Abraham Lincoln Quiet Fire 19—’The election was a necessity’

This entry is part 18 of 18 in the series Duncan Newcomer's Quiet Fire

 

By DUNCAN NEWCOMER and DAVID CRUMM
In the ‘Quiet Fire’ series

From The New York Times front page on the day after the election of 1864.

This is Quiet Fire, a meditation on the spiritual life of Abraham Lincoln and its relevance to us today. Welcome.

Here’s a Lincoln quote for you: “The election was a necessity.” That’s part of what Abraham Lincoln said on November 10, 1864, two days after the astonishing completion of a national election in the midst of a Civil War.

Just completing the election was a miracle! Lincoln was as proud of that as he was that he had won a second term.

Lincoln would have been justified in crowing at his victory over this particular opponent. After all, he had defeated Gen. George McClellan who had said terrible, hateful things about Lincoln over the years. Despite McClellan’s behavior, Lincoln was not bitter. In fact, reporters for major newspapers who were waiting for Lincoln to finally humiliate his defeated foe admitted their surprise at the president’s refusal to gloat.

Instead, he said there should be a “statute of limitations” on political rivalries. And he added from his vast capacity for kindness, and familiarity with Shakespeare, that “so long as I have been here: I have not willingly planted a thorn in any man’s bosom.”

The clarity of Lincoln’s vision did not permit him to spend even a moment gazing at the fallen form of the vain and stubborn general who had been a thorn in his bosom for many years. He sincerely did not care about McClellan—because the greater lesson in the election of 1864 was larger than either candidate. The lesson of 1864 was that Americans could manage to hold an election in the middle of all-out war!

Of course, Lincoln was right in his assessment. Not many Americans, these days—aside from Civil War buffs—even remember McClellan.

The defeated bully didn’t matter much, even then, Lincoln realized. What mattered was the example of American democracy to the rest of the world.

As Lincoln reflected on the election in his brief public remarks on November 10, he stressed that the whole world had been watching as Americans passed through this seemingly impossible test of our democratic institutions.

As he addressed some of his supporters on that evening, Lincoln urged them to focus on that more enduring lesson. This election itself had been the real test, he said. “It has long been a grave question whether any government, not too strong for the liberties of its people, can be strong enough to maintain its own existence in great emergencies. On this point the present rebellion brought our republic to a severe test; and a presidential election occurring in regular course during the rebellion added not a little to the strain.”

Before the election, Lincoln himself had admitted his doubts about winning and, at the same time, committed himself to the election date without wavering. He had no choice, he said. If his vision of America was right and true—there was no other course than holding that election as planned and scheduled.

Here’s how he said it to his supporters on November 10: “The election was a necessity. We cannot have free government without elections; and if the rebellion could force us to forego—or postpone—a national election it might fairly claim to have already conquered and ruined us.”

The University of Virginia’s Miller Center is a national repository of scholarship for our political history. About that election, the Miller Center’s website tells visitors: “The amazing fact about the election of 1864 is that it occurred in the first place. In the middle of a devastating civil war, the United States held its presidential election almost without discussion about any alternatives. No other democratic nation had ever conducted a national election during times of war. And while there was some talk of postponing the election, it was never given serious consideration, even when Lincoln thought that he would lose.

“The second noteworthy fact about the election is that Lincoln won with a huge Electoral College victory and a substantial popular vote of 55 percent. Up to the very eve of the election, Lincoln was doubtful about his chances, and most of his key advisers had been warning him through the summer of 1864 to expect the worst.”

Lincoln did not waver. He knew he could not waver. That’s the lesson of November 1864. Lincoln’s faith in America defined his path toward an election day he thought might very well end in his defeat. As much as he wanted to prevail for a second term—and as much as he feared the looming election—he could not consider anything but to proceed to election day.

On November 10, relieved by what had happened on election day, he ended his remarks this way: “The election, along with its incidental, and undesirable strife, has done good too. It has demonstrated that a people’s government can sustain a national election, in the midst of a great civil war. Until now it has not been known to the world that this was a possibility.”

May Lincoln’s clarity of vision continue to light us down in honor to the latest generation—and the latest election.

This is Duncan Newcomer, and this has been Quiet Fire, the spiritual life of Abraham Lincoln.

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm collaborated with Duncan on this week’s column.

 

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Care to Enjoy More Lincoln Right Now?

GET A COPY of Duncan’s 30 Days with Abraham Lincoln—Quiet Fire.

Each of the 30 stories in this book includes a link to listen to the original radio broadcasts. The book is available from Amazon in hardcover, paperback and Kindle versions. ALSO, you can order hardcover and paperback from Barnes & Noble. In addition, our own publishing house offers these bookstore links to order hardcovers as well as paperbacks directly from our supplier.

 

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Duncan Newcomer’s Abraham Lincoln Quiet Fire 18—Remember when a president’s 1st value was Kindness?

This entry is part 17 of 18 in the series Duncan Newcomer's Quiet Fire

The stone relief symbolically depicting Lincoln’s boyhood in Indiana from the National Park Service center at Pigeon Creek, Indiana.

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By DUNCAN NEWCOMER
Host of the ‘Quiet Fire’ series

This is Quiet Fire, a meditation on the spiritual life of Abraham Lincoln and its relevance to us today. Welcome.

