Select Page



by William H. Benson

February 11, 1999 

     We now celebrate Presidents’ Day rather than individually honoring either Abraham Lincoln’s or George Washington’s birthdays, and yet, what they each achieved is sufficient reason for pausing for at least a day and reflecting.  Lincoln, the giant among the Presidents, casts a long shadow which still falls across the land called America and upon all Americans.  His birthday, February 12, 1809, is tomorrow.  We pause, and we reflect.

      Lincoln’s law partner in Springfield, Illinois, Billy Herndon, who knew him best, said, “Mr. Lincoln always told enough of his plans and purposes to induce the belief that he had communicated all, but he reserved enough to have actually communicated nothing. . . . Mr. Lincoln read less and thought more than any man in his sphere in America.”

      Lincoln believed in human rights, in individual dignity, in person liberty, and in civil justice.  His political ideas he derived straight from the Declaration of Independence, from which he often quoted.  A liberal democrat, his genius was in stating familiar ideas in striking and symbolic form.

      But the essential Lincoln cannot be understood apart from his stance toward slavery.  That institution tempered his soul and gave direction to his life.  It was the overriding reality of his time.  There was no escaping it.  It was the American national tragedy, a gigantic anomaly.  It mocked the Declaration of Independence.  Lincoln hated the idea of one man owning another.

      He spoke of the time he took a boat down the Mississippi River into the South.  “There were on board, ten or a dozen slaves, shackled together with irons.  That sight was a continual torment to me, . . . a thing which has the power of making me miserable.”  The cruelties of slavery bruised Lincoln’s tender soul.

      Decades before, Thomas Jefferson, a slaveowner himself, wrote, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; his justice cannot sleep forever.”

      Lincoln forced himself to think through the harsh realities of the slavery problem, and by his relentless logic, he arrived at two fundamental ideas.  First, he concluded that slavery threatened American democracy.  Unless it was eradicated, it would end by wrecking freedom all together. “Familiarize yourselves with the chains of bondage and you prepare your own limbs to wear them.”  A worm in a beautiful apple will eventually rot from within the entire apple.

      Second, he wanted a solution to ending slavery that would not lead to the destruction of the nation.  But, alas, in part because he was elected President in 1860, the Southern states in a fit of passion and frenzy withdrew from the nation and created their own, the Confederacy.  The resulting Civil War, North against South, brother against brother, family against family, gathered up everything ugly and hideous that war can muster up and dumped it squarely upon the American continent.  Lincoln’s nightmare erupted into a reality he was forced to live through.

      But there in the midst of the vicious contest on January 1, 1863, he issued a proclamation.  “Now, therefore, I, Abraham Lincoln . . . , do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States . . . are, and henceforward shall be free.”  He and the federal government declared that slavery was illegal, and he said, “If my name ever goes into history, it will be for this act, and my whole soul is in it.”

     “I want every man to have a chance,” he said repeatedly.  The American system of government, he believed, was set up for that very purpose.


      Lincoln’s words and ideas are worth saying again and again.  We pause, and we reflect.