Lincoln’s Legacy: Poetry and Politics

In half the number of words that have been used to write this column, Abraham Lincoln redefined the future of American democracy and turned the tide of this country’s bloodiest war.

This week marks the 151st anniversary of the 16th president’s Gettysburg Address. For former high school speech and debate nerds such as myself, it’s sort of like a pre-Christmas celebration, in which Lincoln plays the part of Santa. The gifts he brings are 272 words and two minutes of the most impactful prose in American history.

The speech is a fusion of poetry and politics. It is a call to action woven into an artwork.

And yet it wouldn’t make me a traitor to argue that Lincoln was not morally superior to our elected officials today. Behind his vaunted legacy as the Union’s savior, he is revered more as a saint than as an elected official. In many ways, he wasn’t so different from the dysfunctional crew of representatives in Washington today. That difference is that we celebrate his politicking and backroom dealing with Academy Award-winning, Daniel Day-Lewis epics, while calling for heads to roll when we sense that the same is taking place in our own time period.

Do we judge Lincoln by a double standard because of the circumstances under which he served? Maybe we do, but that’s not the point. The point is that the sheer beauty of all he accomplished—including the Gettysburg Address—is not dependent on some super-human aura. Lincoln was not a saint, but rather a man who possessed an ingenius political calculus.

Borrow the family time machine and take a ride to 1863 for a second. Lincoln is Commander-in-Chief of an army that, only months before, was on the brink of defeat. He is president of a country that came within a battle or two of irreconcilable division. And, oh, by the way, there’s an election coming up in 1864 that’s looking pretty damn good for Lincoln’s challenger George McClellan.

For all I know, Lincoln devised the Emancipation Proclamation out of a personal abhorrence for slavery. But recognizing that he freed the slaves in rebel states as a weapon of war doesn’t make him heartless. And it’s okay for us to admit that building his address around the Declaration of Independence “Four Score and Seven Years” in the past was less about nostalgia and more about claiming the Declaration as the preemptive vision of America’s future—a document whose framework of self-evident truths claimed to leave no room for slavery.

Lincoln’s cunning makes him human, but the Gettysburg Address reinforces the fact that his cunning is why he is set apart and revered. His genius was the ability to establish authority without having to boast. He could weave confidence and humility together in a speech that didn’t try to define right and wrong, but rather challenged Americans to be better than they were.

Contrary to his words, Lincoln knew that the world would remember what he said that day in front of 15,000 spectators and a reeling nation, but that didn’t shake him. He simply delivered a eulogy, like a father watching over the graves of his own sons.

Featured Image courtesy of National Public Radio