Here’s a Lincoln quote for you:
Abraham Lincoln
his hand and pen
he will be good but
god knows When

Do you remember that one from an earlier Quiet Fire episode? We are referring to a scrap of notebook paper from his few school days that has this little poem written out in his handwriting.

There are several things you can like about this. We can like that, as a bit of Lincoln’s spiritual DNA, he’s a pretty healthy minded kid. He capitalizes his name and leads off confidently with his big long name, Abraham Lincoln. He never liked just “Abe.” His Grandfather had been Captain Abraham Lincoln in the American Revolution.

We can enjoy that it is a poem. It may not be all that original, but it does rhyme: Lincoln with pen and when. And “god knows When” is a good money line. He does not capitalize “god” so we have a bit of rebel here as well, no?

And, the whole poem rotates around this one polar concept—Being Good. I will be good, but god knows when. So, being good is the be-all and end-all of the first poem by Lincoln. And it would be fair to say that when all is said and done being good was the be-all and end-all of his very life.

Walking Where Lincoln Walked

Now, I had an experience once of walking down the hill on the Lincoln farm in Pigeon Creek, Indiana, and feeling that the very trees themselves held between the leaves fingered in all the branches the sheer goodness of Abraham Lincoln. My epiphany was that his goodness was so thick, so dense, so vital and long lasting that some of it was still lingering in the trees.

As if like a river fog it had lingered waiting for these very trees to grow up into it and hold it. I even felt that his goodness was like a trail of invisible light, like Wordsworth in his poem saying that “the Child is the Father of Man.” I felt that Lincoln had come into this world trailing clouds of glory and that his child really was the father of the man, at least of his kind of a man.

His relevance to us today is this: Being Good, while a life-long obsession with Lincoln, is for Americans, every once in a while, also our obsession. And these days it is.

So many things have gone wrong so fast and in such a big way that the idea is now very much in the air: Hey, let’s stop for a minute. What is life all about anyway, and what is it that we value. Truly value. What are our values and are we living them. Have they gotten away from us, or us from them?

Americans are pretty good at this kind of moral heart attack, and while we’re in the ICU we look at our values to how we want to live, if and when we come out.

What Are Truly Lincoln’s Values?

At the top of Lincoln’s list, I believe, is what we might sum up as: Kindness. As Americans, that’s how we like to think of ourselves, isn’t it?

Americans, it turns out, hold “Kindness” as our No. 1 “character strength.” This finding is from a worldwide survey of over 50 nations, of whom none but the U.S. picked Kindness as No. 1.

Few presidents seem as kind, even kindly, as Abraham Lincoln. Among his notably kind acts, he forgave hundreds of deserting soldiers. Lincoln said in his First Inaugural Address, “We are not enemies. We must not be enemies.” He then appealed to the “better angels of our nature” so we would not become enemies. What shows the better angels of our nature more than our values?

Not too long ago, I collaborated with University of Michigan sociologist Dr. Wayne Baker, comparing Lincoln’s true values with 10 almost universally held American values that kept turning up in Baker’s research. Remarkable, but true! Baker found that these 10 values are shared by the entire spectrum of Americans by a wide margin, over time.

Lincoln certainly shared these values, himself. Here’s that Baker-and-Lincoln list:

  • Respect for Others. Lincoln’s single deepest value was his desire to earn the esteem of his fellow citizens, and he knew to do that he needed to be worthwhile to them. People felt this, his respect for them.
  • Symbolic Patriotism. Most people now love him partly because he loved this county with mystic fervor. We see him as an icon for that love.
  • Freedom. “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master, this expresses my idea of democracy.…” That was just one of Lincoln’s affirmations of freedom. His view of slavery was that taking away the freedom of another human corrupted the person who did the taking.
  • Security. He became the Commander in Chief over the largest use of force ever assembled in this country at that time. The war inflicted a total of 600,000+ casualties. He used force in an absolute way for the single purpose of re-establishing the authority of the national government, which he considered to be a sacred trust.
  • Self-reliance and Individualism. Lincoln may have heard Ralph Waldo Emerson in a Chicago speech. He felt the deep call to find the force of nature that was in him and to fulfill what his partner William Herndon called “the little engine of his ambition.”
  • Equal Opportunity. Five words, “All men are created equal,” described America’s common doorway to opportunity for Lincoln.
  • Getting Ahead. Lincoln admitted his desire for the presidency. He was ambitious in advancing his career. He was the smartest person he knew. He worked long hours and hard ones. He was lucky often. When he saw a chance to merge his failing career with his moral passion to stop the spread of slavery, he became a national meteor.
  • The Pursuit of Happiness. Lincoln made himself happy telling jokes, which he needed to relieve his melancholy. He deeply enjoyed the theater. As president, he learned to like opera. His chief pleasures were to read his Robert Burns and Lord Byron—and to read and recite Shakespeare. He had a frontier-man’s appetite for simple food, and he did not drink or smoke or lust after women. He did make money as a railroad lawyer in Illinois and had one of the better houses in Springfield. He was proud of his social achievement, but that was not what made him happy.
  • Justice & Fairness. Kindness and mutual help was the way people survived and children grew up in the small settlements in Indiana when Lincoln was a boy. There were eight other families within a mile of his home in Pigeon Creek, and another six within two miles. Within four miles of his home there were 90 children under the age of seven and 48 between seven and seventeen. That adds up to a lot of people to enforce fairness and the Golden Rule.
  • Critical Patriotism. In a speech to the New Jersey Legislature on his way to becoming president, Lincoln turned a crucial—and critical—phrase. He referred to America as “God’s almost chosen people.” That is what separates Lincoln from the glory gluttons of contemporary patriotism. He had a mystical awe for what self-government in a free land could mean for the human race. He was not ever in favor of the nativist American movement that wanted to slam the door on immigrants. Lincoln was poised to be critical of just about everything. He and Mark Twain would have been Mississippi riverboat soul mates joking with skeptical discontent in the service of a freer humanity.

