Lyndon B. Johnson photo

Remarks at a Ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial.

February 12, 1967

General Herrick, ladies and gentlemen:

There is a singular quality about Abraham Lincoln which sets him apart from all our other Presidents.

One cannot help but sense it here at this magnificent memorial. The moving statue by Daniel Chester French 'provides three dimensions of Lincoln, but there is something else--a fourth dimension of brooding compassion, of love for humanity; a love which was, if anything, strengthened and deepened by the agony that drove lesser men to the protective shelter of callous indifference.

The Lincoln papers show his total dedication to hard responsibility.

During the war, his orders to his generals constantly dealt with soldiers convicted of desertion and sentenced to death. The President could have simply endorsed the recommendation of the Secretary of War. He might have treated the execution of deserters as only a routine affair in wartime.

But he rejected this "easy" bureaucratic solution.

Time and time again the order went out: "Suspend the sentence of execution until the Judge Advocate General shall have reported to the President." And rarely was the penalty ever reinstated.

Lincoln did not come to the Presidency with any set of full-blown theories, but rather with a mystical dedication to this Union--and an unyielding determination to always preserve the integrity of the Republic.

He was the least arrogant of men, endowed with a humility which led him to write in 1864:

"I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me. Now, at the end of three years struggle, the nation's condition is not what either party or any man devised or expected."

Lincoln was often racked by doubts. In the conduct of grave human affairs, dogmatic certainty is often the handmaiden of catastrophe.

But doubt can lead to disaster too-paralyzing the will when the times cry out for action.

The true quality of Lincoln emerges, I think, from the fact that for 4 long brutal years he never permitted his anguish and doubt to ever deter him from acting.

He recognized that the evidence he had to go on often was very incomplete. Yet he made a total commitment to action. And this commitment, while always total, was never fanatical. Lincoln's mind was always open. He was always searching for a new light. He was looking for a better policy. His intelligence never rested. The consequence was that, as he forced himself to confront changing reality, he never ceased to grow.

Nothing illustrates this spiritual growth more vividly than the development of Lincoln's views on the race question.

At the onset of the Civil War, his position was one of personal abhorrence towards slavery. But, really, his main political objective was to maintain the Union and not to eliminate slavery.

Gradually he became convinced that to restore the Union it was necessary to destroy slavery. And once this was settled in his mind, he turned to action.

In his Annual Message to the Congress in December 1862, he stated his case quite precisely:

"In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free--honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last, best hope of earth."

As soon as he had committed himself to the elimination of slavery, Lincoln was brought face to face with the ultimate logical question: What status would the freed slaves have in the American community?

Would they be free and equal? Or would they, like the free Negroes of that time, live in limbo, technically free but in fact unequal and discriminated against?

Initially, Lincoln had avoided this ominous issue--the issue that was really to haunt American politics for a century after his martyrdom. Earlier, he had accepted the received wisdom of his time. He had advocated separate ways for the black and the white "races." In practice this meant support for the colonization of free Negroes abroad, in Africa, and in Central America.

But Abraham Lincoln's remorseless realism made it impossible for him to hold this view very long. Leading Negro spokesmen of that era demanded their full rights as Americans--Americans here, in this land-this land that they had helped to build. And the idea of organizing an exodus of over 4 million Negroes--even if they were willing to leave--was much too fearful to contemplate.

So Lincoln began his troubled journey towards a new concept which would go beyond theories of black power or white power; beyond the ancient blinders of racism to the establishment of a multi-racial community in which a man's pride in his racial origins would be wholly consistent with his commitment to the common endeavor.

He died before he had the opportunity to give voice to this vision.

We can never know what course history would have taken had Booth's bullet not brought down this towering political saint and stoked the fires of vengeance.

We do know that it has taken more than a century for us as a nation to assert the ideal that Lincoln had barely formulated.

It has required the hard lessons of a hundred years to make us realize, as he realized, that emancipating the Negro was an act of liberation for the whites.

Abraham Lincoln was the "Great Emancipator"--of black and white alike. In a world long troubled by the curse of racism, there is a commanding clarity in Lincoln's belief that no man can truly live in creative equality when society imposes the irrational spiritual poverty of discrimination on any man.

For untold centuries men of different colors, and religions, and castes, and ethnic backgrounds have despised each other, have fought each other, have enslaved and killed each other in the name of these false idols. And at what a terrible cost in crippled souls--in human creativity wasted on hate-in lost opportunities for growth and learning and common prosperity.

Today, racial suspicions, racial hatreds, and racial violence plague men in almost every part of the earth: in Asia, in Africa, in Europe, in Latin America, in the United States. It is man's ancient curse and man's present shame. The true liberators of mankind have always been those who showed men another way to live--than by hating their brothers.

In what he did to lift the baleful burden of racism from the American soul, Abraham Lincoln stands as a teacher--not just to his people--black and white alike--but to all humanity.

Note: The President spoke at 12:22 p.m. from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. His opening words referred to Maj. Gen. C. J. Herrick, Commanding General, Military District of Washington, U.S. Army.

The ceremony commemorating President Lincoln's birthday is an annual event sponsored by the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, District of Columbia Commandery.

Lyndon B. Johnson, Remarks at a Ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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