We Cannot Escape History

I was born four score and seven years after Abraham Lincoln died.

That’s a cute little coincidence, but it’s more than that: it tells me that on the day I was born, there were people living in this country who had been born as slaves.

Not many of them, certainly. But there were lots and lots of people who had learned about American slavery directly from parents, grandparents, aunts or uncles who had actually been slaves.

Imagine that.

Abraham Lincoln has always seemed almost mythical to me, like a figure from Mount Olympus. His life, his presidency and his death seem frozen in amber, immutable and inevitable. Yet, on the day I was born, there were probably a handful of people still living who had once, as children, heard him speak.

When Lincoln himself was born, Thomas Jefferson was president. By the time Lincoln was president, Jefferson and his peers had become creatures of myth.

Time turns life into history and history into mythology. We wait for a mythical leader to appear and solve our problems, but life has never worked that way. As Barack Obama said during the 2008 campaign: “We are the people we’ve been waiting for.” If our problems are to be solved, we have to do it ourselves.

From Lincoln’s second annual message to Congress (the State of the Union Message of his time):

Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance or insignificance can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor to the last generation.

What we do, or fail to do, matters. That’s no myth.