We know from his life and words that his appeal to values failed in preventing the Civil War. Competing values themselves made the Civil War. Ironically, it was killer angels that made happen what our better angels failed to do. This was the tragedy of that failed conversation about values. Nevertheless it is by honor that we, too, like Lincoln can be lighted down to the latest generation.

This is Duncan Newcomer and this has been Quiet Fire, the spiritual life of Abraham Lincoln.

 

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Care to Enjoy More Lincoln Right Now?

GET A COPY of Duncan’s 30 Days with Abraham Lincoln—Quiet Fire.

Each of the 30 stories in this book includes a link to listen to the original radio broadcasts. The book is available from Amazon in hardcover, paperback and Kindle versions. ALSO, you can order hardcover and paperback from Barnes & Noble. In addition, our own publishing house offers these bookstore links to order hardcovers as well as paperbacks directly from our supplier.

 

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Duncan Newcomer’s Abraham Lincoln Quiet Fire 17—Remembering Mrs. Keckley, a close friend who Lincoln realized he did not truly know

This entry is part 16 of 18 in the series Duncan Newcomer's Quiet Fire

Gloria Reuben as Mrs. Keckley and Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln in the 2012 film Lincoln.

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By DUNCAN NEWCOMER
Host of the ‘Quiet Fire’ series

This is Quiet Fire, a meditation on the spiritual life of Abraham Lincoln and its relevance to us today. Welcome.

The real Mrs. Elizabeth Keckley

Here’s a Lincoln quote for you. In the script for the movie Lincoln Tony Kushner pictures an encounter on the steps of the White House between Lincoln and his wife’s dress maker and confidante, Mrs. Elizabeth Keckley. He is coming back at night, heavy-hearted, from the War Office.

They begin to talk seriously.

He asks her, “Are you afraid of what lies ahead? For your people? If we succeed?”

She replies, “White people don’t want us here.”

Lincoln replies, “Many don’t.”

She says, “What about you?”

Lincoln confesses, “I—I don’t know you Mrs. Keckley. … I assume I’ll get used to you. But, what you are to the nation? What’ll become of you once slavery’s day is done? I don’t know.”

And he didn’t. Lincoln hated two things. He hated slavery and he hated not-knowing something. This was a teaching moment for Lincoln, a moment for him to learn.

In this scene we see Lincoln at the nexus of his ignorance of Black people. He admits he doesn’t know her, doesn’t really know her.

This is a piercingly honest statement for Lincoln to make—a painful admission for Lincoln—because Keckley had been a part of the Lincoln’s household since 1861, when she began not only making dresses for Mary Todd Lincoln but also became a close friend, advisor and an overall guide in navigating current styles in the cut-throat social world of Washington D.C. As one of Washington’s best-known dress designers, Mrs. Keckley is credited with upgrading the sophistication of Mary Todd’s gowns and personal appearance. Mary Todd came to rely on her for emotional support, as well.

Mrs. Keckley became so close to the family that she often had conversations with both Lincolns in the family’s private rooms. It was Keckley who introduced Sojourner Truth to Lincoln. She had enough resources and organizational skill to establish and run a nonprofit to help newly freed slaves—and the Lincolns actively supported her work. She was with Lincoln when he made his fateful visit to Richmond after the South’s defeat.

On December 12, 2018, The New York Times published a long-belated obituary summarizing Keckley’s life (using the alternate spelling of her name “Keckly”). This was part of the Times’ “Overlooked” project, dedicated to publishing in-depth obituaries of men and women the staff has overlooked throughout its long history.

Statue of Keckley at the Virginia Women’s Monument.

Nancy Wartik’s obituary of Keckly says, in part: “The path that had led Keckly to become a first lady’s most trusted friend was almost unimaginable. She survived rape and years of beatings, going on to start her own business and eventually buying her way out of captivity. Then she earned a place as one of the reigning couturiers of high society in Washington. One of a relatively small number of literate slaves, Keckly was also among the first African-American women to publish a book. Her memoir is now considered one of the most important narratives of the Lincolns’ domestic life.”

So, in the Lincoln film, when Lincoln says, ““I—I don’t know you Mrs. Keckley”—that is truly a startling line for Kushner to put in his mouth. And, I believe, it is an honest expression of what Lincoln was suddenly encountering in this new world that was emerging.

That line—that admission—carries a huge weight, because we know that Lincoln hated not knowing things. As a boy he told how he would pace and fret at night in the log cabin when someone has used a word he did not understand or expressed a concept he had yet to fathom. It burned him not to know and he would not rest until he did.

When ideas were mastered, they were etched as if in steel on his mind. His memory was an iron forge.

So pictured as standing dumbfounded before the stately Mrs. Keckley, Kushner puts Lincoln in the classic White person’s position—sad to say, not only at the end of the Civil War but to this very day in many communities. In this encounter across races, Lincoln admits that he doesn’t know who is standing in front of him.

