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Friday, October 26, 2012

October 26, 2012: Adverse Reactions, Part Five

[This AmericanStudier is going through a very, very tough time; at times like this, AmericanStudies becomes something different for me: a source of inspiration, an opportunity to remember some of the moments in which Americans have faced great adversity and responded with great power. In this week’s series I’ll highlight a handful of such moments, and would love to hear your nominations and thoughts for the weekend post.]

On the American leader who just plain exemplifies inspiring responses to adversity.

There are a lot of reasons why Abraham Lincoln consistently tops polls asking about the “best” or “greatest” American presidents, and I’m sure Daniel Day-Lewis and Steven Spielberg will remind us of many in a couple months. But I would argue that virtually all of those reasons have one central element: they demonstrate the various and always impressive ways in which Lincoln responded to the most challenging and adverse moment in American history. Here are just a few examples:
1)      His words: Again and again, Lincoln found nearly perfect words with which to respond to our darkest moments. The Gettysburg Address is exhibit A, but I would also highlight both the First and Second Inaugurals as among the top five such speeches as well.

2)      His actions: I know that there are pragmatic, and even cynical, ways to view the Emancipation Proclamation; I’m sure that the upcoming film, like the book on which it’s based, will explore those multiple sides to some degree. But the truth is that neither abolitionism nor emancipation were widely popular in the North, and that if nothing else (and there is much else), Lincoln’s choice to issue represented significant social and political risk.

3)      His breadth: The harshest and most accurate critiques that can be leveled at Lincoln would have to do with the things he was willing to sacrifice in pursuing the war effort, with habeas corpus chief among them. Yet at the same time that he was pursuing that effort with explicit and understandable focus, he was also always thinking about the nation’s future and identity beyond. To highlight one example, Lincoln began pursuing the purchase of Alaska during the war, recognizing that America must continue to grow even as its unity remained in doubt.
For those reasons, and many more, Lincoln will always be one of our most inspiring national figures, and a true exemplar of how we can and must try to turn our darkest moments—even those we bring upon ourselves—into brighter futures.
Crowd-sourced post this weekend,
PS. So last chance to add to that post: Powerful responses to adversity you’d highlight? Thoughts on any  of the week’s topics?
10/26 Memory Day nominee: Mahalia Jackson, for the groundbreaking and powerful recordings that helped make her “The Queen of Gospel,” but also for her courageous civil rights activism and advocacy.

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