Lincoln Prescribes for Today


By STEWART W. McCLELLAND, President, Lincoln Memorial University, Harrogate, Tennessee

Delivered before the Lincoln Club of Wilmington, Delaware, February 12, 1944

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. X, pp. 304-306.

IF we could first know where we are and wither we are tending, we could better judge what to do and how to do it." There is a certain timelessness about the public utterances of Abraham Lincoln which challenges us today as they will challenge thinking people millenniums hence. The words which I have just quoted come from his House Divided speech delivered in 1858, and they are as pertinent now as when they were uttered. It may be a little difficult for us in this year of "disgrace," 1944, to know where we are. It has become rather trite, but nevertheless true, that at the present time the United States of America does not know where it is, does not know how it got there and like the immortal Christopher Columbus, finds itself wanting to get back where it came from and the whole operation on borrowed money. We are in a very similar position to the man in Lincoln's story who had just been tarred, feathered and given a ride on a rail. We wouldn't like it a bit if it were not for the honor of the thing.

Of one thing we are definitely certain—we find ourselves in a battle royal, struggling for our lives with no holds barred. No matter how we got here we know one thing is certain and that is we must win this war, but in winning the war we are in danger at times of forgetting that other problems face the country besides the successful prosecution of the bitterest conflict in history. While we are fighting valiantly for four freedoms we are in danger of losing more than forty on the home front at the same time! Therefore, it is well for us to know exactly where we are, not only so far as our fighting this war is concerned but what our relationship is to our own Government.

This past year we celebrated the 80th anniversary of the delivery of the greatest address ever made on behalf of the people of the world. It has not been many years since the idea of a Democracy was an exceedingly revolutionary proposition in the field of government. When Abraham Lincoln stood only a few miles from this very spot and pronounced the ideals of the Civil War "That Government of the People, by the People, for the People should not perish from the earth," he was prescribing not for America only but for all peoples the very thing for which the United States of America and its Allies are fighting today—the rights of little people, the opportunity of the masses, the blessings of a Government which is not created to rule people but formed that there might be a perfect union between all kinds and conditions of men. In Lincoln's message to his first Congress are these words: "This is essentially a people's contest. * * * It is a struggle for maintaining in the world that form and substance of government whose leading object is to elevate the condition of man—to lift artificial weights from all shoulders; to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all; to afford all an unfettered start and a fair chance in the race of life. Yielding to partial and temporary departures from necessity this is the leading object of the government for whose existence we contend.

Today we have had to yield from necessity to a partial and temporary departure from the normal activities of our Republican form of Government. You and I grant the necessity, but in granting the necessity we must not be lulled into a feeling that someone else can do our political business for us. In a democracy such as ours the responsibility of government rests finally upon the electorate, and we shall keep our form of government just so long as our people recognize their responsibility and keep their virtue.

I was so many years in the ministry that I sometimes find it convenient to take a text, so I am taking my text this evening from the Gospel according to Abraham as it is found in his first inaugural delivered March 4th, 1861: "Intelligence, patriotism, Christianity and a firm reliance on Him who has never yet forsaken this favored land are still competent to adjust in the best way all our present difficulty."

I do not believe that there is a country in the world whose people read more books, devour more newspapers, including the comic section, thumb over more magazines, nor listen to more radio programs than does our own. We should be intelligent if we are not, and the idea of an unintelligent Democracy is confliction of terms. Where a democracy is unintelligent the people thereof are laid wide open to the influence of every quack bureaucrat and dictator who may be popular at the time. But a Democracy depends upon the intelligence of its electorate. This great nation of ours was founded by men and women who were seeking freedom, and they were intelligent enough to be able to distinguish between freedom and license as witness the fact that the passengers on the Mayflower drew up a compact before they even landed. Compacts, charters, ordinances, declarations of independence were to be found all up and down the Atlantic Coast in colonial times brought into being by those who were not merely democratic but at the same time intelligent. Whenever and wherever we find some demagogue stirring up the people and privately sneering at their intelligence and questioning their ability to rule themselves, we find ourselves moving backward to the prehistoric domination of man over man. As Abraham Lincoln would query, "Why should there not be a patient confidence in the ultimate justice of the people? Is there any better or equal hope in the world?" One of the greatest Democrats this country ever produced went up and down the land with a silver tongue crying out "Let the people rule."

