Kentucky honors native son it once despised

FRANKFORT — Sandwiched between rallies by advocates for children and dogs, state political leaders gathered in the Capitol rotunda Thursday for a ceremony marking the 200th birthday of Abraham Lincoln.

Gospel artist Kenny Bishop and a Kentucky State University choir sang. Actor Greg Hardison read excerpts from Lincoln’s second inaugural address. Kentucky’s poet laureate, Jane Gentry Vance, read a poem she wrote about Lincoln. Kent Whitworth of the Kentucky Historical Society remarked that 100,000 fourth- and fifth-graders across the state Thursday were studying Kentucky’s greatest gift to the nation.

Gov. Steve Beshear, House Speaker Greg Stumbo and Senate President David Williams paused from dealing with Kentucky’s economic crisis long enough to place a floral wreath at the foot of the giant bronze statue of Lincoln in the center of the rotunda. Then, like thousands of tourists before them, they rubbed Lincoln’s shiny left toe for good luck.

As I stood in the crowded rotunda, I wondered what Lincoln would have thought about all the fuss Kentuckians were making over him. He would have felt honored and humbled, I’m sure. And given what we know about his sense of humor, he probably would have had a good laugh.

Lincoln always loved his home state, but as historian John Kleber reminded the gathering, it wasn’t until after his assassination that many Kentuckians returned the love. “In no ‘Northern’ state was he so vilified and hated,” Kleber said.

Lincoln was a second-generation Kentuckian. Both of his parents were Kentuckians, as were his beloved stepmother, his wife, his best friend and all three of his law partners. He grew up in Indiana surrounded by Kentuckians. His political idol was Henry Clay of Lexington.

Yet, in the election of 1860, a four-man race that Lincoln won with 40 percent of the national vote, he received only 1,364 votes in Kentucky — less than 1 percent. In Fayette County, where his wife’s family lived, he got only five votes. Four years later, he did little better, losing Kentucky to Gen. George McClellan, 61,478 votes to 26,592.

Think you have in-law problems? Mary Todd Lincoln’s family owned slaves and leaned Southern. Three of Lincoln’s brothers-in-law died fighting for the Confederacy. His Southern-sympathizing sisters-in-law were a constant source of political embarrassment.

Although Kentucky never seceded from the Union, most of the state’s powerful people were wedded to slavery and rabidly racist. Lincoln angered many Kentuckians by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation and allowing free blacks to join the Union Army.

Americans have a habit of turning their martyred leaders into saints, and they set the standard with Lincoln. From his face on the penny to the huge marble monument in Washington, Lincoln has been a vessel that generations of Americans have filled with their ideas of perfection.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the two-year national celebration of Lincoln’s bicentennial has been the peeling away of myth to reveal a more complex, more flawed and more human character who is even more worthy of admiration.

For example, Lincoln has long been revered by African-Americans as the Great Emancipator. Yet, we’re reminded that while he always considered slavery to be morally wrong, he thought runaway slaves should be returned to their masters, would have preferred gradual emancipation and once thought former slaves should be shipped back to Africa or to colonies in Panama.

Most white Kentuckians of the time considered Lincoln to be a dangerously radical liberal. It wasn’t because he believe in equality of the races, but because he believed that black people were fully human.

It’s always dangerous to judge historic figures — especially politicians — by modern standards. Politics has always been about compromise. Had Lincoln been more “enlightened,” he never would have been elected president. Does it matter that he ended slavery as a political tactic for preserving the union, rather than as a moral imperative? The result was the same.

Two centuries after Lincoln’s birth, there remains much we can learn from this most remarkable Kentuckian. He educated himself, listened to his conscience, learned from his mistakes, didn’t take himself too seriously, let his thinking evolve with the times and met his enormous challenges without flinching.

He also reminded us in simple but profound language what our country stands for — or should stand for.

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