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Kentucky by Heart: Much can be learned about the disunity of today through the study of Lincoln’s words

By Steve Flairty
KyForward Columnist

I have great respect for the impact of language, and so I often mull over my choice of words as both a writer and speaker — and often omit words I’m not completely comfortable will be read with correct understanding. Consequently, the time I expend on this weekly column is often extensive, and here’s hoping that doing so is a good thing.

Kentucky-born Abraham Lincoln obviously believed in the power of words, too (though it would be laughable to compare my words to this great U.S. president). I’m not a historian or an expert on Lincoln, but a cursory glance at Abe’s stirring rhetoric demonstrates its staying power and might provide a helpful perspective for the disunity of today. Perhaps from this great president, we can learn and internalize lessons and principles that will help us navigate the fog of the pandemic, racial unrest, economic uncertainty, and nastiness toward each other that we are currently experiencing.

Retired EKU professor and author of The Rhetoric of Lincoln’s Letters, Dr. Marshall Myers, praised Lincoln for his masterful ability to persuade, largely self-taught. “Lincoln learned to write as a result of writing his letters to his various constituencies… (and it went back) to his childhood. Carl Sandburg, in his book on Lincoln, said he (Lincoln) wrote letters for his neighbors. When he read something that would be particularly significant, he would put it on the back of a wooden shovel and leave it on there until he took it off, then put something else there.” His writing process also served as a primary thinking process for him, and that process resulted in lives influenced, noted Dr. Myers. “His use of language was very astute in that he was able he say things he didn’t really consciously say until he wrote them down. He was a tempering influence upon his audience but also on Congress and anything in between, almost.”

A common quote attributed to Lincoln is: “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.”

Sounds wonderful, but according to PolitiFact, a fact-checking website, Lincoln actually said something similar but not worded the same way. In 1838, he quoted this in Springfield, Illinois, to the Young Men’s Lyceum:

“At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”

Now, certainly, America has negative influences from outside our borders, but did not Abe make it clear that we have met “danger,” and it is us?

Dr. Marshall Myers

Today, our country is ripping itself apart with blatant, uncompromising partisanship. And yes, that includes Kentucky. For many, it has become quite uncomfortable. How many of us steer clear of political conversations because of animosities that are created? How many have been ridiculed for wearing a mask… or for not wearing a mask? How many of us have said things, or heard family or friends say things, that in earlier times might seem taboo in terms of personal civility? Regretfully, since the malady of hurtful discourse is so common, we may have lost our “shockability,” and that will be hard to regain, folks. Must we “die by suicide”?

“United we stand, divided we fall,” anybody?

In Lincoln’s first inaugural address, on March 4, 1861, he spoke particularly to those in the South, saying that he would not interfere with the institution of slavery, and that his administration would not initiate a war across the nation. But there were ominous clouds of division forming across the US pertinent to the question of slavery and the South’s actions of seceding from the Union. Lincoln closed his address with this exhortation to come together:

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Sadly, the president’s closing words did not prevent the terrible American Civil War, a conflict resulting in some 620,000 deaths. Just over a month after the inauguration, war broke out on April 12, 1861. It lasted until May 9, 1865. But a century and a half later, the term “better angels of our nature,” is, I believe, a thought that Kentuckians and the country should zero in on as we move forward.

Abraham Lincoln (Image from abrahamlincolnclassroom.org

Especially outside the realm of politics, there are so many sterling individual examples of those who summon their better natures in making our communities better. I’ve enjoyed profiling them in this column and in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series. Interestingly, those individuals have political viewpoints ranging from far left to far right. Some, I suspect, have no interest in politics at all. Mostly, noble individuals I’ve seen seem to be driven by another force working inside them—a drive to achieve something bigger than themselves.

I believe that most of us have a better angel part that just needs to be ignited. If each of us recognizes that potential in each other and takes that mindset when we engage, we can begin to overcome our differences and eventually get things done that help us all. Put simply, it means looking for the best in each other.

As the Civil War, with all its carnage, was winding down, Lincoln was reelected and delivered his second inaugural address on March 4, 1865. The speech was replete with Christian religion overtones, partly because of Lincoln’s deep faith, along with knowing that his audience—on both the North and South sides, ironically—claimed that faith as their own. He claimed God was in control and talked of the evils of slavery, but he also empathetically acknowledged the great suffering that the whole country experienced. Then, the fervent plea for unity came in this now iconic closing:

Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of seven books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and six in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #5,” was released in 2019. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a former member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

“With malice toward none with charity for all with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right let us strive on to finish the work we are in to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan—to all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Since that perilous time, the need to demonstrate “malice toward none” and “to bind up the nations wounds” in our American life has never completely diminished. Racial tension is ongoing, economic instability is always an issue, natural catastrophes happen, and, of course, there’s the Covid-19 thing, to name a few.

For these challenges, ol’ Abe has left us words of persuasion to guide our paths and bridge our differences. May we proudly abide in following them; may we present our own living and authentic rhetoric to our children.

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Additionally, Dr. Myers intrigued me also with some tidbits about Lincoln’s deference to his fellow Kentuckians.

“Most people don’t realize how much ‘Kentucky’ Lincoln had in him,” he noted. Besides Lincoln’s Kentucky birthplace, he moved to southern Indiana and was surrounded by Kentuckians. Later, he lived in New Salem, Illinois, a community of Kentuckians, too. He ran a store there that appealed to Kentuckian’s needs. Moving to Springfield, Illinois, his law partner was a Kentuckian and he dated and married a Kentuckian, Mary Ann Todd.

“I have researched many of his war soldiers,” added Dr. Myers. “The one thing that he pardoned were Kentuckians. He said in route to be president: ‘I too am a Kentuckian.’ As a final note, Lincoln never dated any women that weren’t from Kentucky.”

Sheesh, and they call Illinois the “Land of Lincoln” . . .

Sources: nps.org; history.net; Dr. Marshall Myers (interview); wikipedia.com; battlefields.org

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