Duty and Context

Lincoln, Abraham; three-quarter-length, standing, ca. 1863 
Photographed by Mathew B. Brady 
Courtesy of the National Archives, photo no. 111-B-3656

Two hours later I emerge from the voter pamphlets with a completed ballot— all of the measures have been measured and my chosen ovals are completely filled in with a black pen. As usual, I'm a tad stupified as to exactly how some measures even make it to the ballot. I also harbor an underlying nervousness about such measures passing and wrecking havoc on our social services and/or state infrastructure. 

Nevertheless, I feel fortunate to live in a country enlightened enough to allow all of us a voice regarding government policy. As a somewhat biased educator I strongly believe that we must bend all our energies towards educating each successive generation about this privilege or it will be lost. Complacency is the first step towards authoritarianism and many signs point to the encouragement of complacency over education in America these past twenty five years. 

Perhaps voter turn-out for this election will be the first break in the chain of national complacency, and this break will help the populace feel empowered to renew our ownership of the democratic system. Owning the means for just government far outstrips the ownership of any material good or monetary amount. So while it's ironic that more people may turn out to vote because of their leaking pocketbook, it doesn't change the fact that this may foster a renewed recognition that the power for change lies within the will of the people.

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I have never witnessed an election that devoted so much time to referencing the past. Lincoln, Hoover, FDR, Kennedy, Carter, and Reagan have all been given their due and put in whatever context best suits candidate or party at the time. The fixation on Lincoln and FDR are perhaps the most telling, as they each speak directly to different stories of American struggle. 

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The most recent issue of the Smithsonian Magazine (November 2008) features an article entitled Election Day 1860 by Harold Holzer which outlines Lincoln's actions on the day of his election to the presidency. It is full of wonderful examples of voting procedures and campaign etiquette of the day. For example: stump speeches were seen as the resort of desperate and weak candidates, the vice president was chosen by party and not by the candidate himself, and to vote for oneself was a mark of immodesty. 

Lincoln is given his due as a witty and thoughtful candidate who recognizes the magnitude of his bid for president. Holzer alludes to Lincoln's understanding of what his presidency might entail. After all, on that day a portion of the states would not even allow his name on the ballots (which makes the issues of hanging chad in 2000 seem almost quaint in terms of voter rights) and partisan politics sowed such fear in the populace that all manner of rumors circulated the nation as election results began to come in. 

It's interesting to consider Lincoln's bid for the presidency in light of his famous "House Divided" speech just two years earlier. Without intention or malice Lincoln became the wedge that split that metaphorical house on 1860 and yet, one almost feels that it was within the destiny of the country to elect the man who would spark and subdue the most devastating ethical dilemma in American history.

Although the situation in America this coming November 4th isn't as openly volatile as the one facing the nation in 1860, who can say that it is any less important? It will be the job of history to make sense of our present— all we can do is vote.

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