Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, February 12, kicks off this year’s Presidents’ Day weekend. It comes at a time when Lincoln and other American icons are under attack.
In parts of our country, statues of Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson, and others have been toppled or defaced. A New York Times columnist has insisted that “even George Washington” statues must be removed since he was a slave owner.
Last month, the San Francisco school board voted to strip the names of dozens of historical figures, Lincoln included, from area schools. One board member explained that the action was a “moral message.”
It makes you wonder: Will Presidents’ Day be the next to go?
Let’s take a minute this weekend to recall why we need those old heroes. Let’s begin by stating why we should revere Abraham Lincoln. As author and former Secretary of Education Bill Bennett writes in the forward to my novel, “Old Abe,” there are enduring reasons to know and honor our sixteenth president.
First, we should remember Lincoln because of his achievements. He led the effort to save our country when it was literally falling apart, and he helped lead the effort to free millions of enslaved Americans. For those two deeds alone, if nothing else, he deserves our gratitude.
If you’re looking for a hero from history, you can’t do better than Abe Lincoln.
Second, we should honor Lincoln for defending our American principles, the ones he referred to in the Gettysburg Address when he spoke of a nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Lincoln remained fiercely dedicated to those principles when others sought to cast them aside.
Third, we should know Lincoln because of the words he left behind. Words like “last full measure of devotion,” “better angels of our nature,” and “with malice toward none, with charity for all.”
Vintage engraving of Abraham Lincoln, after a photograph made in early 1865. Stains and age spots are authentic and add to the character of the portrait. Published in an 1872 book, the image is now in the public domain. Digital restoration by Steven Wynn Photography.
Lincoln’s words will live as long as the idea of America lives, and vice versa: America will live as long as his words live, and probably no longer. They are that important.
Fourth, we should know Lincoln because he lived an extraordinary life. A great life, in fact.
We can all learn much from the virtues he possessed, virtues like perseverance, a trait he learned the hard way growing up on the frontiers of Kentucky and Indiana, where you either persevered or died.
He took that virtue to the White House, where he persevered through the hardest four years any president has had.
Abraham Lincoln (standing) in one of a series of seven debates regarding slavery with Stephen Douglas (at Lincoln’s right), his rival for a seat in the Senate. These debates permitted both candidates to discuss their views on slavery. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty images)
During the Civil War, he remarked that he was like a man trying to keep a tent up in a storm. The wind kept blowing the tent pegs out of the ground, and he kept driving them back in as fast as they were pulled up. As he said, he just kept pegging away, pegging away.
There are a slew of other virtues to learn about from Lincoln’s life. Honesty. Compassion. Courage. Determination to learn. Patriotism. Faith.
We should all have a hero from history, someone to know for their achievements and character, someone to inspire us in our own endeavors. If you’re looking for a hero from history, you can’t do better than Abe Lincoln.
Finally, it’s important to know Lincoln because you understand the American story better if you understand him. He stands center stage in that great American story.
Some students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison are calling for a statue of Abraham Lincoln on campus to be removed.
In many ways, he represents the best of America. He embodies the American dream of opportunity, hard work, and achievement. And he embodies the American struggle for freedom and equality.
The efforts to tear Lincoln down are, to put it politely, misguided. He wasn’t perfect. He made mistakes, like all mortals, including his critics, who fail to realize that if we judge people who lived decades or centuries ago by twenty-first-century standards, nobody passes muster. Nobody.
Taken in the totality of his acts, Lincoln’s life and achievements are magnificent. Those who want to pull him down might want to consider the logs in their own eyes before they stand in judgment of him.
We need heroes like Lincoln. They lift our sights and guide us. They help us remember our duties to neighbors and country.
They help us understand the central beliefs that underlie American democracy. They teach us to love our country and how fortunate we are to be heirs to its great traditions.
Their stories are part of the fabric of this nation, the “mystic chords of memory,” as Lincoln put it, that make us one people. If we don’t have some heroes in common, we don’t have a country. They are like a common language or common currency. They help hold us together.
This Presidents’ Day weekend, let’s say a prayer of thanks for Abraham Lincoln and our other great American heroes. They remind us that America has been and still is, as Lincoln put it, “the last best hope of earth.”