Abraham Lincoln and Our "Unfinished Work"Skip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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Governor Thompson, I thank you for that generous introduction. It is a privilege for Matilda and me to be in your great state and we appreciate your taking the time to be here to introduce me. I would also like to thank Judge Harlington Wood for inviting me to be part of this celebration of one of the monumental figures of our history, whose words and life and legend have been for me, as they have for you I'm sure, an instruction and an inspiration for most of a lifetime. I am also honored to be in the company of Representative Richard Durbin, who occupies the congressional seat Lincoln held, and Senator Paul Simon, himself an extraordinary success story, a man of intellect and integrity, whose distinguished works on the Lincoln theme have illuminated the man we honor tonight.
It is an intimidating thing to stand here tonight to talk about the greatest intellect, the greatest leader, perhaps the greatest soul, America has ever produced; to follow such legendary orators as William Jennings Bryan and Adlai Stevenson. Only a struggling student myself, to face as imposing an audience as the Lincoln scholars — tough-minded, demanding, harsh critics, highly intelligent. And to face so many Republicans: tough minded, demanding, harsh critics....
And I certainly wasn't encouraged after I learned that when another New York governor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, announced his intention to come here to speak on Lincoln, a local political stalwart threatened him with an injunction.
To be honest with you, I feel a little like the Illinois man from one Lincoln story: when he was confronted by a local citizens' committee with the prospect of being tarred and feathered and run out Page [End Page 43] of town on a rail, he announced, "If it weren't for the honor of the thing, I'd just as soon it happened to someone else."
But seriously, this is an event beyond the scope of partisan politics. When Lincoln gave his one and only speech in my capital, Albany, New York, he told the Democratic governor, "You have invited and received me without distinction of party. Let me second that sentiment, and thank you for inviting and receiving me in the same spirit.
To be here in Springfield, instead of at the Memorial in Washington, to celebrate this "high holy day" of Lincoln remembrance, gives us a special advantage. In Washington, Lincoln towers far above us, presiding magisterially, in a marble temple. His stony composure, the hugeness of him there, gives him and his whole life a grandeur that places him so far above and beyond us that it's difficult to remember the reality of him.
We have lifted Lincoln to the very pinnacle of our national memory. Enlarged him to gargantuan proportions in white stone recreations. We have chiseled his face on the side of a mountain, making him appear as a voice in the heavens.
There is a danger when we enshrine our heroes, when we lift them onto pedestals and lay wreaths at their feet. We can, by the very process of elevating them, strain the sense of connection between them and the palpable, fleshy, sometimes mean concerns of our own lives. It would be a terrible shame to lose Lincoln that way. To make of him a celebration but not an instruction, a memory but not a model, a legend but not a lesson. Here in Springfield there is less chance of that.
Although he left Springfield 125 years ago, here — where he practiced law, served as a legislator and warned this nation of the dangers of a "house divided" — Lincoln, the man, still presides. Here we can remember that Lincoln — the miracle that we call Lincoln — worked within the hard, sometimes discouraging, sometimes terrifying, limits of time and place and chance. And by our so remembering, he can again begin to light our minds and move our hearts.
That is why I have come here: not just to light a candle to the apparition of him, but to remember his specific wisdom and goodness and to consider how it can continue to touch us, to teach us, to move us to the higher ground. I have come to remember Lincoln Page [End Page 44] as he was. The flesh and blood man, haunted by mortality in his waking and his dreaming life. The boy who had been uprooted from one frontier farm to another, across Kentucky and Indiana and Illinois, by a father restless with his own dreams.
To remember some of Lincoln's own words, which, taken altogether, are the best words America has ever produced. To remember the words that he spoke ten days after his lyrical, wrenching farewell to Springfield on his way to his inauguration as our sixteenth president. "Back in my childhood," he said then,
Here was Lincoln just before his inauguaration, reminding us of the source of his strength and eventual greatness. His compelling need to understand the meaning of things and to commit to a course that was directed by reason, supported by principle, designed to achieve the greatest good. He was a man of ideas, grand and soaring ones, and he was cursed by the realization that they were achievable ideas as well, so that he could not escape the obligation of pursuing them, despite the peril and the pain that pursuit would inevitably bring.
