2009-02-12

Abraham Lincoln at 200

Today is the 200th birthday of America’s most beloved president. He was born in a log cabin in Kentucky.

It’s a safe bet that the world will little note nor long remember anything said about the man here. But to all the tributes that continue to be made I want to add one vignette.

During a recent trip to Thailand I visited a museum devoted to that country’s history and the people who have shaped it. Dioramas lined the halls, filled with skilfully executed wax figures. I walked from room to room, seeing how Thai farmers have grown crops and Thai families have raised children. I saw all of Thailand’s kings, including Chulalongkorn, the revered monarch who abolished slavery, and his father, Mongkut, protector of the country's independence who features prominently in the book and film Anna and the King.

I rounded a corner. At a desk, with the Stars and Stripes stretched behind him on a wall, sat Abraham Lincoln. His stovepipe hat lay on a chair nearby. In one hand he held a signed copy of the Emancipation Proclamation.

And I felt moved and proud and grateful, all at once.

Lincoln’s influence on Taiwan’s history won’t garner much attention from American commentators today, but it is no secret here. Sun Yat-Sen looked to Lincoln for inspiration as he fought to establish a new, more humane society in China to replace imperial rule. His successor Chiang Kai-Shek saw the love Lincoln freely received generations after his death and hoped something like it could be his, when all was done.

Sun said his Three Principles of the People - nationhood, democracy, livelihood - were derived from Lincoln’s ideal of government 'of the people, by the people, and for the people.'

When Chiang took power he taught the children of China, and later Taiwan, to regard Sun as 'the Father of Our Country.' Aware of the association of that title with George Washington in America, Chiang hoped posterity would see him as the Lincoln to Sun’s Washington. Upon his death his party, the Kuomingtang, took the hint and built a memorial for Chiang whose inner chamber evoked the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC even as its architecture evoked Sun’s Mausoleum in Nanjing.

A chasm gapes, though, between wanting to be a Lincoln and actually being one. Chiang’s memorial in Taipei does not draw the admirers or prompt the hushed reverence Lincoln’s memorial in Washington inspires every day. A popular consensus is lacking even to leave the Taipei structure dedicated to Chiang.

The difference? Action. It is one thing to talk about democracy as a nice thing for the people to acquire some day, long after you and your cohorts have denied yourself none of the trappings of power and then left the scene. It is another thing to take democracy as a fundamental right belonging to all, then order your life and destiny according to its verdicts--and then, when you see it threatened, fight to the death for it, expecting nothing for yourself in return.

That is what Lincoln did. That is why free people still light candles for him, of their own free will, year after year.

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An earlier version of this post appeared on this date in 2008.

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Conductor's Notebook

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