Thinkin’ about Lincoln
A nation’s slow poisoning
On a surprisingly snowy April 20, a visit to the Springfield, Ill., presidential museum showed me that Abraham Lincoln’s time in the White House was, for him, almost always winter and never Christmas.
Lincoln was a proud man who had to put up with enormous scorn. Cartoonists depicted him as a clown, an ape, or a vampire. Others drew him as Abraham Africanus or a Jew—both despised minorities.
Lincoln throughout his career met insults with wit, not scorn of his own. In one speech he explained the need to be careful in policy pronouncements. Here’s part of the transcript: “If I saw a venomous snake crawling in the road, any man would say I might seize the nearest stick and kill it; but if I found that snake in bed with my children, that would be another question. [Laughter.] I might hurt the children more than the snake, and it might bite them. [Applause.]”
The slogans of the political left are now in bed with our children, and older Christians need to battle those snakes with compassion rather than contempt.
Lincoln in that speech also explained why he firmly opposed expansion of slavery into new territories: “But if there was a bed newly made up, to which the children were to be taken, and it was proposed to take a batch of young snakes and put them there with them, I take it no man would say there was any question how I ought to decide! [Prolonged applause and cheers.]”
When I was 20, I esteemed John Brown—see our Q&A in this issue—but at 70 I appreciate Lincoln. He understood his task as one of changing public opinion, not just attacking evil in a way that would feel righteous but produce a counterattack. His wisdom can influence not only our policy goals but our prayers: Ah, Sovereign Lord, please end all abortion right now—but if not, please keep abortion from spreading via telemedicine and mail-order pills.
The equation of slavery and abortion is not far-fetched. It’s wrong to give a human being life-or-death authority over a slave or an unborn child: That’s treating a person as property. Sometimes we need to see photos of a slave’s back cross-hatched by whippings, or an unborn child torn apart.
Lincoln brilliantly dealt with the issue-evaders of his era: “You think slavery is wrong, but you denounce all attempts to restrain it. … We must not call it wrong in the Free States, because it is not there, and we must not call it wrong in the Slave States because it is there. We must not call it wrong in politics because that is bringing morality into politics, and we must not call it wrong in the pulpit because that is bringing politics into religion.”
Now, those who decry abortion come under attack for “bringing morality into politics” or “politics into religion.” But silence on abortion victimizes not only the unborn. We are consuming a poison similar to the poison of slavery. Two generations before the Civil War, George Mason warned whites: “Practiced in acts of Despotism & Cruelty, we become callous to the Dictates of Humanity. … Taught to regard a part of our own Species in the most abject & contemptible Degree below us, we lose that Idea of the Dignity of Man.”
American politics has always been a contact sport, but the drawings of Lincoln displayed in his Springfield museum show how just before the Civil War it was a collision sport, as it is today. Quick poison for the unborn, slow poison for our nation.
After four miserable years, with Lincoln often sitting in the War Department’s telegraph office as casualty totals from battles arrived, the news of Union victory in April 1865 was so cheerful that Lincoln took his wife to Ford’s Theater. Then he was dead. Before leaving Springfield, my wife and I visited Lincoln’s tomb. Only one other person was there. Maybe Lincoln is now out of style. God help us.
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