SPRINGFIELD — When I was growing up in Springfield, I unconsciously assumed every city in America had an area in all their stores devoted to Lincoln penny banks with a three inch statue of “walking Lincoln” on the top. It was simply how you saved for your portion of penny candy that waited patiently not far from where the penny banks beckoned. It was a few years later before I learned “Honest Abe” lived and worked in Springfield, and was buried on the North side of town.
“The Land of Lincoln” was a meaningless slogan to me in those days, common place cultural musak. It was just where I lived. But over time, I gradually realized Americans loved and respected old Abe, and I began to take a keener interest in his speeches and quotes; I even visited his tomb; I had the tomb to myself that day.
Yesterday was the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth, and I partied like it was 2009; I watched the teevee and blogged after dinner. I did catch Obama’s speech live, (not on Fox, of course) at the 102nd Abraham Lincoln Association banquet in Springfield.
“Lincoln understood that self-reliance was at the core of American life.” But Obama said individual liberty is “served, not negated, by a recognition of the common good.”
The pendulum, Obama said, has swung too far toward a philosophy that says government is the problem— a notion that it should be dismantled, with tax breaks for the wealthy that might eventually help out everyone.
“Such knee-jerk disdain for government— this constant rejection of any common endeavor— cannot rebuild our levees, or our roads, or our bridges,” Obama said. His list of collective examples went on: better schools, modern health care, an economy built on clean energy.
“Only a nation can do these things… Only by coming together, all of us, and expressing that sense of shared sacrifice and responsibility … can we do the work that must be done in this country. That is the very definition of being American.”
In Lincoln‘s time the Constitution was still considered our nation’s premier sacred document. But Lincoln often emphasized the Declaration of Independence as the true foundation of American political values, stressing the themes of liberty and equality, and the moral basis of republicanism. He rallied public opinion through his speeches, and eventually led the people through our nation’s greatest internal conflict.
Barack Obama, not entirely coincidentally, is attempting to do much the same thing. He believes in the power of the people, and clearly intends to rally support for his policies in the months ahead by presenting his case to the American people. His emphasis on the moral foundations of our idealized way of life will, hopefully shift the nation’s rhetorical focus once again, to a rebirth of freedom and the principles of the shared responsibilities of a people united for the common good.
At less than a month as president, it’s impossible to tell if Barack Obama will even hold a candle to the brilliance of Abraham Lincoln, despite O’s penchant for associating himself with Lincoln in symbolic and philosophical ways. While America’s and thus Obama’s problems are severe and in some ways unprecedented, most historians will tell you Lincoln had a much bigger mountain to climb. But there are early indications the struggles we face as a nation, as a people, can result in an even more profound awakening to the obligations we hold towards the collective of all humanity; what another great man, Jesus of Nazareth, referred to as the “brotherhood of man.”
Like Christ, Lincoln was put to death for his noble efforts to bring about dramatic and necessary change. Maybe by this time we have evolved enough to spare the messenger, and let him live to witness the fruits of his labor.