Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Lincoln Land

Long ago, a very wise man in a very tall hat said,"Better to remain silent and be thought a fool then to speak out and remove all doubt."

Anyone who reads this blog knows the truth of that statement.
And so, with foolish certainty, allow me to introduce you to this very wise man.

He was Abe, honest Abe, in the morning walking on his way to work, standing six foot ten in a stovepipe hat. He was Abraham in rough homespun, splitting rails at the woodpile. He was A. Lincoln in the courtroom. He was Mr. President in the White House. And in our nation's darkest hour, he was our brightest hope.

It seems to me that everything that can be said about A. Lincoln has been said.
It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated to the study of his works which he fought so nobly to advance. It is rather for us to follow the long strides of this man of six foot ten, and endeavor to earn ourselves a little of his wisdom.

As it turns out, getting to the land of Lincoln is as pleasant as being there. From the great state of Wisconsin we strode southward through fields in full harvest flush.

The American Midwest is a place I know well. It was home to me some 15 years ago. Over 150 years ago, however, this was a land that Lincoln himself called home. As a youth in the 1830s, Abraham resided in the hamlet of New Salem, IL.

For him, it was a place of first jobs and life-long friendships. It was a place of failed business enterprises and failed first loves. For us, it is a place to follow the path of greatness in the making. After all, to know history is to read and think about past events; but to understand historical events one must stand beside the poor players upon their own stage.

In New Salem, Mr. Lincoln took on many a practical vocation suitable for a man on the edges of the American frontier. During those years he was a militiaman (who never fired a shot) in the Black Hawk War, a common laborer, and a land surveyor.

Later, he became both shopkeeper and fresh-faced state legislator. We easily found A. Lincoln's retail store. It sits right on the town's main street, the one and only street in town.

Here Abe sold some dry goods. But mostly he talked politics, told bawdy jokes, and goofed around with his friends. It was a good life, but one with dim horizon. In 1834, he won election to the Illinois state legislature, and, after coming across a book entitled Commentaries on the Laws of England, began to teach himself law. Three years later he was admitted into the Illinois bar moved himself to comparatively-booming metropolis Springfield, IL.

We, of course, followed Mr. Lincoln to Springfield. We discovered that even after all these years, he's still the most fussed-over man in town.

In Springfield, Mr. Lincoln earned his keep as a lawyer who, for years, ceaselessly traveled his local circuit court. We had the good fortune to visit one of the public houses* (elsewhere on this road trip of ours), where Mr. Lincoln earned a reputation as as an able and successful lawyer.

By all accounts he was a formidable adversary during cross-examinations and eloquent speaker in his closing arguments. Both lawyer and legislator, A. Lincoln made a lot of friends and allies and soon became the leader of the Illinois Whig party (which operated from 1834-1856). Meanwhile, he established a successful law partnership...

...took a four-term seat** in the state legislature...

... got married, fathered a brood of children, and bought the first and only house he would ever own. He and his family lived on this corner for about 18 years...

... eventually trading it only for the most public house in the land--The White House in Washington, DC.

Of course, his tenure in the White House had its share of private tragedies and public controversies, all of which are well documented.

And while Mr. Lincoln won most of his personal battles and eventually won his very public war, the price he paid could not have been higher.

Indeed it is a sad tale. It is also the inspiring tale of a simple man made great through hard work, personal attributes, and national events. Mr. Lincoln could handle what came his way--not everyone can--and this is why we so revere him. As the wise old man himself famously said: "Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power."

I don't know. Perhaps character is revealed through the details of a person's history. Perhaps character, hence greatness, is revealed through the exercise of power. Or perhaps greatness of character is revealed by everyday acts of common human compassion. I could explore this topic in greater detail. But I would be a fool to do so.

*This public house, moved board-and-brick, is on permanent display in Detroit, MI at Henry Ford's "Greenfield Village" historical fantasyland. Among other important structures on display at Greenfield Village are the Wright Bros. bicycle shop (moved from Ohio), T. Edison's research laboratory (moved from New Jersey), and Our Ford's own boyhood home.

**Look carefully and you'll see a stovepipe hat on a desk. This hat marks A. Lincoln's actual congressional seat.

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