I came to love the Fourth Of July first because as a teenager we lived near Riverside Park in Buffalo N. Y. If you were as lucky as I was, every Fourth you too would have had a community parade, carnival rides, great ethnic food tents (or food trucks today) and of course hot dogs, hamburgers and cotton candy and various amateur entertainments. There were also a couple of beer tents to try out your fake ID (too bad everybody knew everybody else!) There were always bands and a talent contest at the portable stage for a couple of days running. Of course, the celebration was always capped off with fireworks on the night of the Fourth. A perfect summer holiday for a teenager and everyone else.
The Fourth later became my favorite holiday as an adult because it is America’s “birthday” and I learned that anyone fortunate enough to have been born here are among the luckiest people in the world. Our Constitution and our day- to- day government with all its faults, is the envy of many who have given up on their homelands and want a new start. Many immigrants risk all to come here. So, like the guy in the George M. Cohan song, I still feel like a “real live nephew of my Uncle Sam, born on the Fourth of July!”
There are two things that I am proud of being, first a son of my Seneca (Indian) father and my Serbian mother, and second and most important of all, to be an American.
My love of America began with my reading as a sophomore in high school of a fictional account of the life of a German immigrant named John Peter Altgeld. It was titled The American and it was written by Howard Fast. As a result of this awakening of my civic awareness I also became a lifelong student of the life of Abraham Lincoln and so I discovered two lifelong heroes AND ultimately a love for my country.
I am proud of my heritage in part because if you want to understand yourself as the ancient Greeks admonished us, you have to know yourself. To figure out what is important in life I believe you need to know who and perhaps where you come from. My family began with a Seneca father and a Serbian mother but now includes Italians, English, Irish, Hungarians, Mexicans, blacks, probably Asians and everyone else and people of all kinds of faiths. This is why I find it unimaginable for anyone to dislike a person simply because of the group they come from. It should not surprise you to learn my mother was always known for her acceptance and friendliness to all!
My celebration of the Fourth this year is slightly tempered by the report that Cornell University, an “elite” Ivy League school in New York State has removed from the University premises a bust of President Lincoln and a copy of the Gettysburg Address. Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg Address and some of us believe it to be as important to our nation as the Declaration of Independence and the U. S. Constitution. For Cornell to do this the week before the Independence Day holiday smacks of the Democrats’ advice to their members beginning about fifteen years ago to attend to raise political hell at family holiday gatherings. Whatever. Cornell`s actions in this regard is clearly a political act and such political acts should be outside the purview of any institution of higher learning. The only difference in this boorishness which unfortunately has become common in America lately, is the object of this ban and censorship. There is no good reason why any reasonable American can object to the display of a Lincoln bust or anything written in the Gettysburg Address, the full text of which can be read in a few short minutes. Author Gary Wills has written an excellent study of the address which is recommended to those who may wish to have a better understanding of its broader political significance to the Nation.
Why is Lincoln considered in any way a threat or otherwise worthy of censor by Cornell University administrators or anyone else and what right do the administrators have to act as censors of which Presidents` images and writings are allowed on campus? Would Cornell advocate for the removal of Lincoln’s official portrait from the Capitol in Washington and the Gettysburg address from the Library of Congress?
I commend to you Lincoln`s Gettysburg Address which explains in part the reason for confidence in our country`s ongoing commitment to social and political progress and recognizes that America is and always will be an experiment in self government.
Hundreds of thousands died in the Civil War to determine whether our country would survive an attempted tearing apart of America over the extension of slavery. President Lincoln lead us through the Civil War and while still fighting the war (at the time of the Address, whether the Nation would survive was still an uncertain proposition) he had the foresight to see the need for a rededication to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the U S Constitution and he accomplished this in his short address at the Gettysburg battlefield dedication of land for a cemetery for the battle`s dead.
In the past my reaction to an act like Cornell`s censoring of America`s past and similar acts to diminish America in the eyes of its citizens and the world through acts of symbolic destructiveness was to fight against those acts. Now it is clear to me that that path is wrong because it is meaningless and I believe it is not what Lincoln, the master politician, would have done either. I am confident that like Mark Twain Lincoln must somewhere have pointed out the foolishness of getting stuck in the mud with those who love a mud bath.
If I had fundamental disagreements with Lincoln`s politics over the years it was because of his savvy practicality in politics. (I was a foolish idealist for many of my adult years!) I finally realized that Lincoln’s political practicality was to always be open to trying anything that might work to address a problem as long as it could not be proven to be a bad thing to do. Like slavery, which he finally worked out as morally wrong by the simple construct that it was just not right for one man to eat the bread earned by another man and that just as he refused to be a slave he refused to own a slave.
Lincoln would not care that Cornell found his bust and address threatening or bad for whatever their silly reasons may be, though as a man of infinite curiosity he would be interested in knowing why the University saw a need to ban them. On the other hand he would nor have lost any sleep over finding out why Cornell did what it did but he would be truly interested right now in addressing the effect of inflation on the food budgets and fuel costs of Americans, especially the poor, for example.
To sum up, I believe Lincoln would simply accept what Cornell has done to his bust and The Gettysburg Address because though it is asinine it may not be worth the hassle to clarify its propriety. Also, it is really a small thing which, however, clarifies for us who and what Cornell is which is always important to know in these matters. When they ask for endowments, donors should know what they are funding and when we meet someone from Cornell maybe this is who and what they are. Good to know. Also, we can and perhaps should ask is Cornell going to be consistent and hold every historical and other people today to whatever their current so called “standards” are? Will they be banning Shakespeare’s works from their libraries because he depicted women in his period as society treated them at that time and not how we today believe women should be treated? How about FDR who put American Japanese including their children into armed guarded camps for whatever his reason was or President Truman for strike breaking when he intervened in the Pullman Porters` Union strike in 1948 to the displeasure of the largely black union?
Finally when Lincoln was once accused of being two faced he pointed out that if he had two faces “would he be wearing this one?” As a realist, Lincoln might thank Cornell for not showing his ugly face to more people! With regards to the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln would be the first to note that anyone right there on the Cornell campus can download the Address off the internet in a flash!
America rightly enjoys celebrating our Nation’s birthday on Independence Day and today lets think about Lincoln’s words on the import of the civil war as expressed in the Gettysburg Address:
The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Enjoy Independence Day!
Luke M. Abrams