Scarvey column: Plucking thistles and planting flowers-remembering Abraham Lincoln
For some reason, I’ve been thinking lately about Abraham Lincoln. Of course, everyone knows our 16th president and his towering role in U.S. history. Most of us see him as a hero who navigated this country through its biggest crisis with wisdom and grace.
In high school, I was required to memorize the Gettysburg Address ó a 272-word masterpiece of expression that helped this country take a deep breath and enter its next chapter.
In that powerful speech, Lincoln was wrong when he said, “The world will little note nor long remember what we say here.”
We do remember his words. I’m not sure I fully appreciated how beautifully and succinctly expressed Lincoln’s sentiments were when I was in high school, but I do now. I’ve recently been reading more of Lincoln’s words and am reminded anew of what an inspiring figure he was.
Lincoln had important things to say ó and he said them memorably. He was a philosopher and a thinker, but he was never too much of an intellectual to relate to the common person.
He was often funny: “When you have got an elephant by the hind leg and he is trying to run away,” he once said, “it’s best to let him run.”
Who could argue with that?
And who could not appreciate the humor and the tact of the man who said, “If this is coffee, please bring me some tea; but if this is tea, please bring me some coffee.”
Always self-deprecating about his looks, Lincoln responded to charges by Stephen Douglas that he was two-faced by saying, “If I were two-faced, would I be wearing this one?”
As a debater, Lincoln made his points eloquently and passionately. In a 1858 debate, he argued that Stephen Douglas “is blowing out the moral lights around us, when he contends that whoever wants slaves has a right to hold them; that he is penetrating, so far as lies in his power, the human soul, and eradicating the light of reason and the love of liberty, when he is in every possible way preparing the public mind, by his vast influence, for making the institution of slavery perpetual and national.”
Lincoln was ahead of his time in many ways.
He was an early proponent of giving women the vote. Long before the first women’s rights convention, when he was still a state legislator, Lincoln gave a statement to an Illinois newspaper endorsing female suffrage.
One wonders whether Lincoln would even be electable today, given his unconventional religious leanings. When his faith was questioned by opponents, he acknowledged that he was not a member of any Christian church but added that he had “never spoken with intentional disrespect of religion in general, or any denomination of Christians in particular.”
His religious beliefs were not doctrinaire. “When I do good, I feel good,” he wrote. “When I do bad, I feel bad. That’s my religion.”
I suspect that wouldn’t be good enough for the many voters today who make religion ó practiced their way ó a litmus test for office.
Despite his misgivings about organized religion, Lincoln’s life and beliefs seem to be a testament to the most important Christian principles. “Am I not destroying my enemies when I make friends of them?” he wrote.
After the war, his magnanimous spirit helped the country heal. He had no stomach for punishing or humiliating losers. He was interested always in building a more perfect union. Unlike a certain contemporary political proclaimer, Lincoln truly was a uniter, not a divider, who reached out to his enemies, who cultivated common ground without abandoning his deeply held beliefs.
“Die when I may,” he wrote, “I want it said by those who knew me best that I always plucked a thistle and planted a flower where I thought a flower would grow.”
He died too soon. But, in the end, as he wrote, “it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.”Contact Katie Scarvey at 704-797-4270 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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