On this Presidents Day, we take pause to remember our past national leaders: particularly Presidents Lincoln and Washington. Here in my home town of Carnegie, PA, we unveil a new permanent exhibit in our Library & Music Hall facility which we are calling the Lincoln Gallery. It features 100 photographs of Abraham Lincoln and will reside next to the Capt. Thomas Espy GAR Post, America’s most intact Civil War veterans post. A full schedule of events is planned to mark the occasion.
I cannot claim to be deeply knowledgeable about all our presidents. Like many folks, I know our major presidents and their historical significance, with President Lincoln being a standout. Over the weekend I spent time browsing through Stefan Lorant’s huge book, Pittsburgh: Story of an American City. It gave a solid accounting of the founding of our city and Colonel George Washington’s military role. Although engrossing— you can spend hours just skimming its 1100 pictures— a person could conclude that Pittsburgh was inhabited only by wealthy white people even up to present day (1964). To the contrary, the growth of this great industrial city is the story of working people of all colors, ethnicities, and national origins. The minimal attention paid to the working people of Pittsburgh is the book’s main failing. Regardless, I bring up the Hungarian Lorant because he was a noted historian of American presidents, and even the presidency itself. In particular he wrote several books on Lincoln. The printing of the 100 Lincoln photographs I mentioned above was originally commissioned by Lorant and accomplished by noted Pittsburgh photographer Norm Schumm.
Elected officials often point to past leaders who inspired and motivated them. Even as a small player in municipal government, I am no different. All presidents are flawed, as all of us human beings are, but there are certain words and deeds that resonate in us. In particular I admire FDR’s elaboration of our Four Freedoms and Harry Truman’s racial integration of the military in 1947— an unpopular move. And who can forget Eisenhower’s warning about defense contractors. Since those presidents, however, our presidency has become infected by Hollywood. I’m not blaming our presidents for that; advances in film, television, advertising, and now the internet, have forced presidents into an all flash and no substance mode of operation. So, when I think back to my influences, I have to go pretty far back. And for me, that’s Lincoln.
As with any war, we are obligated to weigh the merits against the costs. Certainly the costs of the Civil War were huge and devastating. Some claim that Lincoln had no choice because the secession of the Confederacy would have irreparably damaged our nation— that the North and the South were co-dependent and could not exist separately. But I expect that trade relations between the two countries would have continued quite normally after the divorce. Indeed, it was slavery that was the defining element, and the question of whether or not America would go to war in support of its least powerful “citizens”. It is a moral question, not a financial one. It is still a question we grapple with today, for example, when we look at the 3 million Syrian refugees and ask ourselves if we have any obligations to help others in distress. Lincoln made his stand, and paid for it with his life. He said, “Be sure you put your feet in the right place, then stand firm”.
Also, we are reminded that the War was not the only issue of Lincoln’s day. He presided during a period of great industrial expansion. As capitalists converted human beings into factory machines, Lincoln responded, “Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration”. And lastly, and most significantly for me, Lincoln provided guidance for elected representatives in the last words of his Gettysburg Address, “a government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth”. This is the very foundation of social democracy and people around the world have adopted this motto as they shake off the bonds of tyranny. Have an enjoyable and memorable Presidents Day.