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Lincoln: 'Let us strive on to finish the work we are in...'
As we celebrate Lincoln's 200th birthday, we mark his genius in blending politics, civility
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Read excerpts from Lincoln's most famous speeches.
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Abraham Lincoln
At a glance

Born: Feb. 12, 1809, Hardin County, Ky.
College: none
Religion: Presbyterian, though never joined any church
Occupations: Clerk, store owner, military (reached rank of captain), lawyer
Political offices: Illinois State Legislature, 1834-42; U.S. Representative, 1847-49; U.S. president, 1861-65
Married: Mary Todd, Nov. 4, 1842
Children: Four sons; only one survived beyond his father.
Political parties: Republican, served in Congress as Whig
Vice presidents: Hannibal Hamlin, Andrew Johnson
Age at inauguration: 52  
Died: April 15, 1865, age 56  
Place of burial: Springfield, Ill.

Lincoln trivia
Lincoln became the first U.S. president to appear on a coin when his portrait was added to the penny in 1909 to celebrate his 100th birthday.

Lincoln’s lone stint of military service came during the Black Hawk War of 1832. He reached the rank of captain, though he saw no actual combat.

Two states joined the Union during Lincoln’s presidency, West Virginia (1863) and Nevada (1864).

At 6-foot-4, Lincoln remains the tallest U.S. president.

Lincoln began his political career as a Whig, the party from which he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1847.

Lincoln’s “Team of Rivals,” as referenced in the 2005 book by Doris Kearns Goodwin, consisted of Cabinet members who also were his competitiors for the 1860 Republican nomination: Secretary of State William Seward, Treasury Secretary (and later Chief Justice) Salmon P. Chase, Attorney General Edward Bates and Secretary of War Simon Cameron (later replaced by Edwin Stanton).  

Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington are the only Americans featured on both a coin (the penny) and paper currency ($5 bill).

Seward was the victim of an assassination attempt the same night Lincoln was killed. He was slashed with a knife by Lewis Powell, one of John Wilkes Booth’s co-conspirators.

Born on the same day as Lincoln: Charles Darwin.

Source: Times research, Lincoln bicentennial Web site

"Yours of the 25th suggesting the names of Col. Fremont, and Messrs. Hunt, Raynor, and Gilmer for places in the Cabinet is received. I had thought of all of them before, but not very definitely of any except Mr. Gilmer ... If you will ascertain his feelings, and write me, I shall be obliged. Our German friends might not be quite satisfied with his appointment, but I think we could appease them."
­- Letter from Abraham Lincoln To William H. Seward, Dec. 29, 1860


In Abe Lincoln, politics and America’s ideals were as close as the rail-splitter and his ax. He knew our self-evident truths; he used politics to move us toward them.

His deft combination of the two is why he is still central to working out the American proposition.

Two images of him, two very different images in two very different settings, are a good starting point for considering his legacy and applying it in our own times.

The first is the Lincoln seated in his Memorial on the Mall — the Lincoln of the republican ideal: a statesman of the highest order, a thinker detached from the hurly-burly of politics and housed in a temple patterned after the Parthenon, the seat of democracy. His chair seems a throne, the facings of the arms decorated with bundled reeds, an ancient Roman symbol of power and unity through strength. (What would Lincoln have quipped about such trappings for him?)

This reflective Lincoln is a student of America’s founding, of the Declaration and the Constitution, the long human experience behind them; of Shakespeare — his favorite was Macbeth—and the author of two of the world’s greatest speeches, the distiller of our founding idea: " ... a new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."

A far different Lincoln stands in the rotunda of the state capitol in Lincoln’s native state, Kentucky, the Lincoln of practical politics: the lawmaker, the deal maker, the dispenser of jobs, the speaker on the stump. And the Kentucky capitol, unlike the Memorial in Washington, is no temple of the ideal. Like any state capitol—including that of Lincoln’s adopted state, Illinois — it houses the messy work of self-government. Politics swarm around this Lincoln, who knows firsthand the actual workings behind the noble phrase, "government of the people, by the people, and for the people:" (His public papers are filled with hundreds of letters akin to the one reprinted above, many of which would wither the corn of those who prefer to see only Lincoln the statesman. Such is the nature of building and holding a coalition that can govern.)

Here, legislators, lobbyists, and constituents ply the politics of power and influence, the best and the worst of it — glimmers of the ideal, the routine of the real: City and county officials seek money for public projects and programs; candidates campaign; consultants consult; regulators regulate; job seekers seek.

The people have left their distinctive mark on this Lincoln. The toe of his left boot is polished bright, in contrast to the dark bronze around it. This burnish is from the people’s sweat: a long parade of the people have rubbed the boot over the past century — for the good luck that supposedly comes from rubbing a hero’s statue, or out of admiration and affection for this great man. (In the ‘90s, officials, fearing the statue might eventually be damaged by this tradition, cordoned Lincoln off so people could not reach him. The people would have none of it. Tour guides were forever dragging the stanchions out of the way so eager tourists could rub the boot; legislators moved them so their constituents could do the same. The stanchions were doing more damage to the floor, than the people’s touch was doing to Lincoln. As was altogether fitting and proper, Lincoln became accessible again.)

These two statues are both apt representations. He was, in fact, thinker and practitioner. Both were necessary to his achievements.

Lincoln’s focus on the basic questions of self–government was intense.

His political achievements — Emancipation, holding the union together, his great speeches — were built on his commitment to the Constitution and the Declaration—specifically, in the case of the Declaration, these 55 words from Jefferson: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed ..."

Lincoln pondered on the possible meaning of each word, always with a deep moral sense of what was at stake for the people and what America’s strain of self-government would become.

As we strive on in our own politics, would that our own concern for self-government could be like his.

Improving civility would be a good beginning.

The basics would be simple. We would not have to change our views. Like him, we could stand firm on principle and speak out forcefully.

But we would have to curb our tongues, refusing to speak ill of opponents in public, refusing to question their intelligence, their motives, their worthiness as individuals and citizens.

Lincoln showed us the way. In the midst of a war that killed over 600,000 Americans, he refused to speak ill of the South and Southerners. He hated slavery, not slaveholders. He condemned slavery, but not Southerners. He hated the sin, but loved the sinner.

He long reached out to the South

In an 1854 speech at Peoria, Ill., he said: " ... I have no prejudice against the Southern people. They are just what we would be in their situation. If slavery did not now exist amongst them, they would not introduce it. If it did now exist amongst us, we should not instantly give it up. This I believe of the masses north and south."

At Gettysburg, just months after the carnage, he did not once say, "enemy" or "treason" or hammer the South with blame, as did the main speaker, Edward Everett. (Everett’s traditional role made it appropriate for him to do so.)

A president could have felt justified in doing the same. Lincoln did not.

Yes, this was practical politics. But it was more:

His Second Inaugural made clear that Lincoln had a tragic sense of how North and South were bound together working out the "offense" of slavery.

This tragic sense carried over in his empathy for all men and women, their flaws and frailties.

Whatever his reasons for his restraint in his comments on the South—political, moral, spiritual—the point is he remained civil.

If Lincoln could stay civil in his situation, why can’t we in ours?

Lincoln was ever the healer.

On the morning after word of General Lee’s surrender reached Washington, there was jubilation in the streets. Crowds gathered at the White House. Lincoln appeared at a window. A band was playing.

His ideals and politics wound together again. With peace in hand , he believed the Confederate war song now belonged not just to the South, but to the Union.

He asked the band to play "Dixie."

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