President’s Day is a holiday to celebrate the presidents of this country. Most of us will do something with our long weekend: maybe ski or work some extra hours, or binge Netflix. I personally will be grading 75 exams that I decided to have due the Friday before a holiday weekend. Maybe you weren’t planning on thinking about the men we are celebrating, but I would suggest you take a moment to think about our 16th president, Abraham Lincoln.
Lincoln is, by many accounts, the greatest American president in history. In 2015, political scientists put him in the No. 1 position, and in 2017, nearly 100 historians and biographers agreed. While Americans don’t always put him first, he is always in the top three. He is famous for many reasons relating to his presidency, but I would like to introduce you to a younger Lincoln.
In 1838, over 20 years before Lincoln was elected president, he gave a speech titled the Lyceum Address that was a response to a mob’s lynching and burning of a Black man. He argued, “There is no grievance that is a fit object of redress by mob law.” Lincoln said unequivocally, there is nothing you can be outraged about that should be handled by devolving to a mob. He was speaking during a time of increasing conflict between slave states and free states, which was far and away the most difficult conflict the country had ever addressed.
Lincoln’s answer to how we seek redress for our grievances was “reason, cold calculating, unimpassioned reason ... molded into general intelligence, sound morality, and in particular, a reverence for the constitution and laws.” Lincoln called on each of us to revere the Constitution. Not a specific person, not a political party, we are to revere the Constitution. Any question we have, any problem we need to solve, the answer can be found in that document. If the answer is not there, the process for finding it is there. If you don’t agree with how people are applying the Constitution, you can work politically to change the people who are interpreting the document. But most importantly, we use reason and reverence for the law to seek redress of our grievances.
When you visit the Olene S. Walker Institute of Politics & Public Service at Weber State University, you will find a bust of Lincoln on display. If you visit Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, Lincoln is one of the faces you will see carved into the rock. If you visit the White House, you may be able to see the Lincoln Room. And if you visit our nation’s capital and walk the National Mall, you will find the Lincoln Memorial facing the Washington Monument. In that memorial, you can look at a likeness of the man who was martyred because of his belief in and commitment to a more perfect union.
When he was president, Lincoln continued to ask us to be the best civic versions of ourselves, and he modeled reverence for the Constitution, even when it was not in his interests to do so. Lincoln stood for election in 1864 when many people thought he would lose. He could easily have made the argument the country was in a civil war and, thus, the commander in chief should stay in power. But he ran for reelection, and when he gave his second inaugural address, he said “with malice toward none, with charity for all ... let us strive on to finish the work we are in.” This address is carved into his memorial along with the Gettysburg Address, which every child in this country knows. I was required to memorize it in third grade. In the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln referred to the Declaration of Independence when he said “four score and seven years ago.” In this address, he called for reverence to the Declaration.
When we take these three speeches together, the Lyceum, the Gettysburg, and the Second Inaugural, we hear Lincoln challenging us to recommit to the work of this republic. Lincoln could not solve the problem of slavery through reason, and the nation killed hundreds of thousands of its own as a result. Throughout that war, Lincoln led using the same principles he had begun to articulate in 1838: revere the Constitution, revere the Declaration of Independence, have malice toward none and charity for all. This is how we finish the work of creating a more perfect union.
Take a moment on Presidents Day to remember this particular president, Abraham Lincoln. He was a martyr for our country and remains a model for being the best civic version of ourselves. Revere the founding documents of this country; find yourself in them, and use all the tools they provide to make the nation more perfect. When you are angry or outraged about something, remember his advice that “reason, cold calculating, unimpassioned reason” with “malice toward none” is the path forward to solving the problem.