Become a digitalPLUS subscriber. $12 for 12 weeks.
News Opinion Op-Eds

The contradiction of Lincoln

He had lost a son many years before, the boy barely more than a toddler when he died. Now another son was dead, and grief sat on him like the shawl that draped his shoulders as he rattled around the big, cold house. His wife was emotionally troubled and spent money they did not have. His subordinates were insubordinate, convinced he was out of his depth and that they could do a better job. And his country had split along a ragged seam of geography and race, boys from Maine and Vermont fighting it out against boys from Georgia and Tennessee, their bodies left broken, bloated, bloody and fly-swarmed, dead by the profligate thousands.

It was against that backdrop that Abraham Lincoln decided to say thank you.

He issued a proclamation making the fourth Thursday in November a day of national gratitude. Almost 150 years later, it still is.

This year, the commemoration follows a bitter election, with secession being bruited about like some distasteful joke, and the atmosphere so acrimonious it calls to mind the years before the Civil War itself. It also comes as we are rediscovering our 16th president yet again, this time through "Lincoln," a new film directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Daniel Day-Lewis.

The movie has drawn rave reviews -- and deservedly so. It frees Abraham Lincoln from the sarcophagus of marble in which great men are inevitably encased. Mr. Day-Lewis' Lincoln steps down from the memorial to rail, scheme, despair, fret and, when all else fails, tell a folksy story as he attempts to shove the 13th Amendment -- the one that ended slavery -- through a balky Congress.

Amid all the renewed interest in Lincoln, one hopes we don't miss the lessons inherent in the simple fact that a man of such profound grief made a statement of such profound gratitude. There is contradiction there -- and the resolution thereof. Contradiction was the story of Lincoln's presidency, his epic struggle to put North and South back together. It was also the story of his life.

He was, after all, a religiously ambivalent man who believed himself a tool in the hands of God, an unschooled man who was often the smartest one in the room, a melancholy man who found salvation in humor, a white supremacist who abhorred African slavery. So perhaps we ought not be surprised that, with every good reason to shake an angry fist at heaven, he asked his nation to give heaven thanks instead.

It is an example worth remembering in a nation fiercely divided by its own contradictions of ideology, demography, geography, sexual orientation, religion and race. It is worth remembering not simply because giving thanks is always a good idea, but also because this specific example reminds us that there is in us a need -- and an ability -- to reconcile disparate pieces, draw them together, as he did, into a greater whole.

We tend to think of people -- and nations -- as being all of a piece, either this thing or that. But people and nations are complex things. They are made of contradiction, and maybe that's a necessary thing, maybe that tension is the seed of human achievement. It takes a spark to make a fire.

Fires warm us. And yes, fires burn things down.

There is defiance -- you might call it faith -- to Lincoln's decision to speak gratitude when he did. But he navigated by the pole star of compassion large enough to encompass the whole of America's contradictions. "With malice toward none," he said. "With charity for all..." A month later, he would die with an assassin's bullet in his brain.

We live in a time of louder, if not more substantive contradiction, an angry, polarized, ominous time, sparks building fires that may yet warm -- or destroy. But that is the singular challenge of our existence, isn't it? To resolve the contradictions into grace and a spirit of thanksgiving, defiant.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
Related Content
  • Baby gets cruel lesson in life early
    Baby gets cruel lesson in life early

    "The first kick I took was when I hit the ground." -- Bruce Springsteen, "Born in the USA."

  • Cop killer blame game shows a double standard
    Cop killer blame game shows a double standard

    Going by objective standards of reason and fairness, Al Sharpton is not to blame for the assassination of two New York City cops over the weekend. Nor are New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, President Obama or any of the...

  • McKenzie Elliott's life mattered
    McKenzie Elliott's life mattered

    On the afternoon of Aug. 1, 2014, 3-year-old McKenzie Elliott was shot to death while engaging in the simple summer pleasure of standing on her own front porch in Waverly. She was the victim of a stray bullet in the seemingly senseless and never-ending cycle of violence that maintains its...

  • OrchKids helps Baltimore students succeed
    OrchKids helps Baltimore students succeed

    Twice a week in the Lockerman Bundy Elementary School in West Baltimore, young students gather in a room with a variety of musical instruments and are guided through the music of classical masters by experienced instructors. The classes are part of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's OrchKids...

  • Pragmatism, not emotion, must guide Cuba policy
    Pragmatism, not emotion, must guide Cuba policy

    "With all due respect." That's a fitting sentiment to express to Cuban-Americans angered by President Obama's decision to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba.

  • What if the Christmas story is true?
    What if the Christmas story is true?

    Suppose what some call the "Christmas story" is true -- all of it, from the angels, to the shepherds, to the virgin birth, to God taking on human flesh. By this, I don't mean to suggest it is true only for those who believe it to be true, but what if it is objectively true, no matter what the...

Comments
Loading