There is a lot to ponder in that scene—and to discuss with family and friends who may watch this film with you.

Are you thinking of streaming the film, or borrowing it from your library? Overall, I can say: I like this film very much. I also caution viewers: The movie makes it look like the Constitutional end of slavery with the 13th Amendment was a sudden legislative idea cooked up by some suddenly good White men being pressured by the President. Of course, there was a very long history of many people—Black and White—hating slavery.

I would also caution viewers, as I have in earlier Quiet Fire episodes: No one suggests that Lincoln’s personal assumptions about Black Americans—or specific policies he was pursuing throughout his presidency—should guide us in our era. Our time is changed. For a long time, Lincoln thought that Black people were a problem to be fixed. He supported “colonizing” Black people back to Africa. He was surprised—when proposing this idea of a Black colony, Liberia,  to a group of Black ministers from Chicago—to hear them say, “Mr. Lincoln we are not Africans. We are Americans.”

In this unforgettable scene in the Lincoln film, it’s not what Lincoln knows that is so important to us today—it’s what he admits he doesn’t know, as hard and embarrassing as it was for him.

We do know: Lincoln hated slavery and he hated not knowing things and in his passion to fill that darkness he has been lighted down in honor, as may we, to the latest generation.

This is Duncan Newcomer, and this has been Quiet Fire, the spiritual life of Abraham Lincoln.

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Do you hate not knowing things, too?

ARE YOU JUST DISCOVERING ELIZABETH KECKLEY (KECKLY)?

START WITH WIKIPEDIA: There’s an extensive article on her, including many fascinating links to go even further in learning about her life and legacy.

READ THE TIMES OBITUARY: Here’s the 2018 piece on Keckly.

READ HER BOOK: As of July, 2020, it’s only 99 cents in the Kindle version, which easily can be read on most smartphones and tablets.

IN THE BARDO, TOO: I’m not alone in recommending Keckley’s own text. In his Man-Booker-Prize-winning 2018 novel, Lincoln in the BardoGeorge Saunders quotes from her autobiography to open his second chapter.

READ HER 2003 BIOGRAPHY: Historian Jennifer Fleischer’s 2004 biography is Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly, also available from Amazon.

WATCH THE DOCUMENTARY FILM: You’re looking for The Life and Times of Elizabeth Keckly, a documentary that currently is not on Amazon’s or Netflix’s streaming list. However, the film is available through library systems and also through Apple TV.

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Care to Enjoy More Lincoln Right Now?

GET A COPY of Duncan’s 30 Days with Abraham Lincoln—Quiet Fire.

Each of the 30 stories in this book includes a link to listen to the original radio broadcasts. The book is available from Amazon in hardcover, paperback and Kindle versions. ALSO, you can order hardcover and paperback from Barnes & Noble. In addition, our own publishing house offers these bookstore links to order hardcovers as well as paperbacks directly from our supplier.

 

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Duncan Newcomer’s Abraham Lincoln Quiet Fire 16—In racial justice, ‘We … bear the responsibility.’

This entry is part 15 of 18 in the series Duncan Newcomer's Quiet Fire

By DUNCAN NEWCOMER
Host of the ‘Quiet Fire’ series

This is Quiet Fire, a meditation on the spiritual life of Abraham Lincoln and its relevance to us today. Welcome. Here’s a Lincoln quote for you:

“We—even we here—hold the power, and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free—honorable alike in what we give, and in what we preserve.”

In other words, Lincoln would agree with James Baldwin and the powerful voices in our time who say that America’s racial injustices are not the responsibility of Black Americans to fix. White Americans must address systemic injustice built by White Americans.

This week’s quote comes from Lincoln’s message to Congress on December 1, 1862. This lengthy address came in the midst of Lincoln’s eroding political support. His Republicans had lost seats in five populous Northern states. He had announced that the Emancipation Proclamation would go into effect on the first day of 1863. The war would now be about freeing slaves as much as saving the Union.

So, he addressed Congress with a long and elaborate argument in support of emancipation for the good of the war effort, the good of the country and the good of humanity. His message that day was 8,400 words. His hand-written text of it ran across 86 pages of stationery!

(EDITOR’s NOTE—You can see page 85, which accompanies this column below, by clicking on the image to enlarge it. Or, you can see more of the context surrounding the brief, highlighted quote today by reading the text at the bottom of this column. If you want to wade into the whole address, here is a complete transcript of the message.)

As Lincoln reaches the conclusion of his long address, he is winsome and dramatic.

He begins with the word “We” and then punctuates his text with dashes and underlining to ensure that he stresses: even we here! He wants his audience to clearly understand that his call to action is aimed directly at these men sitting in Congress.

Lincoln is emphasizing that moral agency belongs to those who hold the power. “We—even we here—hold the power and bear the responsibility.”

“We”—the White men in Congress at that moment and, if we truly are listening to Lincoln, White Americans today—bear this responsibility, not because we are good, but because we are the responsible party. We created this mess and we are supposed to fix it.

But that is only half of the remarkable spiritual wisdom of Lincoln here. The other half is what we, the Whites, are going to get out of this effort. Lincoln declares that in giving freedom—we assure our own freedom. We preserve freedom as our shared value.

