Valdosta Daily Times

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November 11, 2012

Finding the Lincoln each generation needs

- — Next weekend, despite the presidential fatigue, many Americans will enter movie theaters to see what director Steven Spielberg and actor Daniel Day-Lewis will do with the 16th president.

“Lincoln,” the movie, promises to look at the last months of Abraham Lincoln’s life — the battle for making emancipation constitutional as the Civil War’s battles came to a close. Spielberg has reportedly based his movie’s script on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s award-winning book, “Team of Rivals.”

The movie will provide another look at the martyred Lincoln who is considered by many to be the nation’s greatest president.

With exception of the recent fantasy “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” there have been relatively few Lincoln movies. In 1939, Henry Ford played him in “Young Mr. Lincoln.” In 1940, Raymond Massey played him in “Abe Lincoln in Illinois.” In the years since, a handful of actors have played Lincoln in television dramas: Sam Waterston, Gregory Peck, Lance Henriksen.

But books ... there have been libraries of books written about Lincoln. Only Jesus has been the subject of more books than Lincoln, and, yet, we still don’t fully understand the 16th president. Abraham Lincoln seems a man for all seasons and purposes, an American for all generations. Changing to fit our needs while remaining true to the history of his biography.  

Lincoln has been described as the Emancipator, as the preserver of the Union, as the greatest American president, as the man behind the myth, as the commander in chief of the Civil War, as the political genius who dared keep his friends close and his enemies closer by making them part of his cabinet, as the poet-statesman of the Gettysburg Address and his second inaugural speech.

Historians and authors have written how Lincoln may well have been opposed to slavery but was still a racist, how he was a man of his era who dared see past his times, how he willingly curtailed portions of the Constitution to ensure winning the war, how emancipation was either a noble gesture to free the slaves or a practical move to help the Union cause, or some combination of the two.

There was Lincoln the Emancipator, Lincoln the racist, Lincoln the greatest President, Lincoln the tyrant, Lincoln the general, Lincoln the writer, Lincoln the wit, Lincoln the martyr, Lincoln the myth, Lincoln the man.

Yet, perhaps, in these times of economic challenge, we need the example of Lincoln the Striver.

Given the aura of legend around Lincoln, we may forget the stories of his birth in a Kentucky log cabin and of the railsplitter. In Lincoln’s case, they weren’t just political fodder designed to make him seem a man of the people. Lincoln lived these stories of poverty and grueling labor.

His childhood feet walked in a home with a dirt floor. Seven-year-old Abraham and his father Thomas built a three-walled structure to shelter the newly settled Lincolns from an Indiana winter; the fourth wall was a constantly stoked fire.

Young Abe suffered the death of his mother at an early age. He suffered a tough father who lived a hardscrabble life. He was blessed with a stepmother who encouraged Abraham’s desire to read, his desire to learn, his desire to better himself and so better his condition.

During that Indiana winter when he and his father built a new log cabin, stories claim the 8-year-old Abraham developed the habit of carrying an axe everywhere. Perhaps Lincoln learned an important lesson from this habit: You could have a fine, strong axe, but to be effective, its blade must be kept sharp.

Think of young Lincoln’s mind as a stout axe. He was blessed with a smart brain, but it was through his determination that he sharpened his mind into a brilliant intellect.

He honed his mind through reading and thinking about what he read. He would find time to read at the end of a long day’s physical labor. He would read by the dim light of a dying fire. He would read when there were few books available and in the face of a father who scorned reading as a waste of time, energy and resources.

Lincoln dared ambition in the face of what most modern Americans would consider backbreaking toil and crushing poverty, with no apparent hope of opportunity. Lincoln didn’t just dream of bettering his life. He worked to better it.

Lincoln the Striver.

He didn’t have the resources to attend law school, but he did have the ability to read and re-read law books. He had the mind to ponder what he read and wrestle with the implications of what he discovered. He studied with the same discipline one must use to keep an axe blade sharp and struggled to master an intellectual matter with the same repeated thoroughness one must use to fell a tree.

It is a process he used throughout his life as an attorney, a businessman, a politician, a leader. Faced with the battles of the Civil War, Lincoln read military books. When his generals wouldn’t fight in the early months of the war, Lincoln increased his studies of military history until he embodied the presidential title of commander-in-chief.

Lincoln studied. Lincoln learned. Lincoln adapted. Lincoln persevered. Lincoln succeeded.

Lincoln the Striver.

Even with all of the books on Lincoln, who knows what little Abraham dreamed reading his books by the dying embers of a fire. Could that poor, lanky boy on a dirt floor have dreamed he would one day not only become President of the United States, but the greatest of all American presidents?

If so, having already helped his father build the family’s home when most modern children are first-graders, he may have known such dreams require work.

Perhaps, this example provides the Abraham Lincoln we need for the 21st century.

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