State Senator Justin Ready gave the following address to the members of the Maryland General Assembly on Monday, February 12th, 2018.
You can listen to the audio version of this address here. Click on Monday, February 12, 2018, and fastforward to around 33 mins.
Mr. President, Leader Peters, Leader Jennings, and Senate colleagues, it is truly a great honor and privilege to address this body on this important holiday. As one of the newer members of the Senate, the responsibility of speaking today is not lost on me and I am grateful for the opportunity.
Born into humble roots on the frontier of Western Kentucky, Abraham Lincoln was a remarkable, self-made man who with only the limited help of occasional traveling instructors in rural Indiana, taught himself how to read by candlelight using primarily the King James Bible as his textbook along with Aesop’s Fables and Robinson Crusoe. He later taught himself law and passed the bar in Illinois based exclusively on his own reading and study.
Lincoln ascended to the Presidency of the United States with greater national turmoil than any President who preceded him – and arguably any President since. Less than six weeks after the 1860 Presidential Election, before Lincoln could take his oath of office, southern states began withdrawing from the Union. This created the greatest national crisis the United States would ever see, even though perhaps it was the most necessary. Of course the Civil War came about because of a number of issues, but the issue of slavery, and of a state’s right to allow it, had reached its breaking point and, to our country’s shame, it took a giant conflict for it to end.
Americans know of Abraham Lincoln’s steady resolve which deserves the lion’s share of credit for bringing the nation through that bloody and terrible conflict. We see him as a heroic statesman, and that is not an incorrect view. Whether one sees him as the abolitionist who freed African Americans from the bondage of slavery, the strong leader who found a way to preserve the Union during the years of bloodshed, or as the honest man who lived his life with the highest of virtues, Americans still look to Honest Abe for guidance nearly 153 years after his life was tragically ended.
However, there is much about Lincoln that isn’t emphasized in the re-telling of his life. He was great, but also imperfect. He was honest but he was also shrewd.
First, Lincoln was far from being a starry-eyed, naïve idealist. Many in this chamber who are students of history, Maryland history in particular, know of Lincoln’s wartime suspension of habeus corpus and the arrest of state legislators to avoid our state’s secession.
Lincoln was a savvy political strategist, who built the foundation for the fledgling Republican Party, which started as a largely single issue third party, and grew to become the dominant political party in the United States for over seventy years until the era of Franklin Roosevelt. In fact, Lincoln is the author of one of the most concise and clear precinct organization guidelines I’ve ever seen – and one I’ve seen used frequently to explain what goes into building a campaign organization. Writing to a friend in 1840 as a state representative, Lincoln – at that time a member of the Whig Party stated the following:
"The whole state must be so well organized that every Whig can be brought
to the polls. So divide the county into small districts and appoint in each a
committee. Make a perfect list of the voters and ascertain with certainty for
whom they will vote... Keep a constant watch on the doubtful voters and have
them talked to by those in whom they have the most confidence... On Election
Day see that every Whig is brought to the polls."
Far from the charmed life that his relatively sudden ascension to power might seem to indicate, Lincoln met adversity at every turn. At age eleven he lost his mother to illness and then he lost his only biological sister, in his late teens. His first love passed away from typhoid fever while he was in his early 20s. After his marriage to Mary Todd in 1842, the Lincolns parented four children. Tragedy struck the family multiple times, as only one child survived long enough to reach adulthood. Lincoln also suffered for various physical ailments his entire life, including Marfan syndrome which led to his tall and slender stature. Mrs. Lincoln suffered from severe mental illness following the death of their sons. Abraham Lincoln himself was known to have suffered from what was then called “melancholy”, a form of clinical depression.
Lincoln ran for state legislature twice before being elected. In his first campaign, at his first speech, Lincoln saw a supporter of his in the crowd being accosted by a supporter of another candidate. Lincoln rambled into the crowd, grabbed the assailant by the scruff of the neck, took him by the trousers and threw him several feet. He lost that campaign but ran two years later and won, serving eight years in the Illinois House of Representatives where, legend has it, he once escaped out of a window in the state capitol to help deny the majority party a quorum. As a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for a single term, he proudly advocated for free soil and abolitionism. Perhaps surprisingly to those who only know of him as a wartime leader, he was a strong anti-war voice opposing the Mexican-American War and criticizing then-President Polk for his use of war powers – criticism he later regretted in his own presidency.
Lincoln ran in the most tumultuous presidential race in US History in 1860. This election was the first presidential election after the terrible Dred Scott Decision had split the country and it was a cataclysmic event that led the nation to war. On the day of the election, threats of southern succession if Lincoln won lingered heavily in the air. I wonder how he felt on the morning of election day on 1860? If he won that evening, he would become the nation’s 16th president. This victory however could come at the cost of the Union.
