Guy’s Time: The Lincoln Legacy of Statesmanship
written by CARL DANBURY, JR. | illustration by ROBIN HARRISON
I reflect, that in every moment in our country’s history, that has been critical, great leaders have emerged…And I believe that there is, somewhere in this great country, a leader who again can appeal to all that is best for the American people. That there is still men and women, who want to be elected, not for the salary, not for partisan politics, but to do what is best for this country. And, I still believe that our society, that Americans, are the best, most magnanimous, most willing to forgive, the most willing to follow the light, once they are shown that light, than any nation in history. And, that we still have a great destiny to fulfill.”
– J. Rufus Fears, teacher, 1945-2012
Before his death in October 2012, Dr. J. Rufus Fears, a beloved, revered former history professor at the University of Oklahoma, defined for students and all who would listen, the true meaning of a statesman/statesperson and the qualities he/she should possess. While the general meaning of “statesman” is a person who exhibits great wisdom and ability in directing the affairs of a government, or in dealing with important public issues, Fears examined the individual traits required and determined that the top three statesmen in history included just one U.S. president — Abraham Lincoln. The others? Winston Churchill and Pericles.
Comes a Statesman
We’re little more than one year away from the 58th U.S. Presidential election, and perhaps it is a good time to examine which of the current cast of candidates are most statesmanlike, or the most “Presidential” if you prefer. Published in Brett and Kay McKay’s blog The Art of Manliness (artofmanliness.com), Fears’ qualities of a statesman were listed and later expounded upon in keen detail:
“A statesman, Fears attests, is a free leader of a free people and must possess four essential qualities: a bedrock of principles; a moral compass; a vision; and the ability to build a consensus to achieve that vision.”
Lincoln’s statesmanship began in New Salem, Ill., in 1831, where he delighted the townspeople at the general store with his wit, intelligence and integrity. After serving four terms in the Illinois state legislature from 1834 to 1840, he left office in 1841. He didn’t return until 1846, when he captured the Whig nomination for a seat from the Illinois seventh congressional district to the U.S. House of Representatives, 10 days before the outbreak of the Mexican-American War. Once elected, Congressman Lincoln boldly challenged President James Polk’s assertion that the Mexicans had started the war by attacking American soldiers on American soil. In a speech on the House floor, Lincoln scathingly denounced Polk for taking the country to war by misrepresenting the situation to the nation, claiming (correctly) that the conflict had begun on territory contested by the two sides. It was a blatant and public attack on a popular President by a young, unknown congressman from a state that was solidly behind the war, according to Michael Burlingame, consulting editor, “Abraham Lincoln: Life Before the Presidency,” published by the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia.
That verbal launch had been gaining momentum as Lincoln’s public decry of slavery at the age of 28 began while serving in the Illinois General Assembly in 1837. During his well-publicized debates with Stephen A. Douglas 21 years later, Lincoln’s disdain for the institution continued. His public life was dedicated to the mission of ending slavery, and his Presidential proclamation and executive order, Jan. 1, 1863, changed the federal legal status of more than three million enslaved persons from slave to free.
Later that year, Lincoln was invited to Gettysburg to address an estimated crowd of 20,000, during the dedication and consecration of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, just four-and-a-half months after the historic battle. Edward Everett, a former senator, secretary of state, president of Harvard College and well-known orator was the keynote speaker for the event, and delivered a thorough, if not memorable, two-hour, 13,607-word speech that described the three-day battle, denounced the ambitious, rebellious side and paid great homage to the victorious Union. The original ceremony was scheduled for Oct. 23, but unsurprisingly, Everett needed more time to prepare his remarks.
“…Wheresoever throughout the civilized world the accounts of this great warfare are read, and down to the latest period of recorded time, in the glorious annals of our common country there will be no brighter page than that which relates the battles of Gettysburg.”
Everett received thunderous applause when he had finished his speech, either for its great content, or the collective relief it had finally concluded.
Lincoln wasn’t notified about his forthcoming appearance until 17 days prior to the event, when he was asked to attend by David Wills, a 32-year-old Gettysburg lawyer. Wills had invited Lincoln to give concluding “remarks” at the dedication ceremony to follow the principal address by Everett. Lincoln could have declined the invitation, but he intended to use the opportunity to explain, in his own way to his detractors, why the cruel, savage war was necessary and still raged on.
The once bucolic countryside and town of south central Pennsylvania, where 160,000 men wreaked havoc simply reeked. In the days since the battle had concluded, corpses of men, mules and horses (an estimated 5,000) lay rotting above ground or in shallow, hastily dug graves. The 2,500 residents were ill-equipped to deal with such carnage.
Possibly more than any President before or since, Lincoln was steeped in the teachings of both the Old Testament and New Testament, according to Fears. Throughout his 269-word, approximately two-minute speech that would come to be known as The Gettysburg Address, the high-pitched voice of the President framed his impactful work with Biblical references, likening the sacrifice of those brave Union soldiers who perished to Christ’s crucifixion.
“We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives, that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.”
While some who heard the address that day were visibly moved and grasped the totality of President Lincoln’s remarks, opponents cast his assertions aside quickly. Reviews followed party lines for the most part. However, Everett wrote the President a few days later asking him for a copy, while stating, “I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”
On the other hand, The Harrisburg Patriot-Union had this to say about Lincoln’s address:
“We pass over the silly remarks of the President. For the credit of the nation, we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them and that they shall be no more repeated or thought of.”
As we know, caustic editorial remarks from media sources, particularly along party lines, are alive and well 152 years later. That fact provides pause as to what kind of legacy President Lincoln would leave had he served our country in the 21st century. Undoubtedly, he would be the butt of aspersions due to his humble origins, poor hat choice, protruding chin and firm stance on injustices of the day.
Lincoln was attempting to win a consensus with his address. Governors of 17 free states attended. His address didn’t only pay homage to those who died at Gettysburg, but to those who died fighting for liberty and a free society on all of the Civil War battlefields, and reminded everyone about our role in the fight for independence. He also reminded them about the devastation and social disorder war brings, as well as the sacrifices of all who died and suffered as a result of war, which had at that time been raging for 30 months. He reminded them about the equality he sought for all men, and for all to remain devoted, steadfast and resolute to defeat the enemy.
A 10-second sound byte may be the driving force behind the winner of the next Presidential election, Nov. 8, 2016, but the Gettysburg Address solidified Lincoln’s reputation as our country’s finest statesman, even if that legacy wasn’t cemented for days, months, years later.
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