One of the dangers that we face in fighting a totalitarian government is that we have to become for the time somewhat totalitarian ourselves. But this is not the true democratic way. Those who would fight the devil with fire are likely to get badly singed themselves. It is not my wish to interject anything political into this address, but how can I help it? We all know that there is an election not many months off and recently one of our well known commentators made bold to state that we are merely courting catastrophe when we bold a presidential election near the climax of a war; and, that nothing could make such an election tolerable except the elimination of all conflicting issues both foreign and domestic This commentator went on to say that it would be necessary to curb every tongue and create such a harmonious spirit that one would not care who was elected, thereby making the election essentially the maintenance of a tradition. I suppose that that is the logical conclusion that one reaches if one is perfectly satisfied with the way our government is being run in relation to its foreign and home policies.

But I have taken my text from Father Abraham and I now want to read my scripture lesson, again from his first inaugural. "By the frame of government under which we live, this same people have wisely given their public servants but little power for mischief; and have, with equal wisdom, provided for the return of that little to their own hands at very short intervals. While the people retain their virtue and vigilance, no administration, by any extreme of wickedness or folly, can very seriously injure the government in the short space of four years.—The chief magistrate derives all his authority from the people." * * * His duty is to administer the present government, as it came to his hands and transmit it, unimpared by him to his successor.

Abraham Lincoln went through as severe a political campaign in 1864 through which any President ever suffered. There is something prophetic about the challenge he threw out to America concerning elections in war time: "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. * * * What has occurred in this case must ever recur in similar cases. Human nature will not change in any future great national trial, compared with the men of this, we shall have as weak and as strong, as silly and as wise, as bad and as good. * * * But the election along with its incidental and undesired 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."

No President of the United States ever knew the common people better than did Abraham Lincoln. He was willing to trust them, to place his faith in them and himself in their hands. And to their hands did he commit the future of the whole government. If that be not wisdom, 1 have yet to find it anywhere in America. Great Britain gave to the people the common law; America gave to the world at large common sense applied to law. Nowhere do we find greater common sense nor greater common wisdom, if you prefer, than in the person of Abraham Lincoln. If he were to prescribe for today he might well say to us "Use your common sense 1" The common sense which keeps laughter close to the surface even in serious things. I am hopeful that in this present presidential campaign we shall be able to laugh a little as could Lincoln in his campaigns. In May of 1864, the disgruntled John C. Fremont was nominated for the presidency by some four hundred delegates called in convention at Cleveland, Ohio. Mr. Lincoln struck by the number 400 reached for his Bible and read these words from 1st Samuel, 22nd chapter and second verse: "And everyone that was in distress, and everyone that was in debt, and everyone that was discontented, gathered themselves unto him; and he became a captain over them; and there were with him about 400 men." Less familiar is the story that was told of him concerning the famous debate with Douglas at Ottawa. Douglas is supposed to have been one of those men who customarily punctuates their paragraphs with copious draughts of water. After the fourth or fifth tumbler Lincoln nudged a companion on the platform and remarked, "That is the first time I ever saw a windmill run by water."

We are hearing a great deal today about patriotism. Stars and stripes stream from every public building. No shop window is complete without the red, white and blue. Service flags adorn every window—too many of them tragic in the glory of a golden star; but showing our colors does not make us patriotic. Joining the church doesn't make a man a Christian, nor does taking the oath of allegiance make him a patriot' To be a real patriot one must place one's nation above one's self. What pathos there is in Lincoln's story of the young lad on the battle field of Antietam who remarked to one of his companions, "If I ever get out of this war alive I'll know better than ever to love another country."

