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David Carlson: Inspired by Lincoln

I consider myself lucky to have spent part of my youth in Springfield, Illinois. From my elementary school window, I could see the old courthouse where Abraham Lincoln practiced law before entering politics.

When family and friends came to visit, we often took them to see Lincoln’s house or his grave. One of my favorite memories is of New Salem, the small log cabin community near Springfield, where young Lincoln lived and served as postmaster.

The memory of Lincoln seemed omnipresent in my youth, and his life story continued to inspire me throughout the years. Long after leaving Springfield, I continued to explore his life by visiting his birthplace in Kentucky, standing in front of his seated statue in Washington, D.C., and reading some of the many biographies written about him. One of my favorite books is Carl Sandburg’s Lincoln, a biography that sometimes touches on poetry with the beauty of Sandburg’s words.

To my delight, one of the music professors at Franklin College recently asked me to be the narrator for a performance of Aaron Copeland’s “Lincoln Portrait.” Although I was familiar with the piece of music, I found becoming familiar with Copeland’s treatment of Lincoln to be an enriching experience.

Copeland composed the piece in 1943, which is significant. I’m sure there were many pieces of music composed during World War II that celebrated democracy while fascism threatened the world, but Copeland chose to talk about democracy while reflecting on Lincoln.

A second notable feature of Copeland’s work is that the first seven minutes – the first half of the piece – are instrumental music without narration. Lincoln is treated initially not as a historical figure with words to hear but as a feeling. The music moves back and forth from soulful and exuberant to soft, reflective parts. This first part captures the different facets of Lincoln’s character; on the one hand, the popular rail splitter and storyteller and, on the other, the deep and often melancholy thinker that he was.

But the first seven minutes of instrumental music can also be heard as a tribute to democracy. In 1943, the outcome of the war against fascism was still uncertain. The moving passages of the introduction reflected the need to unite to fight for the survival of democracy. The soft parts reflected the calm and stability of the lives of those of us who are privileged to live in a democracy.

The most impressive parts of “Lincoln Portrait” for me are the words of Lincoln and Lincoln that Copeland chose to emphasize in the second half of the piece. Lincoln is one of America’s most complex historical figures, and Copeland has chosen to describe him through four short excerpts from his many speeches. Talk about a challenge.

But I give Copeland an A for achieving his goal. The Lincoln that emerges from Copeland’s work still inspires us. As Martin Luther King Jr. later did, Lincoln presented democracy not as a political option but as a fragile moral opportunity for all of humanity. The American Civil War was ultimately not a fight between North and South, but rather another moment in the eternal struggle between good and evil.

Copeland’s article fittingly ends with words from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Lincoln chose the occasion to honor not only the fallen Northern soldiers, but also all the “honored dead.” There is no hatred in this speech or in any of his speeches towards his many enemies. Instead, Lincoln demanded that the sacrifice of all those who died lead to a commitment by both parties to a common goal: the preservation of government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

In this upcoming presidential election, let’s not evaluate candidates solely based on where they stand relative to their opponents. Let’s compare the candidates to Lincoln, because it is his commitment to democracy and his spirit of generosity that we need right now.

David Carlson of Franklin is professor emeritus of philosophy and religion. Send your comments to (protected email).