Even as a boy he grasped the great idea that would sustain him — and provoke him — for the rest of his days. The idea that took hold of his heart and his mind. The idea that he tells us about again and again throughout his life. It became the thread of purpose that tied the boy to the man to the legend — the great idea — the dream, the achieveable dream, of equality, of opportunity...for all. Page [End Page 45]
"The original idea for which the struggle was made..." The proposition that all men are created equal. That they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights. That among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Even by Lincoln's time, for many, the words had been heard often enough that they became commonplace, part of the intellectual and historical landscape, losing their dimension, their significance, their profoundness. But not for Lincoln. He pondered them. Troubled over their significance. Wrestled with their possibilities.
"We did not learn quickly or easily that all men are created equal," one Lincoln scholar has observed. No, we did not learn those words quickly or easily. We are still struggling with them in fact, as Lincoln did.
For a whole lifetime, from the time he read Weems' little book, until the day he was martyred, he thought, and planned and prayed Page [End Page 46] to make the words of the declaration a way of life. Equality and opportunity, for all. But truly, for all.
Lincoln came to believe that the great promise of the founding fathers was one that had only begun to be realized with the founding fathers themselves. He understood that from the beginning it was a promise that would have to be fulfilled in degrees. Its embrace would have to be widened over the years, step-by-step, sometimes painfully, until finally it included everyone.
That was his dream. That was his vision. That was his mission. With it, he defined for himself and for us, the soul of our unique experiment of government: the belief that the promise of the Declaration of Independence — the promise of equality and opportunity — cannot be considered kept, until it includes everyone. For him, that was the unifying principle of our democracy. Without it, we had no nation worth fighting for. With it, we had no limit to the good we might achieve.
He spent the rest of his life trying to give the principle meaning. He consumed himself doing it. He reaffirmed Jefferson's preference for the human interest and the human right. "The principles of Jefferson," he said, "are the definitions and axioms of free society."  Lincoln extended those instincts to new expressions of equality.
Always, he searched for ways to bring within the embrace of the new freedom, the new opportunity, all who had become Americans. Deeply — reverently — grateful for the opportunity afforded him, he was pained by the idea that it should be denied others, or limited.
He believed that the human right was more than the right to exist, to live free from oppression. He believed it included the right to achieve, to thrive. So he reached out for the "penniless beginner." He thought it the American promise that every "poor man" should be given his "chance." 
He saw what others would or could not see: the immensity of the fundamental ideas of freedom and self-determination that made his young nation such a radically new adventure in government. But he was not intimidated by that immensity. He was willing to use Page [End Page 47] the ideas as well as to admire them. To mold them so as to apply them to new circumstances. To wield them as instruments of justice and not just echoes of it.
Some said government should do no more than protect its people from insurrection and foreign invasion and spend the rest of its time dispassionately observing the way its people played out the cards that fate had dealt them. He scorned that view. He called it a "do nothing" abdication of responsibility.  "The legitimate object of government," he said, "is to do for the people what needs to be done, but which they cannot, by individual effort, do at all, or do so well, for themselves. There are many such things...," he said. 
So he offered the "poor" more than freedom and the encouragement of his own good example: he offered them government. Government that would work aggressively to help them find the chance they might not have found alone. He did it by fighting for bridges, railroad construction and other such projects that others decried as excessive government. He gave help for education, help for agriculture, land for the rural family struggling for a start.
And always, at the heart of his struggle and his yearning was the passion to make room for the outsider, the insistence upon a commitment to respect the idea of equality by fighting for inclusion. Early in his career, he spoke out for women's suffrage.
