TOPIC: Our Past, Our Future, Our Vision
April 20, 2005
Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum
Remarks by Senator Barack Obama
me congratulate all of those who have helped to make this wonderful
vision a reality.
But we gather
here today not to celebrate a building. We gather to celebrate a
What is it that
makes Lincoln such a seminal figure in our story? How is it that
this man, born in the backwoods of Kentucky, with little formal
education, homely and awkward, a man given to depression and wracked
with self-doubt, might come to represent so much of who we are as
a people, and so much of what we aspire to be?
Some of it has
to do with the trajectory of his life. In his rise from poverty,
his self-study and ultimate mastery of language and of law, in his
capacity to overcome personal loss and remain determined in the
face of repeated defeat - in all of this we see a fundamental element
of the American character, a belief that we can constantly remake
ourselves to fit our larger dreams.
Some of it has
to do with the sheer energy of the man, the railsplitter, ax-in-hand,
looking out at a frontier of hope and possibility. Lincoln believed
deeply in the American spirit of innovation and exploration that
accepts no limits to the heights to which our nation might reach.
In all of this
- the repeated acts of self-creation, the insistence that with sweated
brow and calloused hands and focused will we can recast the wilderness
of the American landscape and the American heart into something
better, something finer - in all of this Lincoln embodies our deepest
myths. It is a mythology that drives us still.
And yet what separates
Lincoln from the other great men has to do with something else.
It's an issue of character that speaks to us, of moral resolve.
Lincoln was not a perfect man, nor a perfect president. By modern
standards, his condemnation of slavery might be considered tentative;
his Emancipation Proclamation more a military document than a clarion
call for justice. He wasn't immune to political considerations;
his temperament could be indecisive and morose.
And yet despite
these imperfections, despite his fallibility...indeed, perhaps because
of a painful self-awareness of his own failings, etched in every
crease of his face and reflected in those haunted eyes...because
of this essential humanity of his, when it came time to confront
the greatest moral challenge this nation has ever faced, Lincoln
did not flinch. He did not equivocate or duck or pass the challenge
on to future generations. He did not demonize the fathers and sons
who did battle on the other side, nor seek to diminish the terrible
costs of his war. In the midst of slavery's dark storm and the complexities
of governing a house divided, he kept his moral compass pointed
firm and true.
It serves us then
to reflect on whether that element of Lincoln's character, and the
American character - that aspect which makes tough choices, and
speaks the truth when least convenient, and acts while still admitting
doubt - remains with us today. Lincoln once said that "character
is like a tree and reputation like its shadow. The shadow is what
we think of it; the tree is the real thing."
At a time when
image all too often trumps substance, when our politics all too
often feeds rather than bridges division, when the prospects of
a poor youth rising out of poverty seem of no consequence to the
powerful, and when we evoke our common God to condemn those who
do not think as we do, rather than to seek God's mercy for our own
lack of understanding - at such a time it is helpful to remember
this man who was the real thing. Lincoln reminds us that our essential
greatness is not the shadow of sophistication or popularity, or
wealth or power or fleeting celebrity. It is the tree that stands
in the face of our doubts and fears and bigotries, and insists we
can do better.
Today we come
to celebrate not a building but a man. And as that man called once
upon the better angels of our nature, so is he calling still, across
the ages, to summon some measure of that character, his character,
in each of us, today.