"We cannot escape history," Lincoln said in his 1862 December message to Congress.
The Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission is now engrossed in preparing its final report to Congress. We are reviewing the programs, exhibits, endorsements, and Congressionally "mandated" work such as collaboration with the Mint on four new penny "tails" and with the U S.Postal Service on stamps. We are reviewing the extraordinary commemorations in many of the 50 states. We expect that these will all be listed in the Final Report.
We are also reviewing the work of the 1909 centennial and the 1959 sesquicentennial. The Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield commemorated 1909 with an exhibit detailing the Springfield race riots. Commissioners and staff have read about the Eisenhower Era commemoration. In the midst of the the Cold War, the President spoke about Lincoln as a symbol of freedom and invoked the spirit of the citizens of the divided city of Berlin.
There is a great deal of Lincoln in Eisenhower's speeches on themes of freedom, justice, and equal rights. As president he insured the fair treatment of the Little Rock Nine. And just possibly he paved the way for the Civil Rights Act.
If we cannot escape history, the history we write today and the questions we ask of historians are greatly affected by the economic, social and political climate of today. For a brief shining moment, many of us saw in the Inauguration of Barack Obama, the fruition of Lincoln's "unfinished work" Many of the programs that the Commission and its foundation produced were focused on equal opportunity and its meaning today. There were many tributes to Frederick Douglass.
The pain of the Great Recession also effected the Commemoration. Historians and history readers asked about Lincoln's economic policies- about his relationship with Secretary of the Treasury Chase and his relationship with members of Congress. There were many "panics" in the period before the Civil War- public works programs were proposed mainly by Whigs and Lincoln was a Whig.
It was during the Civil War that of necessity the role of government greatly expanded: the introduction of an income tax, the Morrill Act establishing the land grant colleges, an Immigration Act, extensive public works, and the Homestead Act. Lincoln, according Robert Hormats, and his interesting book – The Price of Liberty: Paying for America's Wars from the Revolution to the War on Terror – stakes out a claim for Lincoln as the president who established the modern presidency.
Compassion is the word most often associated with Lincoln. His economic policies were designed to lessen the burden on the poor. Tariffs were lowest on necessities and highest on luxuries. He provided funding for widows and orphans.
The Commission commemorating the birth of a 19th century man has not escaped the history of our own time Years from now when readers peruse the Final Report they will learn much about the state of the Union in 2009 and the concerns of its people. Lincoln has withstood the test of time. He is the man of the ages.
P.S. Are there questions about Lincoln's economic philosophy and his economic policies during the Civil War that should be raised and studied?