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What Would Lincoln Do?


Abraham Lincoln must be getting quite a chuckle out of recent events.

The National Park Service, in response to conservatives pumped from their success canceling “The Reagans,” is revising a video that has been shown at the Lincoln Memorial since 1995. In a Fox News world, they hope to make it “more balanced” by toning down the abortion and gay rights marches depicted in the footage and throwing in some clips of a Christian “Promise Keppers” rally and a Desert Storm march after the first Gulf War. Conservatives everywhere, it seems, are worried sick that their favorite Republican will be seen as too liberal.

Then there was Mr. Dean, whose Confederate Flag comment reopened the flood gates of political sectionalism that Mr. Lincoln worked so hard to nail shut.

And, of course, who can forget the name of the aircraft carrier that President Bush used to declare an end to major combat operations in Iraq against the backdrop of a “Mission: Accomplished” banner: U.S.S. Lincoln.

Lincoln resurfaced again last month, on the 140th anniversary of his Gettysburg Address, a gorgeous eulogy that–at 267 words–proves that, when it comes to Presidential addresses, perhaps less is more.

Seven score ago, Lincoln made his way to Gettysburg to, “to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.”

It is equally fitting and proper for us to think about Lincoln on this anniversary and to look to him for answers and insight into our current predicaments, for if you think that homeland security is a problem now, you should have been around in 1863. With a civil war being waged on the farms and in the streets and cities of the United States, terrorism was a daily reality. A recent survey of the American electorate by the Pew Research Center concluded that the United States was “Evenly Divided and Increasingly Polarized.” Perhaps. But you can just hear Lincoln laughing at such a suggestion. “Divided? Polarized? Oh, you have no idea…”

If Bush finds it appropriate to conclude his own war on the deck of a ship named after Mr. Lincoln, it’s worth asking what Lincoln might think of our current President.

Lincoln and Bush are similar in many ways. They both came into the Oval Office with little experience compared to their predecessors. Both were quickly thrust into moments of great enormity during their first year in office, moments that would require great courage and sacrifice. Both came under great criticism for their actions, most notably for their belief that the only way to properly honor the dead was to continue ahead with war in hopes of cleansing the earth of its darkest roots.

Lincoln would support Bush and Ashcroft’s efforts with regards to the PATRIOT Act and civil rights restrictions during a time of war. In his own time, Lincoln found it both appropriate and necessary to suspend habeas corpus, limit freedom of the press, and impose martial law. Between 10,000 and 15,000 individuals were incarcerated without a prompt trial during the Civil War. Lincoln would, therefore, find little wrong with our detainment camp in Guantanamo Bay.

On the other hand, Lincoln make have taken exception to a few of Bush’s actions, especially preemptive strikes. In 1848, as a Whig member of the House of Representatives, Congressman Lincoln spoke out against President Polk’s decision to enter territory claimed by Mexico, justified by Polk’s claim that he needed to “repel invasion.” Lincoln wrote: “Allow the President to invade a neighboring nation whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion, and you allow him to do so whenever he may choose to say he deems it necessary for such a purpose, and you allow him to make war at his pleasure. [This logic] places our President where kings have always stood.”

Since Lincoln found it “altogether fitting and proper” to “dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place,” he may find it peculiar that Mr. Bush has yet to visit any the memorial services for American serviceman, even though one was only three miles away from the White House (Gettysburg, in contrast, is 65 miles away from DC). Lincoln, who used his address as a way of consecrating and dedicating the tombs of others, might find it equally peculiar that Bush has banned the photography of flag-draped caskets at Andrews Air Force base.

Lincoln–unlike Bush–also understood the essential role that allies play in any conflict. European recognition of the Confederacy would have certainly crippled the Union’s war efforts, and it was for this reason that Lincoln spent so much of time carefully navigating the muddy international waters. He would understand Bush’s need to act unilaterally if necessary, but he would urge him to do whatever he could to secure allies for himself, and at the same time to prevent Al Qaeda’s acquisition of sympathizers.

Near the conclusion of his speech at Gettysburg, Lincoln humbly remarked, “The world will little note nor long remember what we say here.” Who was he kidding? 140 years later, it’s almost impossible to forget.

PATRICK GAVIN is a former history teacher, and currently I work as a writer at the Brookings Institution. He can be reached at:


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