February 12th, 2009
09:26 AM ET

Dear President Obama #24: Lincoln's Letter

Reporter's Note: President Obama has asked for advice. Like Americans throughout history, I am writing letters to the White House.

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Tom Foreman | Bio
AC360° Correspondent

Dear Mr. President,

Happy Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday! Sorry I could not locate the Abraham Lincoln’s Birthday section in the card store, but the thought is there.

I know Lincoln has long been one of your heroes, and many people have already dissected the parallels between your rise to the presidency and his, so I won’t waste time going over all that again. But I do want to chat a moment about the Gettysburg Address.

You are a wonderful speaker; that goes without saying. But even with your skills, this short speech is worth rereading; not once, but many times. I read it at least once a year.

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

Could there be a more stirring opening line? This was not just about slavery. It was not just about the Civil War. It was about the nature of America; about the radical idea in human history that normal people of all creeds and colors have a right to a basic level of equality, freedom, and all that comes with that birthright. Lincoln knew how fragile that idea was, and we know how tender it still is.

“Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”

It was a speech about sacrifice, to be sure; about the thousands of souls who came together in those explosive days of July, footsore and war weary, yet ready. I have walked the battlefields of Gettysburg many times, stood amid the stones of Little Round Top and the Devil’s Den, waist deep in the grasses where Pickett charged, and I have ached at the thought of the events there.

“…we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.”

It was a speech about perseverance, patriotism, honor, humility, and so much more, all in fewer words than I have already written here.

What it was not about was the president.

Lincoln knew that any greatness that might befall him, was not really his at all; but merely a measure of the greatness of the American people; people who struggled, and worked, and hoped, and struggled more in the unending quest to keep freedom alive. Just as we struggle still.

So on this day of birthday celebration, if you have a moment, reread that speech and remember that wisdom. Your presidency matters. You may turn out to be a great president. But the life and accomplishments of any president, no matter how wondrous, gleam only in the reflected light of the nation. Your hero and mine, President Lincoln knew it. After all, in what many consider the greatest speech of American history, never once did he use the word, “I.”



To find more of the Foreman letters, click here.

soundoff (10 Responses)
  1. LOrion

    Read (if you can find it, I am still looking) Obama's speech made in Springfield yesterday. Not as short as the GA or eloquent, but one of his best to date.

    February 13, 2009 at 9:15 am |
  2. Chris Wilson

    What good words to come home to after a long work day...Thanks.

    February 12, 2009 at 6:22 pm |
  3. Annie Kate


    Thank you for a wonderful reminder of the Gettysburg Address. Your point about the reflected greatness of the American people and your observation that Lincoln did not use the word "I" in the whole address was spot on. As many times as I have read this speech I had never noticed that.

    February 12, 2009 at 5:08 pm |
  4. AW Sweat

    I just watched Linclon's 200th bicentennial celebration from the Rotunda...Why can't we re-inter Abraham Lincoln, and perhaps, George Washington to the U.S. Capitol......I suggest the "Rotunda". It would be appropriate while Obama is our President.

    Thank you kindly,

    AW Sweat (MD-Retired)...

    February 12, 2009 at 1:04 pm |
  5. jeff

    Not a single black resident was invited to Springfield's Centennial Banquet for Lincoln's birthday in 1909. One hundred years ago today Lincoln himself would be incensed at what took place in his own home town. At their own gathering, a group of Springfield black men and women celebrated the memory of their fallen President. "The colored people are not good enough to mingle their presence with the ' I am better than thou' at the celebration of the one-hundredth anniversary of the great emancipator," Rev. L.H. Magee proclaimed, "we colored people love and revere the meaning of Lincoln for what he has done for us." The Reverend then looked forward to the future-to the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth and predicted that by 2009 Americans would have "banished" all prejudice as "a myth...relegated to the dark days of Salem witchcraft."

    Happy Birthday Mr. Lincoln....

    February 12, 2009 at 12:27 pm |
  6. Mary

    Tom, I've enjoyed all your letters to the president, but this one, all I can say is Wow! It is inspired, smart and to the point.
    Thanks for all the great letters you write & keep up the good work!

    February 12, 2009 at 12:03 pm |
  7. john r

    I live in South Carolina when I was 17(2002) I had a high school party in which some marijuana was found after police were called due to noise I had to claim all the illegal contraband in the house to prevent my mother who was out of town from being charged I was convicted of manufacturing and distribution of marijuana now at 23 I cannot get a good job or even join the military which has been a life long dream of mine all because of one mistake when I was 17 where is the justice my life was over before it ever started

    February 12, 2009 at 11:40 am |
  8. S Callahan New York

    The words he would use today would be similar to his statement regarding the punishment of our sins for the blood shed and the slave labor that endured.....He would reflect on his faith, calling us to return to it's order since it was obvious it was clearly out of order.

    A thought...In the Book of Daniel God spoke to Daniel about United States when he told of the Lion beast with eagle wings ...when he told of the wings being broken off the lion he was referring to US breaking from Europe..and later in the same paragraph he menttion 'man's heart was given to it'....interesting...man's heart was given to it....what is that?....it was the second symbol of the United States referrubg to "Uncle Sam".

    My point is the United States is significant to God...he care deeply for us....and as Linclon would have thought ...we have to give our allegience to him or suffer the consequence.

    February 12, 2009 at 11:07 am |
  9. S Callahan New York

    Tom, I really expected this to be a 'joke' article, as you have demonstratedin in the past your wonderful sense of humor.

    I was pleased with the tone of this article....
    yes, his speech was about the nation and it's ability to perservere. It was a lesson for the future generations. I believe we hold that same strength to continue despite our North West Neighbors mocking.

    What is telling about President Linclon is his personal endurance...
    this man litterally suffered every immaginable and real emotion of a human spirit...and through great suffering was rescused from them all. He really is a personal testament to the National Spirit he gives widom to. He also maintain a great faith despite the trials he endured and that gave him the gumpton to press forward...another lesson for our current state. I wonder sometimes if he was a prophet in a politicans suit.

    Thanks for the nice article.

    February 12, 2009 at 11:00 am |
  10. Marvin Chodes

    What inspirational words would Lincoln say today? Perhaps, "Cut hours, not jobs", a compassionate 4-word solution to today's unemployment. What stirring words would have to address our many other problems? – Your turn.

    Marv C

    February 12, 2009 at 10:56 am |