“He entered upon the canvass with a reputation confined to his own state. He closes it with his name a household word wherever the principles he holds are honored and with the respect of his opponents in all sections of the country.” Joseph Medill, writing of Abraham Lincoln, 1858.
Those of us who grew up among the vast prairies, rolling hills, and city streets of Illinois are steeped in Abraham Lincoln. As school kids we visited his New Salem and Springfield homes, and stood quietly in the solace of his tomb. We joined thousands over the years who rubbed the nose of his likeness outside that last resting place, shining it as though to keep his spirit alive and vibrant. We did not know then of his ambivalence about the rights of slaves, only that he freed them and preserved the union. We still go to the Lincoln Memorial and are deeply moved. We are of him; he was of us.
When I first heard Barack Obama in person I was amazed—a rare feeling after years of aspiring politicos who are better at cultivating cynicism than currying favor. He was, I told family and friends, “the real deal.” He gave far more than “a good speech.” He reached into the very heart of a hardened audience, spoke of policies, promises, and possibilities, and raised it to new heights in a way that made people believe deeply not simply in him, but in themselves. The “Yes we can” mantra to come later was true to the spirit of that day long before the economy collapsed; there was a feeling that we could indeed secure the change we hungered for. We were of him; he was of us.
In Illinois we do not take lightly those who might presume Lincoln’s mantle. From the kickoff of his campaign to his swearing in on the Lincoln Bible today, Mr. Obama has tarried in the Lincoln neighborhood, raising some wariness about his intent. But he wisely rooted his campaign and his new Presidency in the moral claims and political risks and responsibilities Lincoln advanced as the young nation ruptured under his feet. President Obama has not claimed Lincoln; Lincoln has claimed him.
On this day of profound change the world watches, anticipates, hopes as Barack Obama lays his hand on that Lincoln Bible, grounding us in the perilous past as we head into the perilous future. For many made cynical by decades of injustice, poverty, and inequality this day may be hard to accept—the cynic believes that little has changed, that little will change. True. Unless our efforts to build a new future are now redoubled. Unless we organize. Unless we step up into the political space that the Obama Presidency opens to new possibilities. Unless we can sing heartily of democratic community and mean it.
Seize this new day with joy! Love the people and help raise their voices. Be strengthened by the touchstones of your life. Keep the fires of justice to the feet of this hope-filled Administration and this inspiring President. Keep alive and vibrant a shared vision of a new day. And work today and every day as if everything you do might transform the world!