal and pursue it relentlessly.  I’d like to see today’s leaders do the same.  Government’s role is to provide equal rights and not equal things; secure life and liberty; or enable prosperity through free markets.   I don’t care which principle our leaders might pick.  Please, just pick one!  


What the nation craves today is more leaders in the ilk of Abraham Lincoln.  When I look around at the shambles of our current political process, I do think ‘what would Lincoln do?’  He wouldn’t cling to mere party politics but would rise above to those high ideals that make this nation, as he wrote to Congress, “the last best hope of earth.” 

1 comment | Add a New Comment
1. AngelaTC | August 22, 2011 at 03:37 PM EDT

Lincoln's plan to save the union wasn't representative of \"freedom\" in any sense of the word. Even though the war wasn't specifically about slavery (Lincoln clearly stated that he would keep slavery if it would preserve the union), every other nation on earth managed to end slavery without killing hundreds of thousands of their fellow countrymen. Sorry, but troubles me that Lincoln is considered a hero for starting a war that cost the Southern states their right to be free.

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