Remarks by Senator Richard J. Durbin
Assistant Majority Leader
What Lincoln Means to Me
Feb. 9, 2009
- Thank you, Peter Kovler, for those generous words. And please accept the sincere thanks of the entire Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission – to you and the Marjorie Kovler Fund for your generous support…of our gathering here this evening…of the national Lincoln Bicentennial celebration that begins in earnest this week…and so many other worthy causes.
Lincoln and Obama
- It is an honor to be here with all of you – just days before the 200th birthday of America’s greatest president and days after the Presidential inauguration of another lanky lawyer from Illinois whose unlikely and audacious election shows, I believe, that there is still within us a passionate longing to be the America that Lincoln believed we could, and must, become.
- I had the privilege to be seated on the platform when President Obama was sworn in.
- What an extraordinary moment it was to see our new President place his hand on the same small Bible on which President Lincoln had sworn his oath of office nearly a century and a half earlier.
- And what an awe-inspiring vision it was to look past President Obama, down the National Mall – beyond the 2 million joyous observers of every race and age, from every corner of America – and see President Lincoln gazing down on us from his majestic memorial.
- I am delighted that the public will have a chance to see the Lincoln family Bible and other precious artifacts from President Lincoln’s life, when the Bicentennial Commission’s official 200th birthday exhibition, “With Malice Toward None,” opens at the Library of Congress on Thursday.
Lincoln Bicentennial year highlights
- Speaking of the Bicentennial Commission, it has been an honor to serve as a commission co-chair, along with our new Transportation Secretary, Ray LaHood, and the distinguished Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer.
- To all of the commissioners who have given so generously your time and knowledge for several years now to make the Lincoln Bicentennial year a success, my co-chairs and I thank you.
- This Thursday – the actual 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth – we will gather in the morning for a solemn wreath-laying at the Lincoln Memorial…followed by a special joint Congressional tribute to President Lincoln in the Capitol Rotunda.
- Before this year-long celebration ends, we will see major conferences on Lincoln from Springfield to South Florida…Oxford and Belfast…and from Howard University to Harvard.
- We will also see new Lincoln exhibitions, TV documentaries, plays and newly commissioned music…a new Lincoln statue at the Soldier’s Home...new Lincoln pennies and postage stamps…new Lincoln school curricula for students of all ages…the reopening of Ford’s Theatre…and the rededication of the house where Lincoln completed his immortal Gettysburg Address.
- In addition, the commission will host a series of town hall meetings around the country to explore the vexing issues that still confront – and sadly, can still divide – our nation.
- And on Easter Sunday, the 70th anniversary of Marian Anderson’s historic concert, we will meet again at the Lincoln Memorial to re-dedicate that gleaming symbol of American democracy – and ourselves to the “new birth of freedom” it has come to represent.
What more can be said of Lincoln?
- In December 1859, at the request of an Illinois attorney active in his presidential campaign, Abraham Lincoln wrote a modest, two-page autobiography. He sent it off to his supporter with a note that read, “There is not much of it, for the reason, I suppose, that there is not much of me.”
- History has proved otherwise.
- More than 10,000 books have been written about Abraham Lincoln – an average of more than one book each week from the time of his presidential election in 1860 until now.
- One Lincoln book per week is also, coincidentally, Harold Holzer’s output.
- OK, that’s a slight exaggeration. But our 16th President has been the subject of more books than all of our other President’s combined, and any historical figure except Jesus.
- So what else can one say about this towering giant of American history? More to the point, what can I say about Abraham Lincoln that a room full of pre-eminent Lincoln scholars has not already heard?
What Lincoln Means to Me?
- I have not spent decades – as many of you have – discovering and analyzing new pieces of the Lincoln puzzle.
- But my life has been enlarged by Abraham Lincoln. My idea of America has been shaped by him. And I am inspired by his example every day.
- So tonight I wan to share with you a few thoughts on one Lincoln subject on which I am an expert: What Abraham Lincoln Means to me.
