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Lincoln in the Canadian Mind

February 16, 2009

Only days ago Americans celebrated the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln. Today, historians have ranked Lincoln the United State’s greatest President ever.

Lincoln, clearly, means a lot to Americans. Few scholars, for example, question the importance of his Emancipation Proclamation to the course of the Civil War and, by extension, the deep changes enacted by the Reconstruction Republicans thereafter in the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution; the Thirteenth being the provision that would, with the help of Congress, eventually smote all traces of slavery from the face of America forever.

But what, if anything, does the name Lincoln mean to Canadians? Most Canadians have heard of him and many, like myself, admire his achievements and vision (one must be deaf to the sirenic call of lyricism to be unmoved by the Gettysburg Address and its promise of “A New Birth of Freedom”). Sadly, Lincoln was assassinated only years before Canada was forged from the British colonies he would certainly have been familiar with as a legislator from Illinois. So we rarely hear how he understood the Canadian colonies that soon would constitute a nation. What would he have thought of the young country on his northern borders? What sort of allegiances and ties would he have forged?

No room here to postulate historical counterfactuals. But I think it’s worthwhile to point readers to this thoughtful piece by historian JDM Stewart, who offers some insights about Canadian public opinion during the time of Lincoln and an interesting comparison between Lincoln and one of our greatest political figures, Wilfred Laurier.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. canworldjon permalink*
    February 19, 2009 12:05 pm

    hah! Actually, let me thank you, Corwin. After reading your comment I realized that I was myself confused about the Gettysburg address. You’re right– for some reason, I thought Gettysburg also included that famous “Mystic Chords of memory” line (which I love) which, as you properly point out, was in his first inaugural address. Here it is for you and I (and everyone) in full:

    I am loath to close. 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 battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearth-stone, 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.

  2. corsullivan permalink*
    February 19, 2009 11:57 am

    It’s certainly an apt time to bring up Lincoln, so I’m glad you thought of it. I’d actually never read the Gettysburg Address, so I went looking for it based on your recommendation. Perhaps I’m deaf to the sirenic call of lyricism, but I can’t say I found it too inspiring. Mostly I was surprised by how short it was, and impatient with the way Lincoln seemed to want to inflate the Civil War – a conflict rooted in a specific political dispute between two American factions – into some kind of grandiose test of the whole concept of democracy.

    The bit about the brave men consecrating the ground of Gettysburg by their struggle did strike a bit of chord, although probably not in the way Lincoln intended. I’ll give the speech a marginal B+ on the strength of that passage, and the majestic “four score and seven years ago” at the beginning. However, I didn’t think any of it rose to the heights of the last few sentences of Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address, in which he talked about “mystic chords of memory” and “the better angels of our nature”. Anyway, thanks for giving me an impetus to look into all this!

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