At that moment, Lincoln is telling White power brokers that they are going to receive the very thing they are also giving away: freedom.

Lincoln knows that his White world will never be free, will never have the assurance of freedom, as long as Black people are enslaved. A nation cannot hold its democratic values together through violence, oppression, cruelty and injustice.

A system wherein a privileged class eats the bread from the sweat of another’s labors can never maintain itself without violence. And, Lincoln says, violence is ultimately destructive of two things: honor and democracy.

Honor. Lincoln frames this whole argument around the word honor. What is honor but the ability to trust the goodness of oneself and each other? In Lincoln’s language, trust based on honor is what democracy itself requires. There must be a basic minimum of individual trust, goodness. Law and order require equality and justice, Lincoln knows.

So he is pragmatic and also spiritual. We see that as he describes giving what we receive, and at that time freedom was something to give. Nowadays, however, the issue is equality and justice. The question we all face today is: Who holds the power to correct the systems of inequality that have crippled America in the 158 years since slavery officially ended? Who, now, is responsible for addressing those toxic systems? We must assume, as Lincoln did, that it is most assuredly the White institutions and the mentality of the people who run them that hold the power and bear the responsibility.

That was also the challenge laid down by James Baldwin who said: You are the problem. Don’t try to make it about me. He wrote, “I am not your Negro.”

To Lincoln equality is to be assumed. Equality must be in the air, an assumption as much as a fact. We must come to a point where all Americans truly share in this truth. Lincoln’s assumption follows the same spiritual logic that we heard from Martin Luther King when he preached that the purpose of non-violent resistance was two-fold: It called forth a wrong as it demanded it be righted—and, it named the White person’s evil. It made the White person see and feel just who he or she had become. That untwisting of a moral distortion was the gift that Black non-violent action so painfully gave to the rest of us.

This is what makes Lincoln a spiritual leader as much as a political leader. He felt deep down that the system of Black slavery held him—and the nation—in bondage to a tragically and morally flawed system. If he could let slaves go free—he could free the nation of captivity from this self-inflicted evil.

So, today, we are in a different chapter of American history. Our flawed systems of racial injustice have different shapes, although they are as deeply entwined in the structure of our nation than they ever were. Restoring our proclaimed American values will be nearly as traumatic today as it was in Lincoln’s era. And that is why we keep turning to Lincoln for spiritual wisdom in facing such complex moral, spiritual and systemic challenges.

We are no longer debating emancipation as Congress was in 1862. No one suggests that Lincoln’s specific policies should guide us in our era. He kept changing them himself to adapt as events around him changed. Not even Lincoln himself wound up adopting the convoluted emancipation proposal he included in that 1862 message to Congress. Lincoln is not on the ballot today, nor should he be. What millions of Americans are protesting, today, are entirely different forms of these bars and chains that are the legacy of slavery.

The reason millions of Americans still look to Lincoln as “the soul of America” is because of the spirit that guided him—that opened up such a compelling vision of America’s purpose and potential. And, today, the timely truth Lincoln calls us to remember is our responsibility to act.

The recognition of the equality of another human being is a timeless, spiritual truth. The recognition of our responsibility to assure that freedom is a spiritual calling. As Lincoln said in this same 1862 address to Congress: We must shed the myths and biases and injustices of the past. His words were: “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present.” That line that could be uttered in our streets today.

We must wake up to the realities we face, Lincoln said. “We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”

And, if our heads and hearts do clear—then, we shall begin to glimpse the tasks ahead of us. For White Americans, it is the power and responsibility for correcting injustice—because, even in our day, “we—even we here—hold the power and bear the responsibility.”

This is Duncan Newcomer, and this has been Quiet Fire, the spiritual life of Abraham Lincoln.

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Care for More Context?

In understanding our brief passage from page 85 of Lincoln’s hand-written text, it may help to read a bit more from this concluding portion of his message:

“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.

“Fellow-citizens, we can not escape history. We of this Congress and this Administration will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance or insignificance can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor to the latest generation.

“We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it.

“We—even we here—hold the power and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave we assure freedom to the free—honorable alike in what we give and what we preserve. We shall nobly save or meanly lose the last best hope of earth. Other means may succeed; this could not fail.

“The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just—a way which if followed the world will forever applaud and God must forever bless.”

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Care to Enjoy More Lincoln Right Now?

GET A COPY of Duncan’s 30 Days with Abraham Lincoln—Quiet Fire.

Each of the 30 stories in this book includes a link to listen to the original radio broadcasts. The book is available from Amazon in hardcover, paperback and Kindle versions. ALSO, you can order hardcover and paperback from Barnes & Noble. In addition, our own publishing house offers these bookstore links to order hardcovers as well as paperbacks directly from our supplier.

 

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Civil Rights Leader U.S. Rep. John Lewis: ‘People Can Change’

By DUNCAN NEWCOMER
Contributing Columnist

“People can change. People can change.”

These are words from John Lewis, legendary civil rights leader, speaker at the Lincoln Memorial Freedom March with Martin Luther King, Jr. and an organizer of the March 7, 1965, Selma March that changed hearts—and laws—as America took another step toward liberty and justice for all.

