On Monday, the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission co-sponsored a dinner in Washington, DC -- the first of many Lincoln-related meal events this week. The keynote address was offered by Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, who is both the Senate Asst. Majority Leader and one of the co-chairmen of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.
In his remarks, Durbin offered some personal reflections on Lincoln's legacy, noting that he was not a Lincoln scholar. While Durbin's comments were thoughtful, if perhaps occasionally too kind toward Lincoln. Mentioning that he was the son of an immigrant, Durbin credited Lincoln with standing up against the nativist "Know Nothings" in the 1850s -- which is sort of true, though Lincoln was rather muted in his opposition, hoping to gain support from former "Know Nothings" in his 1858 and 1860 campaigns, as David Herbert Donald (among others) pointed out in his biography.
Still, I found two pieces intriguing. Near the end of his speech, Durbin pointed out some of Lincoln's non-Civil War related presidential achievements, such as the transcontinental railroad and the land grant college system, a less than subtle suggestion that the current federal government can establish long-lasting programs despite focusing on overseas military operations and the domestic economic crisis. Despite the political overtones, I'm happy to hear people point out that Lincoln never allowed the war to completely preempt the federal government -- something scholars too often overlook or minimize.
And twice, Durbin referred to Lincoln as "the one truly indispensable American." He was "the central figure in our history": "His leadership and unyielding commitment to the principles enshrined in our Declaration of Independence not only preserved the Union, but created a new nation, as he said, 'worthy of the saving.'" One might initially believe that Durbin is overstating Lincoln's importance -- what about Washington? -- but his argument is more complex than that. Through his leadership, Lincoln, some have suggested, created a new United States in his attempt to simply preserve the union. If this argument is true, as Durbin evidently believes, then Durbin's claim about Lincoln might also be true. It is, at the very least, interesting.
Click here to read Durbin's full remarks, as released by his office.