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Shortreads

Both Great and Low: Remembering the Humility of Abraham Lincoln

Eric Miller

His life seemed somehow to stand in for ours—Lincoln aspiring, Lincoln doubting, Lincoln jesting, Lincoln grieving, ambition and purpose and failure and pain all ending with the bitter sound of a gun, a report echoing yet through our collective soul.

Bewilderment drives us into the past as well as anything. So I suppose a family trip to Springfield, Illinois made sense this summer, as the steel grip of our parties on national politics suddenly seemed fleshy and weak, even arthritic. The usual questions had become fresh again:

Where have we come from? How did we get here? Where are we going?

 

It was a ten-hour drive from Pittsburgh to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, our destination. We cruised along in a rented minivan, our kids’ iPods and the occasional parental CD propelling us through miles of corn. Cleveland, Columbus, Indianapolis, Decatur: finally Illinois’s sturdy capital came into view, flat as a feather, crowned with a dome. After a late dinner, a swim at the hotel, and a little sleep, we were ready for Lincoln.“This is the living work of pain, of grief, of love, leaping toward us as we move, step by step, below ground.”

More Than the Museum: Abraham Lincoln’s Presence

Not quite, actually. Not by a long shot, as a matter of fact. Lincoln’s presence soars way above the capitol’s magnificent dome; it isn’t hard to feel. And it was feeling, above all, that saturated our stay, feelings arising from absorbing, hour by hour, the brute, demanding historical facts of this particular past, when our nation was battered by crisis and Lincoln’s party was young. I’ve spent time in museums. I’ve never felt in any of them what I felt at Lincoln’s museum: so singular a sense of tragedy, so broad a sense of humanity. His life seemed somehow to stand in for ours—Lincoln aspiring, Lincoln doubting, Lincoln jesting, Lincoln grieving, ambition and purpose and failure and pain all ending with the bitter sound of a gun, a report echoing yet through our collective soul.“If he was a wit, his wit bore witness of humanity’s precarious position in the cosmos—certainly of his own.”Like most museums, this one is tempted by cuteness, the impulse to prettify, to turn reality into something we don as a disguise—the aesthetic price of our all-consuming way, perhaps. Yet to the curators’ credit, Lincoln’s more rough and splintery world holds its own, testament of a time when cuteness was the property only of the effete few, the “refined,” to whom Lincoln was a perennial embarrassment. He wore their clothes, but not very well, as critics, both friendly and not, eagerly exclaimed. One of the museum’s most memorable rooms, the “Whispering Gallery,” is set up as a dark and ghoulish fun house, featuring in distorted frames a collection of headlines, caricatures, and quotations that Lincoln’s presence evoked. Lincoln, declared a Wilmington, North Carolina newspaper in 1861, is “vain, weak, sterile, hypocritical, without manners,” one who “swears more than Uncle Toby” and is, in sum, contemptible “in every particular, morally and mentally.” Cartoonists had their fun with Lincoln, it becomes clear, and political purposes were served. But Lincoln’s death served a political purpose, too. By then the fun was long gone for all parties involved in this high risk, high-stakes internecine affair.

Lincoln’s Wit

In one of his guises Lincoln comes down to us as himself a fun guy—a backwoods jokester, a wry and witty storyteller. But of all his words the museum preserves, what brought me most to attention was the sharply etched force of his brief, reverent farewell address at Springfield in February of 1861, when he was moving east to assume the presidency. “I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington.” His premonition of his end was equal to his assessment of his duty, both the precise opposite of what most mortals would choose. If he was a wit, his wit bore witness of humanity’s precarious position in the cosmos—certainly of his own.

Lincoln’s Foes and 19th-Century Politics

In the midst of the crisis, Lincoln’s foes depicted him as a power-grabbing tyrant, an insatiable colossus. But his own language rendered a different portrait. “Without the assistance of that Divine Being, who ever attended [Washington], I cannot succeed,” he told the crowd on that wintry Springfield day. “With that assistance I cannot fail. Trusting in Him, who can go with me, and remain with you and be every where for good, let us confidently hope that all will yet be well. To His care commending you, as I hope in your prayers you will commend me, I bid you an affectionate farewell.”“Where have we come from? How did we get here? Where are we going? These are questions for the lowly, the lowly of body, the lowly of speech. Lincoln was one of these.”This was of course the language of nineteenth-century politics. But it was also the language of nineteenth century Americans. For all the malignant purposes it too often served (including, arguably, the Civil War itself), this language imparted vision, the ability to see in stark detail humans as forlorn creatures on a fragile earth, dependent on one mightier than they for any goodness of purpose and effort. It was this language and this story that made possible the unparalleled speech that would follow hard on this one four years later, Lincoln’s second inaugural. “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other,” Lincoln in weary and humbled tones confessed. “The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.” And those purposes, he declared, would finally be revealed in righteous judgment, a kind of judgment that cannot but issue in a radical challenge to political pretensions of any sort.

Lincoln’s Christology: Love in Desperate Hope

Lincoln’s Christology may remain a mystery to scholars. But his anthropology does not, as this speech—his speech—makes clear. “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” Humans, frail as we are, yet live under divine obligation. And that obligation, for Lincoln, is to love, to love in desperate hope—and to discern what the mandate to love requires of us in our political vision, systems, and action. In forty-three days he would be dead. Much hope died with him. Yet I glimpsed at least a flash of it while visiting his tomb, a few miles from the museum. There one descends into the ground beneath a massive monument with a sense of hush, the guest of a people now passed, a people who revered a man they knew in the flesh, whose coffin they beheld, whose death they felt not as history but as shock. The effects they left within the tomb’s passageway—statues, excerpts of his speeches, and finally, the casket itself—could never be termed “artifacts.” This is the living work of pain, of grief, of love, leaping toward us as we move, step by step, below ground. “Now he belongs to the ages”—the benediction of his Secretary of State William Stanton upon Lincoln’s passing, is emblazoned on the wall above the casket. I passed slowly by it and then returned for another look. In front of the casket stood an African American family. Between them and me stood two girls, white, in their twenties, also staring on. One turned toward me. Emblazoned on her shirt was the proclamation “Once Southern, always Southern.” Yet there she was, in this season of political storm, quiet, still, low. Where have we come from? How did we get here? Where are we going? These are questions for the lowly, the lowly of body, the lowly of speech. Lincoln was one of these. Therein lay his power. He would not, I’m sure, be surprised by our troubles and afflictions in this perilous moment. He would, I know, have the humility—and the wit—to help us sense anew the source from which hope begins.