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Sunday, February 1, 2009

The year of Lincoln

I grew up in a house where a bust of Abraham Lincoln was right next to the family Bible on an entry-way table. My childhood took place during the Great Depression and World War II. Consequently, we could afford few trips out-of-town for vacations, but the one I remember was a family tour of Lincoln's New Salem and Springfield, Illinois. When we visited those Lincoln sites, the family dressed in its Sunday best. As we visited New Salem, Lincoln's home in Springfield, the Illinois Capitol, and Lincoln's tomb, I recall how strong was the feeling of Lincoln's presence. Many years later, I took my own children on that same tour of Lincoln sites, and that sense of Lincoln's presence was still strongly there. The people visiting his tomb on the day I took my children there responded with the same quiet sense of reverence I recall from my own childhood visit there.

The entire State of Illinois is a shrine to Lincoln. One cannot wander to any part of it without encountering a memory of him. We grew up in Illinois, particularly those of us from working families, understanding that Lincoln changed the country, and also changed the standards of equality and equal opportunity as it applied to the people whose labor supplied the nation's motive force.

Lincoln's importance to the working people of the U.S., and particularly Illinois is,therfore, in the respect he articulated through his words and demonstrated through his life about equality and opportunity for working people.
"I shall prepare myself.
Someday my time will

The tour guides at New Salem and Springfield often mention Lincoln's strained relationship with his father as something that shaped his attitudes toward slavery and the rights of people who work to benefit from the fruits of their labors. Lincoln wanted an education, and he chaffed under the constant demands for him to perform drudged physical labor. Relatives report that he sneaked off to read books whenever he could and was described as lazy in regards to physical work. Still, he did it. As was the rule of law back then, his father had the right to "rent" him out to others and collected all the wages earned. This legal custom of taking all the wages earned by people under one's charge caused problems in America fron its inception. Bonded servants were often rented out to others. This caused a near-uprising during colonial times and resulted in a plantation named Merrymount becoming a refuge for bonded servants who wanted to escape this treatment. Frederick Douglass was leased out to another master who mistreated him and Douglass got into a physical struggle with the master over mistreatment. Being leased out as a beast of burden was the source of deep resentments, whether it was slaves, servants, or children who were being treated like beasts.

Tour guides at New Salem also mention Lincoln's resentment at being rented out for labor until he was of legal age, 21. They point out that as soon as he reached that age, he left his family and began life on his own at New Salem. The experience informs Lincoln's thinking about slavery and about work. While he had a tendency toward laziness as a child, he was known for his industry, his ambition, and his intelligence in New Salem. His image as the railsplitter was accurate. But it tends to ignore that he remained a voracious reader.

Lincoln did not see capitalism as the driver of the American economy. Rather, he saw labor and the individual efforts of people to build lives and improve their stations as the primary force in building the nation. The institution of slavery was justified, in fact, because it possessed the greatest source of labor, as is articulated in Mississippi's articles of secession from the union.

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of
slavery--the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. ... A blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization.

Part of Lincoln's objection to slavery is that free laboring people had to compete for wages against a labor force that was not paid, a force whose earnings went to the people who owned them. A nation which operated on forced labor would never provide full opportunities for those who made their livings in labor. Lincoln's argument against slavery rested very much upon the similar plight of American workers today having to compete with the low wages--sometimes the forced labor--from the developing countries of the world. He said, "labor is the source from which human wants are mainly supplied."

Lincoln was a great promoter of investing in what were called "internal improvements" in his time, infrastructure in our time. He realized that the efforts of workers, whether on farms or in industry, and businesses had to have ways to get to the market. In his day, this meant the building of waterways, roads, and railroads. And even in bad economic times, he was in favor of taxing, if necessary, to maintain those investments. During the panic of 1837 he favored a general property tax to keep the internal improvements under construction. Such a tax, he said, took from the "wealthy few" not the "many poor."

It has been no coincidence that Barack Obama has deliberately invoked the presence and heritage of Abraham Lincoln in his quest for the presidency. The parallels between the times of a working class undergoing distress and a war dividing the country are obvious. Obama came to Illinois to work with the communities in Chicago which were devastated by a changing world economy that displaced the steel workers in south Chicago from their jobs. As a state legislator, Obama was familiar with Springfield and the general environs of Illinois which are pervaded by the Lincoln legacy.

Obama announced his candidacy for the presidency on the steps of the Illinois Capitol, he 0ften quotes Lincoln--especially the references to the better angels of human nature--, and he took his oath of office on the same Bible Lincoln did. Like Lincoln, Obama is a compelling orator. He strives to restore language to an integrity that has been ravaged by malicious partisanship, the spin-habit of ignoring the definitions of words established by their place in history and human experience, and not to regard the general value of language as a means to deceive and coerce, but to use it as the means to inform.

Biographers point out that Lincoln built his presidency on the building blocks of words. He used literature, particularly Shakespeare, to provide his perspective on the world. In words, he saw the hope of the world, but also their misuse as the destruction of the world.

This year celebrates Abraham Lincoln's 200th birthday. And as we approach it in the context of our own times, it is useful and, perhaps, encouraging to contemplate the words from his second inaugural address:

Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history....The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation....In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free--honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last, best hope of earth.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States