While Lincoln was one of the few US Presidents who was never baptized or member of a particular church, he relied on a deep and meaningful faith in God in both his private and public life. Some historians recount that it was after the death of his second son, he became a regular attendee of a Presbyterian Church. In spite of perhaps infrequent official church membership, his abiding and life-long faith in God is very evident as you look at his private writings and public speeches. His acceptance of the Illinois U.S. Senate nomination in 1858 – which presaged the famed Lincoln-Douglas debates - featured his equally famous “House Divided” speech quoting from Mark 3:25 in the New Testament where Jesus says “A House divided against itself cannot stand”. Even today, this speech has incredible resonance buoyed by a spiritual cry for unity in eradication of slavery. It was clearly not just a cherry-picked platitude. Rather they are indicative of Lincoln’s lifelong love and study of the Bible.
In his second inaugural address, just one month before he was slain, Lincoln spoke these famous words. “With malice towards none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive 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 for his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and a lasting peace, among ourselves and with all nations.”
The language and tone of his inaugural address on that occasion is worth serious reflection in our day of all-or-nothing politics where things in Washington D.C. seem to break down tribally. Lincoln was at the moment of his greatest political triumph – an overwhelming re-election repudiating his opponent, the former supreme commander of Union forces George McClellan whom Lincoln had rightly fired for incompetence but who had been a thorn in his side. Lincoln was also about to finalize a complete military triumph over the South. However, instead of taking a victory lap, or give in to people in his party that wanted him to really stick it to the vanquished South, Lincoln called for the nation to work together to heal. He was reported to have said “let them up easy” when asked about Southern states and citizens rejoining the Union – requiring a loyalty pledge and repudiation of slavery, but not extensive fines, punishments, or penalties.
At the peak of his greatest political triumph and powers, Lincoln focused on reconciliation and the herculean task before the nation to rebuild. Lincoln focused on repairing the nations wounds rather than gloating about his success. He handled Civil War victory with humility, grace, and a relentless pursuit of reunion.
It is interesting to reflect on how our country could have been different if President Lincoln had not been slain at Ford’s Theater in April 1865. The reconstruction of the South could have been completed in such a way that it may not have been quite the ugly term it became. The plight of freed slaves and African-Americans in general would very likely have been improved, though certainly challenges would have remained. The age of segregation and Jim Crow might have never existed. Sadly, after his death, radicals in Congress decided to exact greater revenge on returning Southern states, further inflaming regional tensions and setting up a descent into segregation and Jim Crow once reconstruction was forced to end in 1876. It took nearly 100 years for real progress on Civil Rights to be made and we are still working to form that more perfect union.
Lincoln is viewed by many as an ideal model of a leader. I would argue that both his strengths and weaknesses, struggles and trials are ideal to study as we seek to navigate the challenges we see in our nation today.
Here in 2018, it may at times feel like we are as divided today as the Nation was in the middle of the 19th Century. It used to be hard to imagine how the nation could be so divided as to split apart violently. While we are not in that kind of environment we are still frequently driven to anger against each other. Concentration on hyper-partisanship and a focus on winning and losing political battles at all costs has driven us to political extremes. It seems that many have lost the ability to respectfully disagree with each other or, in some cases, lost interest in thinking critically. In the 1860s, party newspapers ripped the candidates and elected officials in the opposite party. Now, in our day, social media has become a weapon not to exchange ideas, but to silence opposition.
In 1838, while serving Illinois State Legislature, Lincoln addressed the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield. Lincoln titled this speech, “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions.” During the speech, Lincoln warned how brewing national dissension could eventually tear the country apart. Lincoln said, “Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant to step the Ocean and crush us at a blow? Never! All the armies of Europe, Asia, and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth, our own excepted, in their military chest, with a Bonaparte for a commander, could not by force take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years. At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up from amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of free-men, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.” Nearly fifteen years before the start of the Civil War, State Representative Abraham Lincoln could sense the impending clash within the Union.
Now, in our time, where we’ve seen public displays of division and distrust for several years, what President Lincoln said back in 1838 as a state legislator still rings true today. There is no foreign power that can conquer the United States. The only way that our country can fail, is from cultural death from within. Abraham Lincoln saw that hatred was dangerous as it often mobilizes people faster than love for our neighbors.
In the next 57 days, we here in the Senate have the great honor of working together to improve the lives of everyone in the State of Maryland. While we may have deep disagreements sometimes about what that looks like or how to get there, by listening, honestly examining and assuming the best about the other person’s intentions – loving our neighbor, keeping our house from being divided - we will be fulfilling President Lincoln’s promise in the Gettysburg Address. “…that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” God Bless you, and may God Bless the State of Maryland.