Martyr for National Unity, The Anchor, February 6, 2009

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
Putting Into the Deep
February 6, 2009

Next Thursday we celebrate the bicentennial of the birth of the greatest president ever to serve our country. He has long been considered great on account of his most notable deeds: his winning the Civil War to keep us one country; his Emancipation Proclamation that freed the slaves; his lofty oratory which inspired the nation in some of its lowest moments; and his courage in the face of death, which began with assassination attempts even before he became our 16th president and culminated in his becoming our first president to be slain.

The many recent historiographical studies that have focused on his interior deeds have helped us anew to see that the good fruit he bore came from a good tree. “Nearly all men can stand the test of adversity,” he once said, “but if you really want to test a man’s character, give him power.” When he was given that power and faced the greatest crisis our young nation had yet confronted, the depth of his virtuous character was revealed.

Lincoln’s life is one of the greatest and most inspiring biographies in our nation’s history. A child born in a one-room log cabin in Hodgenville, Kentucky rose to the White House. A boy with only 18 months of formal education became one of our country’s most famous orators. A man who suffered so many defeats over so many years never gave up and led our nation to perhaps its most important victory.

I think the best way to mark his 200th birthday is to reflect on, and seek to imitate, the virtues that made him great. Especially faced with the crises of our own day, our nation needs more Abraham Lincolns, not just in public office, but also in courtrooms and country stores, farms and financial institutions, colleges and churches, and hospitals and homes.

When we look at Lincoln, there are so many virtues from which we could choose. Whole books could be written about his honesty, integrity, prudence, courage and sense of responsibility. I’d like to focus on three of his virtues that I find particularly inspirational: his perseverance, compassion and magnanimous readiness to forgive.

Some could look at Abraham Lincoln as the greatest loser ever to be president. When he was seven, his family was forced out of their home. Two years later his mother died from bad milk. At 22, he took out a loan to buy a village store, but soon the store failed, his business partner died, and he was saddled with debt that took him 17 years to pay off. He ran for state legislature and lost. He tried get into law school, but since he had little formal education, he was not admitted.  He got engaged to Anne Ruttedge at 26, but then she died, leading to a nervous breakdown that had him bedridden for six months. After gaining election to the Illinois state assembly, he sought to become speaker of the house, but was defeated. Two years later, he tried to become an elector to the Electoral College and lost again. He proposed to Mary Owens, but was rejected. At 34, he ran for Congress and was vanquished. After experiencing the joy of congressional election two years later, he was defeated in re-election. He tried to become an Illinois land office official, but was spurned. At 45 he ran for the U.S. Senate, but was beaten. In 1856, he tried to become the Republican Vice-Presidential nominee, but received fewer than 100 votes. In 1858, he ran again for Senate and lost. Two years later — with eight electoral losses, two failed businesses, a nervous breakdown and so many misfortunes on his resumé — he was incredibly elected President of the United States.

Lincoln was a man who never gave up and didn’t let circumstances define him or keep him down. Even though he didn’t have the means for much formal education, he became an avid reader and autodidact. When he couldn’t get into law school, he taught himself law, passed the bar and rose to become an excellent litigator. When even so many family members died, including two of his four children, he soldiered on. One can argue that one of the reasons he was such an effective commander-in-chief during the Civil War was because he knew how to respond to the heartbreak of losing battles without losing focus on winning the war. Because he knew how to get up, he could help the nation learn resilience and endurance when it needed it most.

As steely a commander-in-chief as he was, Lincoln was also a deeply compassionate man. Compassion comes from the Latin roots meaning “to suffer with,” and one of Lincoln’s greatest traits was his ability to empathize. He did not argue against the evil of slavery merely on the principles of justice and equality; he also put himself in the shoes of slaves and encouraged everyone to do the same. A month before he was slain, he said, “I have always thought that all men should be free; but if any should be slaves, it should be first those who desire it for themselves and secondly those who desire it for others.  Whenever I hear any one arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.”

This sense of compassion made him eloquent in the face of tragedy. He could enter into the pain of Massachusetts mother Lydia Bixby who he was told had lost five sons on the battlefield and write, “I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save. I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.”

Lincoln was able to enter into her darkness and point to the reason for hope because he himself had suffered so much and was prepared to — and would — lay down his own life on that same altar. Lincoln was able to do the same thing for a grieving nation on the blood-drenched fields of Gettysburg.

Because of his history and capacity to experience the pain of the defeated and the suffering, he was a profoundly merciful man. As president, he was savagely ridiculed and caricatured in the press and in political backrooms, yet he refused to sink to his opponents’ level. For the good of the nation, he embraced some of his most mean-spirited rivals into his cabinet. When he was accused of being soft toward his enemies, he retorted, “Am I not destroying my enemy when I make him my friend?” He permitted General Grant to allow General Lee to surrender with dignity rather than to try him for treason. After the war was won and the reconstruction efforts were commencing, another general asked how the Confederates should be treated. “Let them up easy,” he replied. He knew that the only path to peace and national unity was through forgiveness. If only those in the Middle East would learn from him.

Lincoln was equally merciful to those on death row begging to have their lives spared.

In his great speech in Gettsyburg, Lincoln said that it was the task for the living to dedicate themselves to the unfinished work which the slain had so nobly advanced. As we prepare to mark the bicentennial of his birth, let us take up the work to which he gave his “last full measure of devotion,” so that our country, “under God shall have a new birth of freedom,” based on virtues, like Lincoln’s, that set and keep us free.