“The Mystic Chords of Memory” – President's Day, 2017

Written by Rich Procter

President’s Day has a special meaning for everyone at BRC. Our pride and joy, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum in Springfield, Illinois, has welcomed almost four million guests in its eleven-plus years. In creating the Lincoln Museum, we spent six years exploring Lincoln’s astonishing life story. What we learned continues to guide us in both our professional and personal lives.

What we learned is this: Lincoln was one of us: an “uncommon common man” who dedicated his life to making a difference. The difference he made changed our country for the better. By studying the life of Lincoln, we can learn to act from the values that guided his life and make a positive difference in the world.

Lincoln had none of the qualities that often predict greatness. He was not born into wealth. His parents offered him no advantages in achieving success. He was self-educated. He had the ambitions and aspirations of a conventional career politician until he was elected to the presidency in 1860.

As soon as he became President, the South seceded from the Union and attacked Fort Sumter, creating the greatest crisis in American history. In his first Inaugural address, Lincoln had a choice. He could savage the South and threaten to destroy the states that had left the Union, or he could do his best to bring the country together in peace. Here’s what Lincoln said in his first great speech:

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.

The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

In his second message to Congress right before he issued his Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln reminded the nation what the fight was about, and framed emancipation as an opportunity “to nobly save…the last be hope on earth.”

Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration will be remembered in spite of ourselves. The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation.

In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free.

We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope on earth. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just – a way which, if followed, the world will forever applaud, and God must forever bless.

At his Second Inaugural, Lincoln was enjoying the victory of the Union in the Civil War. Here Lincoln made the biggest difference of all. He could have humiliated the South, insulted its people and turned the Confederate states into a vassal territory to be exploited for decades by the victorious North. Instead, Lincoln said

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Why is Lincoln still our most beloved, admired and honored President? You’ll know if you savor his words, and identify the values that support them. These are the values we aspire to as Americans: compassion, generosity, honesty, wisdom, tolerance and goodwill.

BRC created a guest experience at the Lincoln Museum that invites visitors to “find the Lincoln in themselves.” That means finding the part that feels compassion, that seeks consensus, and that wants above all else to turn oppression into opportunity and suffering into healing. It’s the part of us that’s in touch with the better angels of our nature. And that’s more important than ever in 2017.