A Man for the Ages

A Man for the Ages

The statue of the 16th President of the United States Abraham Lincoln is seen inside the Lincoln Memorial in Washington on Feb. 12, 2009. (Karen Bleier/AFP via Getty Images)

Christian Milord

Christian Milord

2/13/2024

Updated: 2/13/2024

Commentary
When I viewed the film, “Lincoln,” in which Daniel-Day Lewis plays President Abraham Lincoln, I noticed there were very few young people in the audience. Yet it is precisely our youth who could benefit from understanding one of the most influential figures in American history. One wonders how a humorous storyteller from such humble origins and repeated failures transformed himself into a complex and exceptional leader.
Approximately 15,000 books have been written about Lincoln, according to estimates, far more than any other president. Around this time of year, Lincoln’s 215th birthday, it could be helpful to reflect on one of the four trailblazing presidents permanently sculpted into Mt. Rushmore.
An independent and self-made Abraham Lincoln lived an action-packed life during his brief 56 years (1809-65). Lincoln split rails, guided flatboats on the Mississippi River, failed in business, and volunteered for the Black Hawk War. Moreover, he studied law on his own, passed the bar in 1837, and handled more than 5,000 cases as a prairie lawyer. He also served eight years in the Illinois legislature and one term in the U.S. House of Representatives.
In the 1850s, Lincoln played a prominent role in the formation of the Republican Party, which was formed in 1854 by those opposed to the expansion of slavery. He traveled and delivered speeches on the “peculiar institution” and the importance of national unity, using the Constitution as a moral compass. During his failed Senate run in 1858, Lincoln used a biblical verse “a house divided against itself cannot stand,” to draw a line in the sand against slavery.
Following the inspiring Cooper Union speech in 1860 regarding his views on slavery, and several debates with Stephen Douglas, Lincoln was elected as the first Republican president in 1860. He defeated John Bell, John Breckinridge, and Stephen Douglas. He won nearly all the northern states, California, and Oregon, while his opponents took the “border” states and the South. Lincoln, the 16th president, was the first president from Illinois. He soon confronted a hostile South that had already begun to declare secession by the time he delivered his inaugural speech in March of 1861.
The Civil War erupted when the Confederacy attacked Fort Sumter, S.C., in April of 1861. For over two years, Confederate forces went on the offensive, but the tide began to turn after the battle of Gettysburg in July of 1863. In March of 1864, General Grant was appointed to lead the Union Army, and his military skills helped the Union achieve victory in April of 1865.
During his first term, Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, which initiated the process of total abolition. Abolition allowed free blacks to fight for the Union and thus helped to shorten the bloodiest war in our history. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, in her well-researched book, “Team of Rivals,” wrote that Lincoln brilliantly also chose an array of strong personalities to serve in his cabinet. Some of Lincoln’s best policies emerged from the intense discussions between these unique characters.
In November 1864, Lincoln was reelected on the National Union ticket in a landslide over George McClellan. He chose a fusion candidate, Andrew Johnson, from Tennessee, as his vice president, and his second inaugural address was conciliatory toward the South.
Five days after Lee’s forces surrendered to Gen. Grant at the Appomattox Court House in Virginia, Lincoln was shot on April 14th by John Wilkes Booth, while he watched a play at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. He died the next morning on April 15, 1865. Reconstruction would proceed under Presidents Andrew Johnson and Ulysses S. Grant. In a little over four years in office, Lincoln helped to preserve the Union and appointed five justices to the Supreme Court.
However, critics contend that Lincoln expanded presidential authority when he circumvented Congress, authorized mass arrests of Confederate sympathizers, and suspended habeas corpus during the war. Lincoln certainly had human flaws, but he was also a visionary who endured numerous infirmities, as well as personal and professional tragedies.
Many close family members died throughout Lincoln’s life. In “Lincoln’s Melancholy,” author Joshua W. Shenk notes that these tragedies, combined with the burdens of the Civil War, made Lincoln wrestle over the meaning of existence. However, his internal struggles also led to philosophical and spiritual reflections that forged his character and world view.
Lincoln’s most enduring legacy is contained in his 271 timeless words spoken as a tribute to the fallen soldiers at Gettysburg. The poignant Gettysburg Address solidified his evolution from politician to genuine statesman. Although Lincoln didn’t wear religion on his sleeve, he had a strong faith in divine power and redemption.
He exhorted all Americans to honor and remember those who had sacrificed and died for the God-given rights of equality and liberty. He understood that it was the duty of the living to advance the cause of liberty so “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
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Christian Milord

Christian Milord

Author

Christian Milord is an Orange County, California-based educator, mentor, USCG veteran, and writer. He earned his M.S. degree from California State University, Fullerton, where he mentors student groups and is involved with literacy programs. His interests include culture, economics, education, domestic and foreign policy, and military issues. He can be reached at cnvmilord@sbcglobal.net

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