The last month at the Cottage has been marked by the visit of contemporary African artist Georges Adéagbo and his long-time collaborator Stephan Köhler, who installed a unique portrait of Abraham Lincoln in all the public rooms in the Cottage. Create to Free Yourselves: Abraham Lincoln and the History of Freeing Slaves in America explores many of same themes we discuss with visitors each day at the Cottage: family bonds, grief, leadership, and emancipation to name a few.
During one press interview about the installation, a reporter asked me why people should still reflect on Lincoln and visit the Cottage. After a moment of surprise, I reviewed my thinking on this question.
Born in abject poverty and raised with little formal education, Lincoln used his innate intelligence, social skills, and hard work to climb to the presidency. He believed deeply in the right to rise in this country, and his own creativity led him from subsistence farming through a great many trades to the law and politics.
Lincoln saved the Union. He once said that all his political ideas came from the Declaration of Independence, but he was also deeply loyal to the principles in the Constitution, even the existence of slavery, which he found personally abhorrent.
Lincoln took on slavery, the defining issue of his time. Over the course of many years, his thinking on the subject evolved. While he began thinking that, once freed, enslaved people should be sent to the Caribbean and Africa, he later organized the end of slavery in the District of Columbia by having the federal government pay for each enslaved person.
He later signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed about one third of the enslaved people in the United States, and proceeded to orchestrate the passage of the 13th Amendment, which ended the institution of slavery. Two days before his assassination, he gave a speech at the White House where he discussed his plans for reconstructing the nation and spoke of extending the right to vote to some African Americans.
Finally, Lincoln embodied a deep, human integrity that still resonates with people. The early death of his mother and the loss of two of his children engendered an ever-present grief. Deeply solitary, Lincoln had a remarkable ability to connect with people from many backgrounds. His brilliant mind outpaced everyone around him, while his humility and heart allowed him to be fully present to the implications of his ideas and actions and the experiences of people he met.
So, why reflect on Lincoln? My answer is because he was a paragon of what it means to be human, and he changed our nation for the better.
Happy President´s Day.
The 2023 Lincoln Ideas Forum will delve into threats to democracy and will be held on April 13, 2023 from 10am-12pm. The event is free and open to the public. Mark your calendars & stay tuned for updates!
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