His contempt for the "do-nothings" was equalled by his disdain for the "know-nothings." America beckoned foreigners, but many Americans — organized around the crude selfishness of the nativist movement — rejected them. The nativists sought to create two classes of people, the old stock Americans and the intruders from other places, keeping the intruders forever strangers in a strange land. Lincoln shamed them with his understanding and his strength. "I am not a know-nothing," he said,
Had Lincoln not existed, or had he been less than he was and the battle to keep the nation together had been lost, it would have meant the end of the American experiment. Secession would have bred secession, reducing us into smaller and smaller fragments until finally we were just the broken pieces of the dream.
Lincoln saved us from that. But winning the great war for unity did not preserve us from the need to fight further battles in the struggle to balance our diversity with our harmony, to keep the pieces of the mosaic intact, even while making room for new pieces. That work is today, as it was in 1863, still an unfinished work... still a cause that requires "a full measure of devotion."
For more than 100 years, the fight to include has continued:
- In the struggle to free working people from the oppression of a ruthless economic system that saw women and children worked to death and men born to poverty, live in poverty and die in poverty — in spite of working all the time.
- In the continuing fight for civil rights, making Lincoln's promise real.
- In the effort to keep the farmer alive.
- In the ongoing resistance to preserve religious freedom from the arrogance of the know-nothing and the zealotry of those who would make their religion the state's religion.
- In the crusade to make women equal, legally and practically.
Many battles have been won. The embrace of our unity has been gradually but inexorably expanded. But Lincoln's work is not yet done. A century after Lincoln preached his answer of equality and mutual respect, some discrimination — of class or race or sex or ethnicity — as a bar to full participation in America still remains. Unpleasant reminders of less enlightened times linger. Sometimes they are heard in whispers. At other times they are loud enough Page [End Page 49] to capture the attention of the American people. I have had my own encounter with this question and I have spoken of it.
Like millions of others, I am privileged to be a first generation American. My mother and father came to this country more than 60 years ago with nothing but their hopes, without education, skills or wealth. Through the opportunity given them here to lift themselves through hard work, they were able to raise a family. My mother lived to see her youngest child become chief executive of one of the greatest states in the greatest nation in the only world we know.
Like millions of other children of immigrants, I know the strength that immigrants can bring. I know the richness of a society that allows us a whole new culture without requiring us to surrender the one our parents were born to. I know the miraculous power of this place that helps people rise up from poverty to security, and even affluence, in the course of a single lifetime. With generations of other children of the immigrants, I know about equality and opportunity and unity, in a special way.
And I know how, from time to time, all this beauty can be challenged by the misguided children of the know nothings, by the short-sighted and the unkind, by contempt that masks itself as humor, by all the casual or conscious bigotry that must keep the American people vigilant.
We heard such voices again recently saying things like, "Italians are not politically popular." "Catholics will have a problem." "He has an ethnic problem."
An ethnic problem. We hear the word again. "Wops." "We often times refer to people of Italian descent as 'Wops'," said one public figure, unabashedly.
Now, given the unbroken string of opportunity and good fortune provided me by this great country, I might simply have ignored these references. I could easily have let the words pass as inconsequential, especially remembering Lincoln — himself the object of scorn and ridicule. But the words took on significance because they were heard far beyond my home or my block or even my state. Because they were heard by others who remembered times of their own when words stung and menaced them and their people. And because they raised a question about our system of fundamental American values that Lincoln helped construct and died for. Is it true? Are there really so many who have never heard Lincoln's voice, or the sweet sound of reason and fairness? So many who do not understand the beauty and power of this place, that they could make of the tint of your skin, or the sex you were born to or the Page [End Page 50] vowels of your name, an impediment to progress in this land of opportunity?
I believed the answer would be clear. So I asked for it by disputing the voices of division. By saying, "It is not so. It is the voice of ignorance and I challenge you to show me otherwise." In no time at all the answer has come back from the American people. Everyone saying the same things:
"Of course it's wrong to judge a person by the place where his forbears came from. Of course that would violate all that we stand for, fairness and common sense. It shouldn't even have been brought up. It shouldn't even have been a cause for discussion."
