Remembering Lincoln’s wit and compassion across the Atlantic

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April 16, 2015

8:50 PM

Next to Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament at Westminster — the three square blocks in London from which the British Isles are governed — is a park filled with statues. There are statesmen and activists, great men and women who earned public renown — some of whom changed the course of British history. Passing through, one sees the bases of the statues and reads the names: Churchill, Palmerston, Gandhi and Peel. There they stand, with iron frowns, looking over new generations of Britons and visitors from abroad.

Across the street, however, stands another statue. This one, set apart from the others, is a tall, lanky American. His head is bowed in thought, and his hair, refusing to be governed, sticks out everywhere. His eyes are almost invisible under his furrowed, mournful brow. Born in the middle of North America, he now stands at the epicenter of a foreign power. Even across the Atlantic, Abraham Lincoln’s memory endures.

April 15 marks 150 years since Lincoln was assassinated. Historical anniversaries often seem trivial and contrived, but this one means something, not only because of Lincoln’s importance to the country’s identity but his presence in the rest of the world. Walking through London, he makes an American student feel at home again.

Being abroad hones one’s sense of belonging, one’s ideas of national identity and culture. Although it’s hard to articulate, you have a better sense of what it means to be an American when you’re not on American soil. Certain ideas that define your country come to mind, and Abraham Lincoln embodies many of them not only because of his character, but the transformative times in which he rose to power. As he led a country reaching for an ideal of justice in the midst of a civil war, he was himself a model of morality. He was also a pragmatist, unafraid to make compromises in the name of progress. The United States that emerged from the Civil War also made compromises — some of them terrible — to bring the country back together.

Studying history, there are few people who defy death and time to emerge from the pages as three-dimensional companions. Lincoln is one of them. This timeless feeling of familiarity with Abraham Lincoln comes from his magnanimity. He was tolerant of nearly everyone, even those who defied his command. After the Civil War ended, Lincoln did not take vengeance on the South, but rather declared that the country must reunite “with malice toward none, with charity for all.” And those who knew him repeatedly said that he had a heart made for friendship — a broad smile, a thunderous laugh and a biting wit. When Abraham Lincoln was about to tell a story, everyone present knew their sides would soon hurt from laughing.

An exemplar of moral leadership and a wise political tactician, Lincoln is a figure far removed by time, yet familiar. And so, when the country commemorates his legacy on the anniversary of his death, his life and legacy rekindle a sense of home to those overseas.

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