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assuaging roth with anecdotes

Assuaging wrath with anecdotes
was Lincoln’s modus operandi,
until he struck more serious notes,
maturing like a vintage brandy
when he was forced to cut the drivel
the moment that the Union shattered.
He sometimes had to be uncivil
by concentrating on what mattered,
not anecdotes, but leadership
he highlighted with clarity
of gaze and enigmatic smile,
thus ending the disparity
between those forced to be servile
and those who from their birth were free.

Cleaving to the Union he
abandoned anecdotes and spoke
of freedom and of liberty
without digression of a joke,
and though what he declared
you’ll find not on a stone but pages,
his words are narratives prepared
to last, like laws, for all the ages.

Inspired by an article on Lincoln by Ed Rothstein, reviewingan exhibition of 30 images of Lincoln at the National Portrait Gallery, “One Life: The Mask of Lincoln, ” Abraham Lincoln (“Reconsidering the Man From Illinois, ” NYT, December 12,2008) :
There was, in his mind, a fundamental principle that could not be abandoned: the Union. He cleaved fiercely — almost fanatically — to it because it already was a compromise, though one generated out of an ideal toward which the nation would have to move. That conviction forced him to refine his thinking and discipline his actions. In a debate with Douglas, Lincoln referred to an “eternal struggle between these two principles — right and wrong — throughout the world.” The wrong, he said, was “the divine right of kings.” The right was “the common right of humanity.” The notion of “divine right” left a stain in the form of American slavery; the notion of “common right” was America’s founding principle. Those inalienable rights of humanity could be guaranteed only by something like the Union, so even when it came to abolishing slavery, Lincoln was cautious and protective, hewing strictly to the Constitution, knowing the wrong could be fully undone only with an amendment, but believing, finally, that he could at least, as commander in chief in time of war, free slaves in the rebellious territories. The Emancipation Proclamation is written in stolid, legalistic prose in which all of Lincoln’s rhetorical gifts are shunted aside. That too was done in service to the Union. Then he was freed to define his larger vision. Andrew Delbanco, in Mr. Foner’s anthology, argues that the Civil War, for all its trauma, was unlike many other wars in that it did not produce a crisis that left the country without a sense of purpose. That is because, he suggests, Lincoln found “transcendent meaning in the carnage” and affirmed that meaning for both sides. He really became another founding father. Look finally, in the National Gallery, at the Alexander Gardner photograph taken soon after the late-life mask was made, less than two months before Lincoln’s death. A crack shattered the glass plate, its scar running, almost prophetically, across the top of Lincoln’s head. The president’s left eye is in finely etched focus, gazing off in deep introspection, while the rest of the face softens into a gentle blur. Lincoln’s eye, surely, has seen much that haunts him. But on Lincoln’s mouth are the hints of an enigmatic smile, as if in the closing weeks of the war, Lincoln saw, despite the struggles to come, a sign of what might be. The clarity of his gaze and the promise of his smile remain.

/12/08

Submitted: Friday, December 12, 2008


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