Dan and I were asked to deliver an address in honor of Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday. Some of our colleagues in the English/North American studies department here at Freiburg held a dinner in his honor. We expected to just give this to a small group of friends, but a waiter at the Irish pub offered us the open mic. The Germans seemed to appreciate us. This was my contribution.
The myths, the stories we all know, don’t always accurately portray who Lincoln was and why people like us gather to remember him. The stories are nice—though some of them are stretched truths that don’t really resemble what many of us have discovered in our readings about Lincoln. Yes, he probably split at least one rail, and, yes, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation—he was a hero—but he was also a man of contradictions. He was an abolitionist with reservations. He had religion, but he didn’t care for church. He was real.
It’s in his complicated yet honest humanity where I have found my true admiration for Lincoln—the man who was up against monumental odds, who didn’t always have the right answer but could admit it, who cherished wisdom and reason over extremes, who sometimes crawled further inside himself than any book could go—when his inclination toward depression got the best of him. He wasn’t always the steadiest in emotions, and Lord knows Mary Todd Lincoln was not either, but Mr. Lincoln was always steady in intellect, and that’s why his memory endures.
Not until this year, more than 140 years later, have so many American’s felt we have a President that may come close to matching Lincoln’s talent for fairness, reason, and interest in true morality—the ability to question what is truly best for the people. It’s in this increasingly rare combination of goodness that many Americans find they admire Abraham Lincoln the most.
When I have set foot in the places where Lincoln worked, lived, studied, and played with his children, I sense the greatness that is so firmly attached to his image still. At his boyhood home in Kentucky—about 20 miles from where I married—in his Springfield home, and in the room where he died, I could sense that he was real—a son, a husband, a father, a president. He was more than a myth. He was a good American.
Happy 200th birthday, Mr. Lincoln.