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Thursday, February 12, 2009


This dust was once the man,
Gentle, plain, just and resolute, under whose cautious hand,
Against the foulest crime in history known in any land or age,
Was saved the Union of these States.

Walt Whitman wrote these lines within three weeks of Lincoln's assassination. Lincoln was the most literate president the nation has known, Not literate in the sense merely that he could read or write, or even in the sense that he was well read. A profound reader, he was self-educated, reading intensively the poems of Robert Burns, the work of William Shakespeare, the King James Version of the Bible, and any other written work he could get his hands on. He was not fond of fiction, but read literature as an intellectual tool in perceiving and interpreting the world that confronted him. Words to him are the currency with which humankind negotiates the terms of life. They make available the record of the failures and triumphs of human kind, and literature, when read with disciplined intelligence, provides a comprehensive understanding of the nature of humankind's better angels, as well as the origins of its worst demons. Lincoln's literately developed sensibilities were recognized and were an inspiration to Whitman and the important writers of the time. Just as Lincoln was striving to grow through the acquisition of great literature, so was the nation.

Lincoln's speeches and letters are part of America's greatest literature. His Second Inaugural Address delivered the month before his death is regarded as his best speech, and therefore one of the best speeches ever delivered in the United States. It clarified the requisite attitudes and resolve of the nation if it is to survive and carry forward the work of democracy.

On this, his 200th birthday, we have a chance to rise above the petty mire of small minds and contemplate the significance of this man for the nation and the world.

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan--to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States