As Americans the land over sit down to their Thanksgiving meal Thursday, I think we owe Abraham Lincoln one thing: A big old fight. Or at least a passionate debate about where we came from and where we’re headed.
After all, he gave us this holiday. And in so much more than a simple Hallmark, commercial way, which yes, he did set in motion by declaring the first national day of Thanksgiving.
But much more important than that, he preserved our nation so that we could come together in the first place.
And maybe, in some ways, he wasn’t all that different from the worst or the best relative you’ll break bread with Thursday.
I know many Southerners, even today, will choke on their turkey on those last lines, saying he was a Yankee who forced the Civil War on us. Others will note that he was too harsh on civil liberties during the war. That’s the same criticism another Republican, George W. Bush, got during the war on terror.
In Virginia, I was raised to respect Lincoln. Like many native Virginians who are white, I grew up respecting General Lee and Mr. Jefferson a lot more than Lincoln.
But the older I get, the higher I hold Lincoln. I haven’t seen Steven Spielberg’s new movie about him yet, though I want to. I still haven’t finished reading the fine book that movie is based on, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals.” I have spent years reading other books and articles about him, and watching documentaries about him.
He did righteously lead the way in ending American slavery, even if his path toward that end was not always straightforward.
And I’ll submit this: There is something in Lincoln for almost everyone to like.
He was the poor boy who made it big, first as a lawyer. He was a presumably humble man, but one who obviously had a keen sense of his own intellect. He was the man who could rise above his homely, gangly looks and reedy voice to make it as a politician, one shrewd enough to assemble that team of rivals, leaving lessons for politicians including LBJ and President Obama. He was the husband who loved his wife, no matter how high-maintenance she got. He was the father who loved his sons and lived through the awful pain of the loss of two of them.
He was the man who loved to tell a long joke of a story, even if his friends sometimes wondered if the time was right for the story and if he’d ever reach the punch line.
And conversely, or maybe not all that conversely at all given the fine line between laughter and tears, he was the man who battled depression and still persevered.
Lincoln could be mirrored by anybody around your table. The girl from the modest background dreaming of making it big. The humble college boy with big plans. The woman rising in business or politics, bucking up against the walls. The husband standing by the troubled wife. The mother or father enduring the loss of a child. The uncle who tells those long stories. The cousin who’s depressed.
Mention Lincoln at your table and you might start a debate about state’s rights, the North vs. the South, civil liberties, whether he had to be dragged into ending slavery and whether we really are a united states.
I think Lincoln, every American side of him, would enjoy the debate.
John Railey is the editorial page editor of the Winston-Salem Journal.
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