JOHN LEWIS AS A CIVIL RIGHTS LEADER SPEAKING TO JOURNALISTS IN 1964. In 1961, Lewis became one of the 13 original Freedom Riders. He was the first to be assaulted while in Rock Hill, South Carolina, where two white men attacked him, injuring his face and kicking him in the ribs. Three years later, Lewis took part in the March 7, 1965, Selma to Montgomery march now known as “Bloody Sunday.” When the marchers stopped to pray, police discharged tear gas and mounted troopers charged the demonstrators, beating them with night sticks. Lewis’s skull was fractured, leaving permanent scars on his head.

The skull of that Black American was fractured that day—and those scars remain. He also had been beaten earlier, in 1961, at a bus station in Rock Hill, South Carolina.

The reason Lewis was repeating the mantra of “people can change” was not just because Americans changed enough in 1965 to pass major Civil Rights legislation, including a changed President Lyndon Johnson. No, this was a personal healing he was incanting.

Half a century after his bloody baseball-bat beating in the bus station—to which he had only his non-violent response—an old man walked into Congressman Lewis’s office in Washington, D.C., with his middle-aged son and said, “Mr. Lewis, my name is Elwin Wilson. I’m one of the men who beat you in that bus station back in 1961. I want to atone for the terrible thing I did, so I’ve come to seek your forgiveness. Will you forgive me?”

Lewis did. They embraced, the son embraced, they wept, and then they talked.

People can change.

To understand the healing of America that is ahead for us all, these stories, Selma and Rock Hill, are retold by Parker Palmer in his book Healing the Heart of Democracy. This is the personal and the political healing that is possible.

Following the cataclysm of the Covid-19 virus pandemic the first place of healing is personal not political. What we can see in the heart of John Lewis and in his attacker is that cynical contempt does not have to win. Blame wins no game.

A nation of high promises, like America, is a country that will break your heart. That’s one of the central themes of our other cover story this week—about Abraham Lincoln and James Baldwin.

A broken heart must endure grief. Great grief has come to America in this pandemic. Grief follows suffering and grief can teach the spiritual purpose of suffering: to open the heart to self-sacrifice, relationship, community and to the Other.

When Elwin Wilson died in 2013, the story of his reconnection with Lewis was shared once again via The New York Times and other news media.

But the most moving words came from Lewis himself, who marked Wilson’s passing with this epilogue:

I am very sorry to learn of Elwin Wilson’s passing. It is my prayer that he will rest in peace since he made amends to many of those he had injured. He told me he wanted to be right when he met his Maker, and I believe Elwin Wilson accomplished what he set out to do.

We can all learn a valuable lesson from the life of this one man. He demonstrates to all of us that we fall down, but we can get up. We all make blunders, but we can get on the right road toward building a greater sense of community.

Elwin Wilson experienced what Martin Luther King Jr. told all of us that “hate is too heavy a burden to bear.” He demonstrated the power of love and the effectiveness of non-violent direct action not only to fix legislative injustice but to mend the wounded souls in our society, the soul of the victim as well as the perpetrator. Elwin Wilson shows us that people can change; and when they put down the mechanisms of division and separation to pick up the tools of reconciliation, they can help build a greater sense of community in our society, even between the most unlikely people. Elwin Wilson proves that we are all one people, one family, the human family—and what affects one of us affect us all.

I will never forget Elwin Wilson. I speak about our meeting often. In fact, just this morning I mentioned him to 147 students from California, New York and Ohio. And I spoke about him earlier this month on the pilgrimage to Alabama. Because this one man had the courage to seek the power of forgiveness, he stepped off the sidelines and into the pages of American history forever.

John Lewis and Elwin Wilson.

In Our Struggle for Freedom, the Truth is Not in Our Statues—It’s in Our Souls

This entry is part 14 of 18 in the series Duncan Newcomer's Quiet Fire

SOULS and STATUES—Throughout his career, James Baldwin explored the painful struggle of living with opposites, including despair and hope, injustice and compassion, truth and compromise. Throughout his life, Baldwin had little patience with the hyperbole of monuments, which is why he had an ironic grin as he agreed to pose with this statue of Shakespeare in central London.

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By DUNCAN NEWCOMER
Author of 30 Days with Abraham Lincoln

This is Quiet Fire, a reflection on the spiritual life of Abraham Lincoln, and its relevance to us today. Welcome. This is Duncan Newcomer.

Here’s a Lincoln quote for you: “Don’t kneel to me. That is not right. You must kneel to God only, and thank him for the liberty you will enjoy hereafter.”

It is the morning of April 4, 1865, and Lincoln has made an inglorious rowboat landing from the James River in Richmond, Virginia, and is walking up the streets of the burning and defeated Confederate Capital. Most of the Whites, including Jefferson Davis, whose chair Lincoln hopes to sit in briefly, have fled. Excited gatherings of former slaves recognize Lincoln’s tall body and silk hat, and a man has fallen to his knees in front of Lincoln. People are calling him “Father Abraham.”

Lincoln has a truly humble heart and is a clear-minded theologian. He says: “Don’t kneel to me. That is not right. You must kneel to God only, and thank him for the liberty you will enjoy hereafter.”

Thomas Ball—the creator of the Washington, D.C., and Boston Commons statue of Lincoln—clearly had not heard what Lincoln was saying. But many of us, Black and White have heard. Today, we cannot abide the humiliation of the Black man on his knees and we sorely need the humility of Lincoln and his relationship to God.

Can we take a moment to listen better to Lincoln’s real words?

