By Edward Epstein and Richard Margolies
Wednesday, February 17, 2021
Since the 1930s, the Lincoln Group of the District of Columbia has been studying the life, leadership, and vision of Abraham Lincoln.
He is the most-written about person in American history. This poor, self-educated boy born in a log cabin in the Kentucky woods rose to greatness. This hero for the ages still inspires people around the world. His lifelong opposition to slavery, his Emancipation Proclamation, his preservation of the Union, and his final embrace of voting rights for African Americans led him to regularly being called Black Lincoln. Newspapers suggested someone should kill him. And in our terms, a white supremacist, a racist, did.
Today some find Lincoln’s actions hard to understand. He supported freed slaves to voluntarily emigrate abroad, a tactic quickly dropped when he saw an opening to move toward emancipation. To some, he seemed “slow” or “ambivalent” to take action to free enslaved people during the Civil War. He several times used what today we call racist language when campaigning against rabidly race-baiting opponents. These actions can only be understood in the political context that limited him. Indeed, it is clear Lincoln was a strategic visionary devoted to removing the sin of slavery from our nation and to free those traumatized under it. He was a principled pragmatist who knew he had to gain power to work for his vision of universal freedom and equal rights for all people.
He was tireless in fighting against slavery’s defenders. He knew the political constraints that hemmed him in and severed the nation. He always searched for openings where, as Frederick Douglass said, he could insert the thin edge of the wedge, so when the forces would allow and allies would support him, he could drive through the wide end of the wedge and move the body politic forward.
Lincoln believed that everyone should have the right to get ahead. He had a faith in
common people. He wanted our country to rise as a model to the world. He welcomed
immigrants attracted to our vision of freedom.
Abraham Lincoln had high strategic intelligence. He was always expanding his foresight and planning to realize the Founders’ vision of a just society. He matured in judgment and understanding, developing his wisdom, empathy and strategic thinking. He was a politician in the best sense with a vision for the common good that is so rare today.
In a time of greater awareness of white supremacy some want to remove statues of Lincoln. We can learn from him. Lincoln practiced the art of listening. He only spoke, using carefully chosen words or humor, when he could move the conversation toward dialogue about national progress. He often vividly retold our visionary national narrative. He opened people’s eyes who may have lost sight of our collective purpose in a drive for individual advancement and family security. He urged the nation to ”a new birth of freedom”; a country of free people. “With malice toward none; with charity for all…let us strive on to finish the work we are in -- to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”