( This essay was published in the Newport Daily News, April 16, 2011, as “What Would Lincoln Think of U.S. Today?”)
With the 150th anniversary of the bombardment of Ft. Sumter, on April 12, 1861, launching the Civil War, what might Abe Lincoln say today to our current president?
Dear Mr. President,
Though your allegiance is to the other political party, I cast aside partisanship on such a momentous anniversary. First, let me render my highest praise and heartiest congratulations to you on your election to the highest political office in the land. For a man of your parentage to achieve such a station glorifies both you as well as the constitution and character of our country. With my Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, I am happy to have played a small part in launching the ship of freedom for the Negro race.
Second, I am elated that our beloved country, this great experiment in self-government, continues to thrive 235 years after its birth. My faith in the common people is vindicated. I have always believed that if they retain their virtue and vigilance, no administration, however weak or corrupt, can do too much damage to our government in the space of four years.
I must say that I am not surprised that the United States can claim today to be the leader of the free world. I could anticipate this; in my era I could see the vast potential of our country to expand economically, industrially, and geographically to the shores of the Pacific.
On the other hand, I am surprised by the extent to which the many minorities of our Union have achieved such a notable level of social justice, by the complexities of the international system today, and by the astounding advances in technology which seem to be transforming the lives of Americans so profoundly.
May I offer some humble advice? I must first register my serious concern at the size and role of government, both federal and state, and how it has assumed so many roles in our society, roles in my era filled by other institutions such as family and church, or simply left to individual initiative and responsibility. This to me is the most striking and potentially harmful feature of government in this present era. I have always firmly believed it is the role of government to set the conditions for men to lift themselves. As I said in my July 4, 1861, message to Congress: The war on the Union side was “a struggle for maintaining in the world, that form, and substance of government, whose leading object is to elevate the condition of men …to afford all an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life.” I fear that these well-intentioned, social welfare programs of today breed too much dependence and dampen individual responsibility and initiative, rather than magnifying them.
Looking beyond our shores, I am heavy with doubt about the multiple military conflicts in which our republic is engaged. In the shadow it casts upon the international stage, let the United States be more the exemplar rather than the crusader. Avoid a malady of ancient Rome, which succumbed to the tendency of seeing threats everywhere. As its borders expanded, it saw malicious threats multiply.
Finally, look first to secure and strengthen the Union. While our country continues to be blessed with many natural, financial, and human resources, these resources must be husbanded. They are not limitless. In waging now more than two wars with the current budgetary problems not only at the federal but state and local levels, we may be driving the country to the breaking point. Let every segment of American society shoulder a share of the burden in solving our fiscal problems. As we claim today to teach others abroad how to be citizens of a state, let us renew our own efforts at home to bind together a house too divided.
Remember the Aesop’s fable about the father who could not keep his sons from quarreling. He gave a bundle of sticks to each son and told each to break it. None could. Then he untied the bundle and gave a stick to each son. Each son broke the single stick easily. While we are unified, no enemy can do us mortal harm.
I am reminded of my words early in my political career: “If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”
Yours, very sincerely,
Fred Zilian is an admirer and impersonator of Abe Lincoln. He is also an educator at Portsmouth Abbey School, Portsmouth, RI.