My Love Affair with Lincoln

Today I’d like to talk about affairs, in honor of General Petraeus. (Snap!)

My love affair with Abraham Lincoln began when I was young, much too young. As an eight-year-old, I had no business being interested in a man who was 175.

But I felt we were M.F.E.O.—Made For Each Other.

He was born February 12. I was born February 13.

He was president of the United States. I was born in the bicentennial year of 1976. Both very patriotic things.

He was born in a log cabin, and I desperately wanted to have been. (Ask my mom about the time I found out that there was such a thing as living in the 19th century during the 20th century—aka, being Amish. I begged my mother to let me be Amish. I was sure I’d been born in the wrong century—a belief I’m still not altogether sure is wrong.)

My sense of justice as an eight-year-old was quite rigid. Slavery, of course, was far outside my boundaries and I was incensed, absolutely fired up, to learn of its prior existence in America. Lincoln came to the rescue.

And, oh my, his words. Lincoln is the first writer I loved.

Of course, I hid our affair. In 6th grade, as the children sitting at their desks around me received their Scholastic Books orders of Sweet Valley High, the teacher slapped a copy of Lincoln, a Photobiography on my desk. The girl in front of me turned around and said, “What is that?”  “It’s for my mom,” I replied.

When Ken Burns came out with his documentary of the Civil War, I watched and cried and cried and watched and transcribed certain bits onto paper lunch bags I was able to grab in time (couldn’t pause TV back in the 20th century). I hid the scraps in my journals and books.

In college, I brought with me the VHS box set of the documentary, but I kept it in the back room. When my boyfriend found it and asked about it, I shrugged: “Oh, just a gift from my mom.” No biggie. It’s not like I’m in love or anything.

Now that boyfriend is my husband, so I’ve had to let him in on my affair. (Don’t worry, I told him well before the wedding.) It still sometimes takes him aback, though. We visited the Lincoln Museum in Springfield, Illinois last weekend. I spent 3 ½ hours reading every bit of display. When I exited, my husband, who was sitting on a bench with his iPhone, exhaled and said, “You love you some Lincoln, don’t you?”

I do. I really do.

You know where I’ll be this weekend. (Shhh.)

I’ll leave you with some bits of my sweetheart’s genius:

America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.  

As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy.

Whenever I hear any one arguing for slavery I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.

You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.

Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.

Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.


Should Schools Sugarcoat the Truth?

My neighbors’ son came home from school last week and happily recited the hero-worship of Christopher Columbus he’d been taught that day. They were less than thrilled because they know what most adults know: Columbus committed murder, torture, and rape, and enslaved adults and children. He also apparently combined some of those pursuits into a sex-slave trade. In 1500, he wrote: “A hundred castellanoes (a Spanish coin) are as easily obtained for a woman as for a farm, and it is very general and there are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls; those from nine to ten [years old] are now in demand.”

Of course, my neighbors also know we can’t teach that to young children. But do we need to teach the opposite? Weren’t the Vikings here before Columbus, anyway? Do we have to be such suckers for the victor’s version of history?

Their story reminded me of an incident that occurred when I worked at the Minnesota Legislature. A very conservative woman had been appointed by Governor Tim Pawlenty to head the state’s education department and decide what students should and should not be taught. One contentious issue was her opposition to the notion that the annihilation of Native Americans and their culture in the 19th century was genocide.

On public radio, she said: “I don’t think the accidental infection of some blankets with smallpox could be termed genocide.”

Let’s put aside her total ignorance of facts–okay, let’s not: population decimation, forced assimilation of Native American children taken from their parents and dropped into American schools, reservations, the slaughter of the buffalo… Not to mention the U.S. Army’s purposeful infection of blankets with smallpox—known today as biological terrorism. You don’t need gas chambers and ovens to commit genocide and someone supposedly smart enough to lead an education department should know that. (Perhaps she was the victim of her own sugar-coated education–we tend to tell the truth when others commit atrocities, but not when we do.)

However, she made another point: Even if in some crazy, alternate universe we had committed genocide, she said, children should not be taught that in school.

But we did commit genocide. So the question becomes, do we teach our children the truth or do we lie? Do we rely on fact or do we include fiction?

This dichotomy of American thinking, the ability to acknowledge and accept conflicting ideas, is as old as the country itself: We were founded on groundbreaking principles of personal liberty—plus slavery.

Democracy, plus lack of women’s suffrage.

A nation of just laws, plus Jim Crow.

Go West, Young Man! plus the genocide of the Native Americans.

It’s no wonder our schools teach cognitive dissonance. I felt betrayed when I learned, in college, the truth about so many of our histories. What had my public education been for, simply to memorize euphemisms and half-truths? Isn’t that sort of like brainwashing?

I understand that we need to instill pride in this country, otherwise the country is lost. And America is great. It’s just not perfect.

I believe if we teach children the truth, at age-appropriate levels, then we will raise learners who question. We will nurture critical thinkers who can problem solve to save the world. I believe we can hold and accept two conflicting ideas, as long as it’s acknowledged that they are conflicting. As long as they’re real.

If we teach the bad with the good, we will show children what this nation has overcome and can overcome, which is what truly makes us great.

What do you think? Fact or fiction? Or isn’t it that simple?