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Geoff Gratwick of Bangor is a retired physician and former state senator.
Friday is Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. It is a time to reflect on the power and poetry of the language he used to communicate his vision of the United States. During a time of unparalleled rancor, his words transcended the bitter politics of the time; they expressed what the nation and his Republican Party stood for. Words have the power to unite us or divide us. Because of Lincoln’s words we are one nation today, not two.
It is difficult for us to appreciate the profound divisions that fractured the young United States in the 1840s and 1850s. There were conflicts between the countryside and cities, the rich and the poor, those with education and those without, the industrial north versus the agrarian south, and the vexing questions of the new Missouri territories. And there was the 250-year history of slavery.
The Republican Party, newly formed in 1854, grew out of this turmoil and was the political expression of northern revulsion over slavery. It was the party of idealists; its language was that of equality, human dignity and adherence to the Constitution. Lincoln was our first Republican president. The opposition, the Democrats, were willing to accommodate slavery and see one nation become two to avoid a war.
In 1861, it wasn’t at all obvious that Lincoln was the right man for the presidency. He was uneducated and came from a poor frontier family. His only training was in the school of hard knocks. He often made up his mind slowly, laughed uproariously at his own homely anecdotes, was given to brooding melancholy, and was physically ungainly. He would be the first to admit that he was an imperfect man.
His supporters responded that he was the uncommon common man. He was smart, thoughtful, quick of wit, humble and a tenaciously hard worker. He could listen. He had an unequaled sense of the mood of his times and was blessed by inexplicable mystic flashes of insight. His endless reserves of empathy were both his greatest asset and his heaviest cross.
Lincoln’s moral compass was set to the star of a single nation under the Constitution. With the war this grew to include the abolition of that great evil, slavery. His words still speak to us now with great immediacy. In his First Inaugural Address of March 1861, delivered just before the war broke out, he spoke to his fellow citizens: “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. …. You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the Government, while I shall have the most solemn one to preserve, protect and defend it.”
He likened the actions of the pre-war South to those of a mob, intent on imposing its will on the majority with its ever more strident demands. “We must settle this question now, whether in a free government the minority have the right to break up the government whenever they choose,” he told his private secretary John Hay.
The recent insurrection in Washington would have appalled Lincoln.
Lincoln’s greatest gift was his use of language, his ability to articulate the core of an issue in a profound but simple way that regular people understood. He could quote long passages of the great poets and Shakespeare but the strength of his words, the power of his language, his own form of poetry, were his alone, drawn from a deep well of understanding of his time and America’s place in history. He was able to think through to the far reaches of a problem and to speak with simplicity and gravity.
He was able to articulate the uncomfortable truths about America that we still do not want to hear today — that America had not lived up to its ideals, that injustice and exploitation underlay our national life — but he always did so with the affirmation that we could do better.
Lincoln’s words have become part of our lives and parlance. They are imbedded in the fabric of our national identity. In our current troubled times, they still resonate — and indeed have heightened significance. His prose-poetry speaks to how we as Americans with widely differing perspectives can still be one.
Again, from the First Inaugural: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
Language has extraordinary power to shape our thoughts and understanding. The world we paint for ourselves with words is the world we live in. Lincoln’s words still have the power to heal and move us forward.