Lincoln & Emerson Were Contemporaries

by Dr. Sam Heath

While I have learned to exercise caution regarding dogmatic statements, "pontificating" if you will, last night as I was reading Emerson's Address to Divinity Students again the thought came to me that he had made the dogmatic statements opposing many errors, which no longer needed to be stated by me.

There is a need for dogmatism when confronting evil and egregious error. In Emerson's time there was much religious superstition and error that needed to be confronted, an age of science and reason was dawning but much darkness remained. But Emerson and others have said much that needed to be said and I do not have to repeat such worthies, particularly since those errors are no longer a problem of the proportion they were then. I suppose this has had an impact on my reluctance to be dogmatic in many cases.

True enough, as I have matured and become better educated the tendency has been to become more cautious in making dogmatic statements. With increasing age, expanding education and maturity, there is an increasing awareness of the complexity of many things once thought simple.

I often resort to Lincoln and his culminating wisdom exhibited in his unsurpassed, sublime Gettysburg Address. The very founding of our nation, the "Great Experiment in Democracy" Alexis Tocqueville referred to, required the amazing group called our Founding Fathers. Deficient as they were in many things, the most obvious the refusal to abolish slavery by the Constitution, they were nevertheless the product of the some of the best of the ideas and ideals of the time. The very genius of men like Franklin, Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton, the truly amazing character of Washington, all these exhibited the result of a growing intellectualism leading to the thought so well considered and defended by Lincoln that a people could govern themselves.

Lincoln was, more than any other, cognizant of the very genius of such an ideal. Time had passed, and Lincoln had rooted himself in that ideal of self-government. He was the inheritor of the ideals of the wisdom of the Founding Fathers. And as the inheritor, he took possession and improved the inheritance, surpassing those "Fathers" as any parents would want of their child.

Lincoln and Emerson were contemporaries. No two men could have been further apart in background and education. And while many biographers of Lincoln give him little credit for metaphysical transcendentalism, no one who is thoroughly familiar with the writings of each man can fail to make the connection between them.

I find myself in today's minority, that of Herndon's, that Lincoln had a courtly love, a true Sir Walter Scott love, for Ann Rutledge and never recovered from the melancholy of her untimely death. I agree with Herndon because I think I know Lincoln as only a poet can know him. Such a love would impact Lincoln in a way comparable to the stories of Camelot. I believe Lincoln carried his Lady's Colors next to his heart for the rest of his life and impacted on every decision he made, and comes to full flower in his most sublime expression of the soul that loves in the Gettysburg Address. I believe his was the kind of love, the purest love that found vent in the greatest poetry ever written, in his profound and final commitment to the ideals of the Founding Fathers, and surpassing them to the ideals of unity and freedom.

Unlike Emerson, Lincoln's business became politics. And he was an astute politician. But no one questioned his integrity or honesty, even in the usual spoils system or deal-making characteristic then as now.

But I have wondered how differently things might have been for us had Lincoln been educated as Emerson? Would we have known Lincoln now for surpassing Dostoevsky or Tolstoy in literature? Would we be thinking of Lincoln the Great Philosopher instead of the Great Emancipator? Certainly he left enough to entertain such thoughts.



Samuel D. G. Heath, Ph.D.

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