The House seat Lincoln held, and the Senate seat he wanted
- I have had the honor of representing the Land of Lincoln in Congress for 26 years.
- For the first 14 of those 26 years, I held the same seat in the U.S. House of Representatives that Lincoln himself once held. For the last 12 years, I have occupied the seat in the United States Senate for which Lincoln campaigned so hard and nobly in his 1858 race against Stephen Douglass.
- But my connection to Lincoln began long before my days in Congress.
Selling slaves on the courthouse steps
- I grew up in East St. Louis, IL, just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis.
- Now, East St. Louis was nowhere near as hardscrabble as Hodgenville, KY. But it was a working-class town, so I had always been inspired by Lincoln’s rise from grinding poverty to great power.
- One day when I was about 14, I was with my mother in downtown St. Louise. We came to Old Courthouse. This was where, in 1851, a federal court had ruled that Dred Scott was not a man with certain inalienable rights but a piece of property to be bought and sold. As you know, the Supreme Court’s shameful decision in 1857 upholding that ruling was one of the events that made the Civil War all but inevitable.
- As we stood at the Old Courthouse that day, my mother told me that for decades before the Civil War, slave auctions had been held on the steps of that very same courthouse. Men, women and children had been sold there, as one former slave wrote, “with as much indifference as a farmer in the north sells a horse or sheep,” and shipped down the Mississippi to the Deep South.
- Dred Scott himself had probably seen human beings being bought on those steps as he entered that courthouse seeking justice.
- I had memorized the Gettysburg Address in grade school. But standing outside the Old Courthouse in St. Louis that day, listening to my mother, I began to understand more deeply the immense moral courage it took to end that evil and entrenched institution.
The one truly indispensible American
- Our Founders wrote that we are all endowed with an inalienable right to liberty, but they could not reconcile their noble ideals with the ignoble practice of slavery.
- It was Abraham Lincoln who helped give meaning to our national creed of “liberty and justice for all.”
- Lincoln is the central figure in our history – the one truly indispensible American.
- His leadership and unyielding commitment to the principles enshrined in our Declaration of Independence not only preserved the Union, but created a new nation, as he said, “worthy of saving.”
Surrounded by reminders of Lincoln
- We cannot escape history, Lincoln told us. And I cannot escape Lincoln.
- There are reminders of him everywhere in my hometown of Springfield – and in the United States Capitol.
- In the stairway next to my office in the Capitol hangs an immense painting by Francis Bicknell Carpenter depicting the “First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation” by Lincoln to his cabinet.
- “I never in my left felt more certain that I was doing the right thing than I do in signing this paper,” Lincoln said of the Proclamation, the beginning of the end of slavery in America. “If my name ever goes down in history it will be for this act, and my whole soul is in it.”
- I pass that painting many times each day as I go back and froth from my office to the Senate floor.
- In my outer office is a massive portrait of Lincoln by George P. A. Healy.
- On the wall behind my desk is the last portrait of Lincoln by someone who had actually seen him while he was living. It was painted by Freeman Thorp, a Midwestern artist who served in the Union Army and had seen Lincoln close up.
WHAT LINCOLN HAS TAUGHT ME
Beliefs, not blood, is what makes us Americans
- Underneath that painting, in a wooden frame, is one of my most treasured possessions: my mother’s naturalization papers.
- That is one reason that Lincoln means so much to me. I am the son of an immigrant. My mother’s family moved to this country from Lithuania when she was 2 years old.
- In the 1850’s, Lincoln had the courage to speak out against the fast-growing and virulently anti-immigrant Know Nothing Party – a politically risky position that put him at odds with much of the public and most of his own Whig Party.
- Lincoln said then and it remains true today: What makes us Americans is not that we are all connected by blood to the men who wrote our Declaration of Independence; it is that we believe in the promise of the Declaration: all men are created equal.
- His leadership and courage helped to keep the doors of America open to immigrants like my mother’s family. It is a legacy that I have tried to preserve in my own life and work.
