Stephen Samuel Wise in 1914 was asked to give a speech commemorating Lincoln’s birthday. The speech turned out to be one of lasting importance due to Wise’s incredible oratory abilities. Reading over his speech, I was struck not only by Wise’s rhetorical abilities, but by his observations of human tendency.
He stated, “Instead of following Lincoln, we too often strive to make it appear that he is following us. Instead of emulating him, we too often venture to appropriate him. Instead of sitting at his feet as his disciples, and humbly heeding the echoes of his lips, we attribute to him our own petty slogans.”
We can easily see this being done today. And with the 44th Presidential Inaugural today, we are seeing this more than usual. But what I want to focus on is our tendency to take the standards of history and degrade them to suit our own needs. This is especially prominent in the conservative movement with Ronald Reagan. Over the course of the last presidential elect, conservatives grasped various candidates and proclaimed, “He’s a true Reagan Conservative!” “He’s the next Ronald Reagan.” They often did this despite the fact that the candidates really did not fully represent all Reagan embodied. Rather than judging our candidates according the standard left by Reagan, we reduced the standard of Reagan down to the candidates.
Wise went on to state, “He did not solve all the problems of the future, but he did solve the problem of his own age. Ours is not to claim his name for our standards, but his aim as our standard.” If we truly do value the standard left by Reagan, we will begin to strive toward becoming like him rather than making him look like us.
One other thing conservatives constantly remark is that we will never see another like him. Wise even noticed this problem concerning Lincoln in his own time. “There could be no poorer way of honoring the memory of Lincoln than to assume, as we sometimes do, that the race of Lincolns has perished from the earth, and the we shall never look upon his like again. One way to ensure the passing of the Lincolns is to assume that another Lincoln can nevermore arise. Would we find Lincoln today, we must not seek him in the guise of a rail-splitter, nor as a wielder of the backwoodsman’s ax, but as a mighty smiter of wrong in high places and low.”
If we use Wise’s standard, I believe that the world did indeed look upon Lincoln’s like again. It was Ronald Reagan. And if we were to look before Lincoln, we would find that he was the same likeness as George Washington. They come under different names each time they appear and never in the same form, yet they all were “a mighty smiter of wrong in high places and low.” I believe we will see the like of Reagan, Lincoln, and Washington again. In the meanwhile, lets use the brightness of their legacy to light the pathway of our future.