The great value of the Lincoln Memorial is that his voice is all around us in words etched into the walls: Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Addresses and the Gettysburg Address. We can read. We can hear.

We know what Lincoln was saying: Don’t kneel to me. I have never pretended that I am a god.

If now a statue seems to say otherwise, Lincoln would agree: We should take that down.

Frederick Douglass at the 1876 dedication of the Washington D.C. statue in question said that it “showed the Negro on his knees when a more manly attitude would have been indicative of freedom.”

We can understand also why Douglass agreed to speak there, despite his misgivings. President Grant was there. Some of the Supreme Court was there. Much of Congress was there. And the statue itself was fully paid for, $17,000, by newly freedman’s money, the first being $5 from a young Black woman. Blacks paid for but Whites designed the statue.

So there were other voices speaking from that statue on that dedication day—and Douglass used the occasion to urge his White listeners to recognize that Lincoln had set them on a path they should courageously pursue.

That is why history is so nuanced and complex. There are many voices.

The “democratic mind” has been defined as one that can hold seemingly polarizing ideas—many differing, nuanced and complex voices—in its head at the same time. Not because it is confused, but because it is realistic.

As many episodes in the Quiet Fire series have shown, Lincoln certainly had a democratic mind. And, so have other great American sages, especially the poet, author and journalist James Baldwin. We cannot read Baldwin’s writings without glimpsing his dual mind and heart.

Baldwin’s dual-mindedness was there as he was growing up as a sensitive young man struggling to live in the world as it is. He needed to find some measure of love and hope in his heart, despite the cruelties, injustices and blindness he encountered everywhere he turned. He struggled mightily to find some solid ground between bitter despair and love.

He described a kind of double consciousness that Black people in America must master. Baldwin wrote that his sense of double mindedness was to “hold in one mind forever two ideas which seemed in opposition. The first idea was acceptance, the acceptance, totally without rancor, of life, as it is, and men as they are….(and) the second idea was of equal power: that one must never, in ones’ own life, accept these injustices as common place but must fight them with all one’s strength.”

This was his only way to “keep his own heart free of hatred and despair.”

For that reason, Baldwin rarely wrote about Lincoln. On the few occasions that Baldwin did address Lincoln’s legacy, he did so to attack White Americans’ mythic adoration of heroes like Washington and Lincoln. Baldwin agreed with Douglass that Lincoln’s role as savior of slaves was a morally compromised choice mainly aimed at saving the Union.

The subject of Lincoln was too painful for him to contemplate, Baldwin wrote in a 1982 essay. “I am weary of Lincoln Memorials, of the American piety, which is nothing less than a Sunday-school apology for genocide.” Baldwin was letting his readers see the depth of his despair with his nation’s centuries of injustice.

His essay continued: “The Republic is a total liar and has never contained the remotest possibility, let alone desire, to let my people go.” Baldwin warned his readers: Most White American heroes from Lincoln to the Kennedy brothers will break your heart if you look too deeply into their motives, their compromises, their limitations.

And yet it is our lot in life as Americans to grapple with these painful truths, struggling toward a hope that we are somehow stumbling forward. It’s a painful journey, Baldwin wrote. “To be a Black American is much worse than being in love with, tied to, inexorably, mysteriously, responsible for, someone whom you don’t like, don’t respect, and don’t dare trust.”

It is a lover’s struggle, Baldwin finally concludes. And this struggle is inescapable, if one truly is honest about the dilemmas in our history—and our future.

The irony is that, in the spiritual life of Lincoln, we find this same paradox: a struggle every day to hold together a sense of purpose in the midst of opposites that threatened to swallow up all hope.

Perhaps as a result of 2020, we may commit ourselves to spending less time gazing at someone else’s idea of a statue—and more time with the authentic voices of great sages like Lincoln and Baldwin.

Perhaps they may light a pathway so that we, too, can search for the humility, balance, hope and power that animated their lives.

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Care to Enjoy More Lincoln Right Now?

GET A COPY of Duncan’s 30 Days with Abraham Lincoln—Quiet Fire.

Each of the 30 stories in this book includes a link to listen to the original radio broadcasts. The book is available from Amazon in hardcover, paperback and Kindle versions. ALSO, you can order hardcover and paperback from Barnes & Noble. In addition, our own publishing house offers these bookstore links to order hardcovers as well as paperbacks directly from our supplier.

 

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Introduce children you love to President Abraham Lincoln

President Lincoln From Log Cabin to White House by Demi (1)

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Review by DUNCAN NEWCOMER
Lincoln scholar, author and broadcaster

How important can a children’s book about a president be? Ask Abraham Lincoln.

Short of asking the sixteenth president, history speaks for Lincoln and tells us that Parson Weems’ famous biography of George Washington molded young Abe’s idea of America and what a person can become.

Our presidents help us to show and tell our children who we are. Children, even four to eight year olds, surely are aware these days that another president is about to be chosen.

This new book, President Lincoln: From Log Cabin to White House by the award-winning author of over 130 books, named Demi, is a beauty. It is worthy of the almost sacred mission: to tell the children who Lincoln was.

a-page-from-President-Lincoln book by Demi and Wisdom TalesThe illustrations attract and are bold. The words, including framed short quotes of Lincoln, are clear and memorable. Remember this may well be a youngster’s very first knowledge of Lincoln.

