On Monday, February 12th, Delegate Bob Flanagan delivered the annual Lincoln Day Address to the Maryland House of Delegates.
Mr. Speaker, My fellow colleagues, honored guests, my friends, it is an honor to be invited to offer my thoughts on President Lincoln.
Trust is an essential element to our democracy and we have many customs in this house to encourage unity and trust. We all swear or affirm the same oath before taking office. We recite the pledge of allegiance every day.
This evening we had ceremony to show our support the victims of domestic violence. We have honored Martin Luther King with a speech from our friend from Prince Georges County and were encouraged to read Dr. King’s letter from the Birmingham jail. We have listened to Taylor Branch and been encouraged to engage in conversations about race.
During February, I have appreciate very much, members of the Black Caucus describing historic achievements of our fellow Americans. In doing these things we remind ourselves that there is more that unites us than divides us.
My goal tonight is to honor the memory of President Lincoln and in doing so, explain how he is relevant to the issues of governance that now face us.
In preparing for tonight I have paid close attention to Lincoln Second Inaugural speech delivered a forty days before he was assassinated and a speech by Fredrick Douglas honoring Lincoln 11 years after his assassination.
With the passage of over a century and a half, it is hard to grasp the intense day to day emotions surrounding his time as President. For example, Fredrick Douglas describes a night in January 1863, with 3000 people waiting anxiously for news that “Lincoln was true to his word” in signing the Emancipation Proclamation. There was an outburst of joy and thanksgiving. It was a never to be forgotten night for those who were alive at that time. That was the exciting moment that Lincoln made the civil war a war of abolition.
In our time we have new problems but the issue of trust in a Democracy is enduring. Our ability to govern ourselves is today threatened by a lack of trust. Under present circumstances is helpful to remember and honor the memory of President Abraham Lincoln, as man who personifies trust in our system of government.
Lincoln came to office facing an immediate and overwhelming challenge. He had no obvious experience or preparation. As commander in chief he was responsible to lead an army and navy that were not prepared. The most capable general went South to fight for his state of Virginia.
Few men in public office have been more fiercely and systematically criticized. He was attacked by his avowed allies and friends. He was attacked by abolitionist and slave holders. He was attacked by those who wanted peace at any price and those who wanted war fought with greater vigor. He was attacked for NOT making the war an abolition war. He was attacked for making the war an abolition war. The attacks were personal and demeaning. He was attacked even when he was grief stricken from the death of his child in the first year of his presidency and his wife was paralyzed with grief. The pressure was relentless.
Both sides expected an easy and quick victory. Neither side got one. Over 620,000 men died in service. No president has been so profoundly tested by war. South Carolina was already in rebellion with four other states when Fort Sumter was attacked on April 12, 1861. Lincoln had been in office for 39 days. By comparison, Wilson was in his second term of office, FDR was in his third term before war was declared. Each one of those Presidents had his administration in place and had time to plan his course of conduct. In order to unify the nation, FDR had Pearl Harbor, Wilson had German U-boats sinking unarmed passenger boats. Lincoln had nothing comparable to rally public opinion.
I don’t think you can exaggerate how potentially disorienting and confusing his position was. How did Lincoln keep his bearings? How did he persevere?
In explaining what guided Lincoln, Fredrick Douglas refers to Article II of the U.S. Constitution, that prescribes the Presidential oath. Lincoln solemnly swore, “to the best of [his] Ability, to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
Fredrick Douglas tells us, “Abraham Lincoln was clear in his duty and had an oath in heaven. He calmly and bravely heard the voices of doubt and fear all around him; but he had an oath in heaven and was not power on earth to make this honest [man] evade or violate that sacred oath.”
In this chamber we know how important it is to be true to your word. So did Lincoln. The solemn promise he made in becoming President became a bedrock principle by which he could test his decisions.
The Emancipation Proclamation was based on the principle that emancipation was a means to win the war and preserve the union. But staying true to his oath and winning a war to quell a rebellion was not what earned him a place in our hearts. To win our hearts, he had to do both, win the war and end slavery.
The election of 1864 was essential to that transformation. General George McClellan, the Democratic nominee was prepared to negotiate a peace without a victory and without abolishing slavery. It stands out as amazing in the history of recorded time that the United States conducted a fair and free election in the midst of an all-out Civil War. That was a display of trust.
Fredrick Douglas says that Lincoln had trust in himself and the people. He knew the American people better than they knew themselves. His reelection was by no means certain BUT it turned out to be an expression of national resolve to see the war to the end and abolish slavery.
His second inaugural was an opportunity. First, to express unconditional resolve to achieve a military victory that preserved the union and abolished slavery and second; to offer his reflections on the deeper moral significance of the war. He focused on the justice and righteousness of a war of abolition.
Lincoln noted that both sides had been disappointed in failing to gain a quick and easy victory. Neither side expected a war of such magnitude or duration. Each looked for an easier triumph and a result less fundamental and astounding. Instead, God’s plan was a long and bloody war with astounding and fundamental results.
Lincoln called slavery an offense against God and that it was now God’s will that it should end. He declared that God had given the war to both the North and the South as “the woe due for the offense”. Praying for peace he expressed the resolve of his second term in office, saying: “If God wills the [war] to continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword,… so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
Abraham Lincoln began his Presidency, guided by a virtue that was second nature to him “keeping you word”, being loyal to his oath to preserve and protect the constitution. Suffering the tremendous pressures of his presidency, he came to embrace a spiritual mission to effectuate God’s plan for justice.
Foreseeing an end of war, Lincoln prayed for healing saying “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right”. He encouraged us to cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
Taylor Branch told us that when the civil rights movement had no political clout, no discernible assets, Martin Luther King prevailed by invoking our American tradition of patriotic and religious virtues. Lincoln bent the arc of that tradition towards greater justice. When Martin Luther King delivered his “I have a dream” speech he chose to assemble his march and stand in front of the Lincoln Memorial.
Think about the last few words of our daily pledge: “to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God indivisible with liberty and justice for all”. President Lincoln is the President who ensured that we remained one nation, indivisible. He provided us the opportunity to pursue more liberty and justice for all.
Both Lincoln and Martin Luther King call upon the better angels of our nature. Both were servant leaders and martyrs who made mighty additions to our tradition of civic and religious virtues.
We have the privilege to work in this historic chamber. We have the opportunity to add to the best traditions of American Democracy, to earn the people’s trust in our government, to promote healing and to do the hard work of settling our differences in a democratic process without violence or malice.
Every day when we recite the pledge let’s remember our shared aspiration of liberty and justice for all. Like Lincoln and Martin Luther King let us do our best to be the people’s servants.
May God Bless the people of Maryland and United States.