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Lincoln with son Tod (Associated Press/file)

Bicentennial birthday

Presidency | Exactly 200 years after Lincoln's birth, it seems that the Great Emancipator still has hold of the nation's heart

In 1860, soon after he had learned that Republicans had nominated someone named Lincoln from Illinois to be the party's presidential candidate, a 51-year-old Philadelphia lawyer named Sidney George Fisher wrote in his diary: "I never heard of him before . . . he has a difficult task before him, requiring much firmness, prudence, large views, and courage."

Five years later, upon hearing word of Abraham Lincoln's assassination, Fisher wrote he felt like he had lost a personal friend: "[F]or indeed I have and so has every honest man in the country. He was indeed the great man of the period . . . [he] won all hearts."

In that short time frame Lincoln had helped save the nation and expand its meaning of liberty.

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Exactly 200 years after Lincoln's birth, with nearly 16,000 published books (and counting) on the 16th president's life, its seems that the Great Emancipator still has hold of the nation's heart.

Today, as events in all 50 states celebrate the bicentennial of Lincoln's Feb. 12 birth, the life of the tall but gaunt, sometimes awkward but usually genial storyteller who harbored a soft shade of melancholy still holds lessons for the nation he helped preserve.

His life is relatable and inspiring to many Americans who face tragedy and sorrow, says Michael Burlingame, author of a new two-volume Lincoln biography.

The list of obstacles Lincoln overcame is indeed Job-like: Born into poverty he endured the death of his mother at age 9 as well as the early deaths of two siblings. His father was unsympathetic and distant. He had less than one year of formal education and suffered a series of career failures. He endured bouts of depression so severe friends feared he was suicidal. He endured an unhappy marriage and the deaths of two children. He oversaw a war that killed more than half a million of his fellow countrymen.

Yet he taught himself law. He taught himself politics. He taught himself how to be commander in chief.

He overcame his troubles to lead the nation through its darkest period using such enduring speeches as the Gettysburg Address and his address for his second inauguration.

"Lincoln represents the possibility in America that anybody can rise," said Ronald C. White, author of the recently published A. Lincoln.

Both White and Burlingame agree that the fallow periods in Lincoln's life turned him from a small-town lawyer and local politician into the great statesman the country needed during the Iliad of the nation's history.

Through it all, White said, Lincoln developed a deep moral center in his life and grew to take faith in a Biblical pattern of reconciliation and forgiveness that he hoped the nation might embrace at the end of the Civil War.

Lincoln's spiritual odyssey saw him grow from skeptic and scoffer to a president who mentioned God 14 times, quoted the Bible four times, and invoked prayer three times in his second inaugural address.

As the war waged on, compounded by the personal loss of his son Willie in 1862, Lincoln wrestled with the questions of how God could allow the war in the first place and then let it go on and on with so many deaths leading to so many widows and orphans.

He put this internal debate into words on a scrap of paper that he never intended to be published in his Meditation on the Divine Will. Ultimately answered the question, according to Burlingame, in his second inaugural speech where he says the "ways of the Lord are righteous and just all together."

White, whose book is currently on the New York Times bestseller list, says the Lincoln of 1865 had a much greater appreciation of God's power, of Biblical Providence, and of a God who has a personality, who loves and who acts in history.

Burlingame, who spent more than a decade researching and writing Abraham Lincoln: A Life, said Lincoln's story has come full circle today with the recent rise to the White House of Barrack Obama: "Lincoln would be delighted to see that a black man-who like him, is from Illinois, is articulate, served in the state legislature and briefly in Congress-was able to rise to the highest office in the land. In a way it is a fulfillment of the emancipation movement Lincoln helped spearhead."

The life of Lincoln should be instructive to today's politicians, Burlingame and White both agree.

He could disagree without being disagreeable. He declined to quarrel or demonize the opposition and took almost nothing personally.


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