Lincoln Did It – But Will You, America?

The Spirit of Lincoln (1941)
by Norman Rockwell

Responding to a a group of supporters who serenaded him at the White House one evening after his re-election in 1864, Abraham Lincoln conveyed a peculiar message:

Human-nature will not change– In any future great national trial, compared with the men of this, we shall have as weak, and as strong; as silly and as wise; as bad and good– Let us, therefore, study the incidents of this, as philosophy to learn wisdom from, and…none of them as wrongs to be revenged.[1]

What Lincoln said that night in response to that serenade is true.

Throughout history, human nature always remains the same. It’s the only constant. Technology changes, nations change, even geography changes, but mankind continues to commit similar acts of behavior. That’s why history always appears to repeat itself.

It seems that mankind simply refuses to see these past incidents of human behavior as a philosophy from which to learn wisdom.

For example, even in the 1860s, Lincoln faced today’s issues – refugee bans, emigration questions, and an unwanted population – and all in the midst of a civil war!

In fact, as 1862 drew to a close, Lincoln delivered this tidbit of information during his review of the year’s activities in his annual message to Congress. (Here’s an easy-to-read copy [2] of the entire address)

While this lengthy message is better known for some creative political ideas and his metaphorical “Fiery Trial” ending [shown below], it also has a clarification by Lincoln about the status of freed African-Americans.

Fiery Trial Portion of Lincoln's Second Annual Message to Congress 1862
A photo of the “Fiery Trial” portion of Lincoln’s Second Annual Message to Congress in 1862.

Their status, to that point, was undefined, vague, and awash in terms that referred to their previous servitude – freed slaves or freemen. But who were they? What were they?

Lincoln provides the answer in the sentence about the creation of colonies in other countries for them.

And it’s contradictory.

[All bolding is mine for your attention]:

Applications have been made to me by many free Americans of African descent to favor their emigration, with a view to such colonization as was contemplated in recent acts of Congress.[3]

Lincoln, like Congress, was one of those in favor of colonization. He believed that the African-Americans’ future in this country, even after slavery, was destined to be one of continued problems and strife.

But in that opening line, he declares for EVERYONE, his legal perception of the status of this population: they were “free Americans of African descent.”

The dignity, the gravity, the bearing of Lincoln’s words notified Congress, the nation, the world, and ultimately history of HIS acceptance of this, until now, undefined population into the diverse “community” of America.

FIRST – as free Americans, and THEN – (like people of German descent, Irish descent, Italian descent) – as an identifiable segment of our population. Lincoln rejected the common identifiers – freed slaves or freemen because those were terms that did not identify them legally and specifically.

Today, What would Abraham Lincoln do? is a relevant question as we are again divided by issues concerning many “segments” in our very diverse population. In Lincoln’s “order of status,” we find part of that answer, and it is vitally important to the survival of our Democracy in the 21st Century, that our politicians and the members of our American communities remember the sequence of Lincoln’s words –

FREE AMERICANS of _____________

[fill-in: descent/race, religion, disabilities, gender, education level, sexual orientation, or any other identifier we now use] –

and accept them. Lincoln did it. But will you, America?

Or have we gone backwards?

Food for thought.


Works Cited

[1] ” Lincoln’s Response to a Serenade, November 10, 1864.” The Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress.
Retrieved June 6, 2017 from:

[2] “Second Annual Message – December 1, 1862, Abraham Lincoln, XVI President of the United States .” The American Presidency Project. Retrieved June 6, 2017 from

[3] “Annual Message to Congress, December 1, 1862.” Complete Works of Abraham Lincoln. vol.V:520-521.

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