The quality of red color that the publisher, Wisdom Tales, achieved will make this book an emotional favorite for the young who will hold it in their hands. For ages 4 through 8 it is a read-to-me and then a let-me-read-and-look book.

Look they will, as will you.

I was struck not only by the reds but with how many images of open hands are pictured. Lincoln himself opens and closes the book, draped in a huge American flag. With the White House off in the middle distance he is waving open-handed toward the future, looking down the road, looking as he always did out towards yonder. A child would want and hope to be one of those who he is straining to see. He seems to want to find them and to wave them into the American story.

His raised arm says, “I’m still here, come see for yourself!”

Another word about the art. You may remember the flannel boards from Sunday School. They were made up of independent images just kind of stuck there in the midst of supporting objects. Many of the illustrations here are like the old flannel board, both inviting and imaginative. On one page Little Lincoln is out among the deer and the birds at his mother’s grave stone, or, on another, he is unpacking a barrel with books brought by his step mother, Sarah, or he is seen steering a raft down the river. These are iconic images. Your imagination, your child’s imagination, will fill in the picture. As totems in a collage they tell the story with atmosphere, not information, like music might. They will float from your mind’s eye to your heart.

The book is also a resource. Well-planned, and accurate about the high points of his legendary life, it also includes at the end a map of the country in1861, a page with the Gettysburg Address, a chronology of his life, a page of “Fascinating Facts,” things you might not know about Lincoln such as a “Family Man with Animals,” and a wonderful collection of “Famous Quotes” about “Education, Work, Slavery,” and more.

This book includes several things that tell us why we need another book on Lincoln. There are two pages that tell the story of slavery and they feature African American images. Most unique is the representation of the Massachusetts 54th regiment and their historic (and tragic) charge of Fort Wagner in South Carolina. Demi tells us that almost 200,000 African American men fought for the Union cause. She also gives us a page for the newly re-emphasized role that Lincoln played by giving us Thanksgiving as a national holiday, as well as telling us about the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery. Children can have their movies lined up for them after reading this book. The film “Glory” is about the 54th Massachusetts regiment, and “Lincoln” is about the 13th Amendment.

Unfortunately the value of the Gettysburg Address is lost here in the main text. While it is reprinted fully in the treasure chest at the end of the book, that is not likely to grab a child’s attention. When the Address is mentioned Demi fails to say anything about the idea of equality, or memory for those who suffered, the rebirth of the nation, or the cause of government of, by, and for the people. Her puzzling sentence is that this famous speech at Gettysburg, “restated the need of the war and the importance of keeping the country together.” I would not say that was the value of that speech, nor will a child connect to those values from her vague mention of the event. This is a real shame because in many other places Demi so wisely features Lincoln as a speaker and gives us a memory-framed quote such as one from the Lincoln-Douglas Debates. From the First Inaugural she frames his saying that we must not be enemies.

Children can forever associate those pictures with the words framed. Demi missed a chance to make a memory for a child with the Gettysburg Address or from the Second Inaugural where there is a picture of the Capitol but no words such as “With malice toward none and charity for all…” Another wonderful child-friendly line could have been framed where Lincoln calls us to care for them “who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan.” Demi merely mentions that there were cheering crowds and military bands. Those family-based words are found later in the back of the book with the interesting fact that they appear at the Department of Veterans Affairs building in Washington, D.C.. Children of veterans will like to know that. But to me these are mysterious lapses in an otherwise splendidly stitched quilt of historical words and pictures.

It is worth comparing this rich and beautiful book with the 1940 Caldecott Medal winner Abraham Lincoln by Ingri & Edgar Parin d’Aulaire. Their book is meant for the older young person. But as artists and writers they set a stand for beauty and clarity that Demi’s book rises toward. The d’Aulaires images also have the iconic array of visual symbols for the child’s mind to forever remember. Their sources were Norwegian Folk Art and I believe Demi’s book follows in that tradition. They also were so intent on color and beauty that they used stone lithography, sometimes making etches five times for five colors on stones weighing 50 to 100 pounds. They also went out camping in the natural settings of Lincoln’s childhood. Lincoln became for them, as I am sure for Demi and the people at Wisdom Tales, like a “warm and kind and generous relative who had moved right into our studio with us.”

This is the spirit of Lincoln that continues to swell among us and to be inspirational for us. In the d’Aullaier’s time it was Hitler, they said, who was destroying everything they, and we, held as valuable, “what we had been taught to stand up for as right.” So, too, in our time, there is the danger of evil forces flooding out the memory and the value of Lincoln. That, as well as our coming choice of a new President, makes the value of this book particularly and poignantly relevant. Demi’s book ends with a hope about our future. She does not end with the just the death of Lincoln, but rather with an image of the Lincoln Memorial, and how it arose to stand for courage and for freedom.

Lincoln once said that, “My best friend is a person who will give me a book I have not read.” Now my granddaughter is just three. So I am looking forward to next year when maybe I can become her new best friend and give her this wonderful book by Demi and Wisdom Tales.

Want to learn more?

Duncan Newcomer is hosting a radio spot on WERU.org in Maine called “Quiet Fire: The Spiritual Life of Abraham Lincoln” and teaching the “Idea of America” for Colonial Williamsburg at Senior College in Belfast. He is the author of a book on Lincoln’s spiritual life as well as a spiritual autobiography, “Desperately Seeking Mary.” He has a practice  for Spiritual Direction and continues to preach as well as to write.