On January 15, former U.S. Senator and the 1972 Democratic nominee for president George McGovern visited the Freedom Museum and spoke about his recently-released biography of Abraham Lincoln. He recanted many of the facts we have come to know about an American with more than 16,000 books written about him. Lincoln had only one year of formal education and rose from humble means to attain the nation's highest office. A "man of ambition," Lincoln "never enjoyed the drudgery of the farm." Reading and writing were constant passions in Lincoln's life, and he was plagued throughout by what McGovern labeled "clinical depression." Lincoln preferred the diagnosis "melancholy" instead.
The former South Dakota senator was surprised to learn of Lincoln's rather large ego. For instance, Lincoln neglected most newspapers because he felt that he already knew what was transcribed within, and was a man of great self-confidence (except with women). McGovern qualified this by claiming that those who run from president are inherently egomaniacs, although my time spent with McGovern that evening calls this contention into question.
As president, Lincoln, according to McGovern, became a student of the Constitution, and for the most part, governed by its dictates. The author admitted that Lincoln erred in suspending habeas corpus and by closing down opposition newspapers, but qualified this by suggesting that the capital was surrounded by those sympathetic to the southern cause throughout the Civil War. First Amendment scholar Ronald Collins largely echoes McGovern in an extensive piece on the same subject.
Asked what Lincoln would think of President Obama, McGovern said he would commend his eventual successor for a job well done. McGovern credits Obama for running a "brilliant campaign," and also for the construction of a "powerful" Cabinet along the lines of Lincoln's "team of rivals." Obama's calm demeanor in the face of great challenges, his confidence, and oratory eloquence inspires parallels with Lincoln, McGovern suggests.
In reflecting upon the current economic crisis gripping our nation, McGovern said that Lincoln believed that reason, logic, and common sense could combine to resolve any problem. Along with a willingness to seek help from trusted advisers, Obama would be wise to draw upon Lincoln's formula during a lesser, but still perplexing challenge.
Turning to the Lincoln Bicentennial celebration, it is important to point out that it has only just begun. A commission created for this purpose has plans extending beyond the next calendar year. Illinois, the Land of Lincoln, will play a pivotal role in these festivities.
The Freedom Museum will host yet another program this evening at the Newberry Library in honor of Lincoln, where historian Ronald White will discuss his new book biography titled A. Lincoln (If you are keeping track, there is one new Lincoln book released every week during this Bicentennial celebration). Coming this summer, the Freedom Museum will open a new show examining Lincoln's record on a number of controversial issues and juxtaposing it with a number of contemporary dilemmas.
In sum, there is no shortage of narrative or celebratory examination and praise of the Great Emancipator at the end of his second century. We look to Lincoln because we see the best in America and believe that through adherence to the basic principles by which he lived and governed that we can persevere while our "house" is in disrepair, and retain our claim as the "last best hope on earth."