I agree. It should not have been. But it was. And the discussion is now concluded, with the answer I was sure of and the answer I am proud of as an American. The answer Lincoln would have given. "You will rise or fall on your merits as a person and the quality of your work. All else is distraction."
Lincoln believed, with every fibre of his being, that this place, America, could offer a dream to all mankind, different than any other in the annals of history. More generous, more compassionate, more inclusive. No one knew better than Lincoln, our sturdiness, the ability of most of us to make it on our own given the chance. But at the same time, no one knew better the idea of family, the idea that unless we helped one another, there were some who would never make it.
One person climbs the ladder of personal ambition, reaches his dream, and then turns — and pulls the ladder up. Another reaches the place he has sought, turns, and reaches down for the person behind him. With Lincoln, it was that process of turning and reaching down, that commitment to keep lifting people up the ladder, which defined the American character, stamping us forever with a mission that reached even beyond our borders to embrace the world.
Lincoln's belief in America, in the American people, was broader, deeper, more daring than any other person's of his age — and perhaps, ours too. And this is the near-unbelievable greatness of the man: that with that belief, he not only led us, he created us.
His personal mythology became our national mythology. It is as if Homer not only chronicled the siege of Troy, but conducted the siege as well. As if Shakespeare set his playwrighting aside to lead the English against the Armada. Because Lincoln embodied his age in his actions and in his words.
Words, even and measured, hurrying across three decades, calling us to our destiny. Words he prayed, and troubled over — more Page [End Page 51] than a million words in his speeches and writings. Words that chronicled the search for his own identity as he searched for a nation's identity. Words that were, by turns, as chilling as the night sky and as assuring as home. Words his reason sharpened into steel, and his heart softened into an embrace. Words filled with all the longings of his soul and of his century. Words wrung from his private struggle, spun to capture the struggle of a nation. Words out of his own pain to heal that struggle. Words of retribution, but never of revenge. Words that judged, but never condemned. Words that pleaded, cajoled for the one belief — that the promise must be kept — that the dream must endure and grow, until it embraces everyone.
Words ringing down into the present. All the hope and the pain of that epic caught, somehow, by his cadences: the tearing away, the binding together, the leaving behind, the reaching beyond.
As individuals, as a people, we are still reaching up, for a better job, a better education, even for the stars, just as Lincoln did. But because of Lincoln, we do it in a way that is unique to this world.
What other people on earth have ever claimed a quality of character that resided not in a way of speaking, dressing, dancing, praying, but in an idea? What other people on earth have ever refused to set the definitions of their identity by anything other than that idea? No, we have not learned quickly or easily that the dream of America endures only so long as we keep faith with the struggle to include. But Lincoln — through his words and his works — has etched that message forever into our consciousness.
Lincoln showed us, for all time, what unites us. He taught us that we cannot rest until the promise of equality and opportunity embraces every region, every race, every religion, every nationality,... and every class. Until it includes, "the penniless beginner" and the "poor man seeking his chance." 
In his time Lincoln saw that as long as one in every seven Americans was enslaved, our identity as a people was hostage to that enslavement. He faced that injustice. He fought it. He gave his life to see it righted. Page [End Page 52]
Time and again, since then, we have had to face challenges that threatened to divide us. And time and again, we have conquered them. We reached out — hesitantly at times, sometimes only after great struggle — but always we reached out, to include impoverished immigrants, the farmer and the factory worker, women, the disabled.
To all those whose only assets were their great expectations, America found ways to meet those expectations, and to create new ones. Generations of hard-working people moved into the middle class and beyond. We created a society as open and free as any on earth. And we did it Lincoln's way: by founding that society on a belief in the boundless enterprise of the American people.
Always, we have extended the promise, moving toward the light, toward our declared purpose as a people: "to form a more perfect union," to overcome all that divides us because we believe that ancient wisdom that Lincoln believed: "A house divided against itself cannot stand." 
Step-by-step, our embrace grows wider. The old bigotries seem to be dying. The old stereotypes and hatreds, that denied so many their full share of an America they helped build, have gradually given way to acceptance, fairness and civility.
