April 20, 2005
Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum
Let 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 man.
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.