In Lincoln's time this nation was split asunder over "States' Rights" and he bled and died that we might have a more perfect union. Today we are hearing so much about the rights of class, the rights of groups, the rights of organizations; these rights have bulked so large in the thinking of many of our people that the best interests of our nation have suffered at the hands of men and women who believe themselves to be patriotic citizens. Patriotism is not concerned so much with rights as it is with the right.

This emphasis on rights is a sorry spectacle on this 135th anniversary of the man who said "We say that 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. * * * We shall nobly save or meanly lose the last best hope of earth. Other means may succeed; this could not, cannot fail. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just—a way which, if followed, the world will forever applaud, and God must forever bless."

The struggle which faced Abraham Lincoln was merely one in which two groups of men and women differed on the question of the rights of their respective states. This division was largely geographical. The problem which faces our nation today is far more insidious. Scattered throughout the length and breath of our land are those who are putting their "rights" above the greater right of the nation. These two viewpoints are not irreconcilable and I am certain that when our true Americans give thought to this matter that "The mystic cords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot's grave to every living heart and hearth stone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union when again touched, as they surely will be, by the better angels of our nature."

Abraham Lincoln never joined any church, never joined any lodge; in fact it could not be said of him in the language of his day, that he was a "jiner"; but religious he was and there are two pictures which never can be taken out of the history of the United States. One is that of the Father of our Country kneeling in the snow at Valley Forge, praying for his people, and the other is that of a tall, gaunt man in a small room off the auditorium of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington praying as his Master had prayed "That they might be one." His prayer has gone long unanswered. He gave his life for his people and for the right of his people to govern themselves—free men, free to make their own decisions, free to make their own law. To him Vox Populi was Vox Dei and he never lost his faith in either. "I turn then and look to the American people and to that God which has never forsaken them."

Fortunately for mankind a forgotten God does not forget and when this nation in its hour of turmoil and travail turns from self seeking to God seeing, then Lincoln's dream of democracy will have been realized. Many times I am asked "What is the greatest Lincoln poem?" That is a difficult question to answer. But the Lincoln poem which strikes home today is Vachel Lindsey's "Lincoln Walks at Midnight."

"It is portentous, and a thing of state
That here at midnight, in our little town
A mourning figure walks, and will not rest
Near the old courthouse pacing up and down.

"Or by his homestead, or in shadowed yards
He lingers where his children used to play
Or through the market, on the well-worn stones,
He stalks until the dawn-stars burn away.

"A bronzed, lank man! His suit of ancient black,
A famous high top-hat and plain, worn shawl
Make him the quaint great figure that men love,
The prairie lawyer, master of us all.

"He cannot sleep upon his hillside now,
He is among us—as in times before!
And we who toss and lie awake for long,
Breathe deep, and start, to see him pass the door.

"His head is bowed. He thinks of men and kings.
Year, when the sick world cries, how can he sleep?
Too many peasants fight, they know not why;
Too many homesteads in black terror weep.|

"The sins of all the war-lords burn his heart.
He sees the dreadnaughts scouring every main.
He carries on his shawl-wrapped shoulders now
The bitterness, the folly and the pain.

"He cannot rest until a spirit-dawn
Shall come—the shining hope of Europe free;
The league of sober folk, the Workers' earth.
Bringing long peace to Cornland, Alp and Sea.

"It breaks his heart that kings must murder still,
That all his hours of travail here for men
Seem yet in vain. And who will bring white peace
That he may sleep upon his hill again?"

In September 1866, Lincoln's young friend and secretary wrote to William H. Herndon, giving his (John Hay's) impression of his beloved "Tycoon." His last paragraph is startling and prophetic, "I consider Lincoln, Republicanism incarnate,—with all its faults and all its virtues. As in spite of some weaknesses, Republicanism is the sole hope of a sick world, so Lincoln with all his foibles, is the greatest character since Christ."