Better angels, charity and education
- There are many other Lessons Lincoln has taught me:
- That the better angels of our nature are more powerful, ultimately, than the angry armies of division.
- That charity is better than malice.
- And education trumps ignorance.
Purpose of government
- Lincoln has taught me that opportunity is preferable to what he called a “fixed position” in life.
- And that, at its best, government exists “to elevate the condition of men…to lift artificial weights from all shoulders; to clear paths of laudable pursuits for all – to afford all an unfettered start and a fair chance in the race of life.”
- As a lawyer and legislator I value the written and spoken word. I have always been fascinated by Abraham Lincoln’s extraordinary gift in making our words march and sing.
- From the simple alliteration of the Gettysburg Address where he summarized our nation’s essence – “of the people, by the people and for the people” – to haunting phrases likes “the mystic chords of memory,” Lincoln could write and speak and turn words into inspiration. In his Second Inaugural Address, he urged a war-torn nation to come together in peace “with malice towards none, with charity for all.”
- One might expect to find this talent in a well-educated, well-read man. But we know that Lincoln had little formal education and the core of his reading was the Bible and the works of Shakespeare.
- Somehow, the power of his intellect and the demands of his time produced a kind of genius which yielded the phrases and the sentiments our nation desperately needed.
- And I am humbled by his economy of expression. At Gettysburg his words endured while the bloviation of his contemporaries is mercifully lost to the ages. Lincoln proved a speech need not be eternal to be immortal.
Paul Simon’s reverence for Lincoln
- I mentioned that I hold the Senate seat Lincoln once coveted.
- My immediate predecessor in this seat probably did more to influence my appreciation of Lincoln – and everything I hold sacred in public life – than anyone I have ever known.
- I am speaking, of course, of the late Senator Paul Simon – my friend and one of my great heroes.
- Paul was not only a brilliant man and selfless public servant. He was a distinguished Lincoln scholar whose book on Lincoln’s early legislative career, “Lincoln’s Preparation for Greatness,” remains the definitive volume on that subject 44 years after its publication.
Lincoln as an enduring beacon of hope in dark times
- As Paul so often pointed out, whenever we as a people face especially dark times, Lincoln is always there to shine a beacon of light of reassurance and inspiration. He shows us the way – with wisdom, faith, and steely resolve.
- During the Civil War, when construction costs for the new dome and other parts of the Capitol drew criticism, Lincoln stressed the importance of continuing the work, saying “If people see the Capitol is going on, it is a sign we intend the Union shall go on.”
- During his Presidency, even as the war raged, he oversaw:
- Government organization of a railroad system stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific – the long dreamed of transcontinental railroad;
- Creation of the Land Grant college system – free higher education throughout the United States;
- Establishment of a federal Agriculture Department, with government support for modern farming techniques and affordable farming equipment; and
- Re-establishment of control over an American banking system in crisis, with restraints on reckless speculation and extension of credit for productive purposes.
- We are living in uncertain and uneasy times. The economic challenges facing our nation are grave and growing. They will take years to solve.
- But if Lincoln could face down a Wall Street and banking crisis and channel the awesome power of the American people – acting through their government – to lay the foundation for a modern economy and create economic opportunities for generations of Americans to come…and, at the same time, find the strength to save the Union, drive a stake into the stubborn heart of slavery, and redeem the promise of the Declaration of Independence…all while writing some of the most powerful and sublime words ever composed in the English language…surely we can find our way through these present troubles. That is another of the lessons Lincoln has taught me.
- Abraham Lincoln was born 200 years ago. But the principles by which he lived, and for which he died, are true and timeless. And his wisdom and example continues to offers us hope and guidance – if we will only pay attention.
- That is why the yearlong Lincoln Bicentennial celebration is so welcome, and so important.
- In closing, I want to thank you again for all you have done to make this celebration a reality – and all you will do over the coming months to continue to spread the gospel of Abraham Lincoln – our greatest President and the one truly indispensible American.