Thursday, February 12, 2009

We, even we here, hold the power...

"Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves." That is how Abraham Lincoln described the situation: Winter in Washington, December of 1862. The nation was at war with itself, and that war went poorly. The confrontation with history we faced, the task at hand our president insisted we take up, was freedom for the country's slaves. "The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation," he reminded. Evading history was no longer possible, he said as he also reminded, "We... even we here, hold the power, and bear the responsibility."

In honor of the day let me recommend a book: "Best American History Essays on Lincoln" edited by Sean Wilentz. What I found interesting in the first few essays collected there is the fact that the occasional open challenge to the mythic proportion of the man, like the ones we might encounter reading the work of historians today, isn't exactly a new phenomena. Some of the pieces Wilentz collected date to the 1940's and 1960's and in those essays there is displayed a hearty willingness to parse through and challenge Lincoln's record, to see him as less godlike and to come to terms with him as a man, both flawed and heroic... as a savvy politician, as well as an inspired statesman.

For all Lincoln has always been a personal hero of mine, I don't mind him coming down off a worshipped pedestal, recognizing his accomplishments as those of a man and not a saint. He was forced to make difficult decisions and uncomfortable compromises as he led the nation through a terrible conflict. And not every decision he made was impeccable. Though he came to be known as The Great Emancipator, he was at first a cautious pragmatic, bent on an incremental remedy to the scourge of slavery. The war was well over a year old that day in December, when Lincoln called for us to finally "disenthrall ourselves" and unequivocally name our purpose. There were shadings of gray to this story, his and our journey to that confrontation with history.

I particularly like the quote, attributed to Wendell Phillips, that I came across in Wilentz's book. Phillips, an avid activist for Emancipation, had long advocated for the slaves, to the point of frustration with Lincoln's cautious incremental approach, his many attempts at conciliation and compromise. Phillips observed in retrospect, that if Lincoln "grew" into an abolitionist, "it's because we watered him."

I like that.

And I can't help but think there is a civic lesson in that comment. It is the same valid notion I sense in the reasoning of campaign phrases like "Yes, we can" and "Together, we can." All that civic engagement community organizing rhetoric that is ultimately to remind us that our system of government isn't about its politicians, or even its statesmen. It's about

It's the idea that, while we are right to honor our heroes, as we do we should also be mindful of our own place in the progress of our country, the place of people like us, the place of advocates and avid citizens in our history... those who reminded our greatest leaders of what was behind them and where they ought to be headed.

It's that idea of government "of and by the people."

It was true more than a centrury and a half ago. It's true now. Even in this age of the popular torch and pitchfork, where "big government" is supposed to be best burned down, there is something to that idea of wanting to see it grow... working to see it grow, in accomplishment if not in size. We are supposed to challenge our government and its leaders, but not to merely confound them or simply entertain ourselves with the contrary, but to see them and to see our own country step forward, and yes... grow, even through painful change... even "in spite of ourselves" at times.

So anyway, in honor of Abe Lincoln, and those of his time who either had his back or were on it, here's to the day... and bring out your watering cans.

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