But still, great challenges remain. Suddenly, ominously, a new one has emerged. In Lincoln's time, one of every seven Americans was a slave. Today, for all our affluence and might, despite what every day is described as our continuing economic recovery, nearly one in every seven Americans lives in poverty, not in chains — because Lincoln saved us from that — but trapped in a cycle of despair that is its own enslavement. Today, while so many of us do so well, one of every two minority children is born poor, many of them to be oppressed for a lifetime by inadequate education and the suffocating influence of broken families and social disorientation. Our identity as a people is hostage to the grim facts of more than thirty-three million Americans for whom equality and opportunity is not yet an attainable reality, but only an illusion.
Some people look at these statistics and the suffering people behind them, and deny them, pretending instead we are all one great "shining city on a hill." Lincoln told us for a lifetime — and for all time to come — that there can be no shining city when one in seven of us is denied the promise of the declaration. He tells us today that we are justly proud of all that we have accomplished, but that for all our progress, for all our achievement, for all that so properly makes us proud, we have no right to rest, content. Nor justification for turning from the effort, out of fear or lack of confidence.
We have met greater challenges with fewer resources. We have faced greater perils with fewer friends. It would be a desecration of our belief and an act of ingratitude for the good fortune we have had, to end the struggle for inclusion because it is over for some of us.
So, this evening, we come to pay you our respects, Mr. Lincoln. Not just by recalling your words and revering your memory, which we do humbly and with great pleasure. This evening, we offer you more Mr. President: we offer you what you have asked us for, a continuing commitment to live your truth, to go forward painful step by painful step, enlarging the greatness of this nation with patient confidence in the ultimate justice of the people.
Because — as you have told us Mr. President — there is no better or equal hope in the world.
Thank you. Page [End Page 54]
- A variant of an apocryphal story, see P.M. Zall, Abe Lincoln Laughing (Berkely and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1982), 143.
- Address to the New York Legislature, Albany, New York, 18 February 1861, Roy P. Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 8 vols. (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1953–55) 4:226. Cited hereafter as Collected Works.
- Address to the New Jersey State Senate, Trenton, New Jersey, 21 February 1861, Collected Works, 4:235–6. The source is the New York Tribune recorded version, which referred to Parson Weems as "Weem."
- Abraham Lincoln to Henry L. Pierce "& others," Springfield, Illinois, 6 April 1859, Collected Works, 3:375.
- The "penniless beginner" quote is from Lincoln's annual message to Congress, 2 December 1861. Lincoln went on to say, "No men living are more worthy to be trusted than those who toil up from poverty," Collected Works, 5:52–3; Lincoln, referring to himself as a "poor man's son," asserted that all such men deserved a "chance" in a speech at New Haven, Connecticut, 6 March 1860, Collected Works, 4:24–5.
- From Congressman Lincoln's speech on the issue of internal improvements, in the House of Representatives, Washington, 20 June 1848, Collected Works, 1:489.
- Fragment on government, 1 July 1854 (?), Collected Works, 2:221.
- Abraham Lincoln to the editor of the Sangamo Journal 13 June 1836, Collected Works, 1:48.
- Abraham Lincoln to Joshua F. Speed, Springfield, Illinois, 24 August 1855, Collected Works, 2:323.
- In a speech in Chicago on December 10, 1856, Lincoln said: "Public opinion, on any subject, always has a 'central idea,' from which all its minor thoughts radiate. The 'central idea' in our public opinion at the beginning was... 'the equality of all men.' And although it has always submitted patiently to whatever of inequality there seemed to be as a matter of actual necessity, its constant working has been a steady progress toward the practical equality of all men," Collected Works, 2:385. Speaking again in Chicago on July 10, 1858, Lincoln spoke of the "electric cord" in the Declaration of Independence "that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together...." Collected Works, 2:499–500.
- House Divided Speech, Springfield, Illinois, 16 June 1858, Collected Works, 2:461.