If I Can

Thirty years after the Civil War ended, former Colonel Alexander K. McClure began compiling sayings of the man he believed was a great national healer, Abraham Lincoln. His book, “Lincoln’s Yarns and Stories,” first published in 1901, has been in print as recently as 1976, and listener Roger Kluck was kind enough to help me discover it.

One of the most interesting stories in the book, isn’t about a folksy saying of Lincoln’s, but about how his career-long battle with Stephen A. Douglas ended.

In 1858, when both were running for the US Senate seat (now occupied by Barack Obama), Lincoln and Douglas famously debated in cities all across Illinois. Although Lincoln lost the election, he compiled and published the debates, the book became a bestseller, and it helped propel him to a victory over the same Stephen Douglas in the Presidential battle of 1860.

It was a contentious battle, threatening to tear the nation apart, and after Lincoln’s electoral win there was open talk around the nation that he was a “traitor to the white race,” “anti-American,” “not one of us,” and a “man who should be eliminated.” With open talk of assassination, and a deeply divided nation, Stephen A. Douglas did what only a true statesman could do.

As Colonel McClure tells the story:

“When Mr. Lincoln delivered his first inaugural he was introduced by his friend, United States Senator E. D. Baker, of Oregon. He carried a cane and a little roll--the manuscript of his inaugural address. There was moment's pause after the introduction, as he vainly looked for a spot where he might place his high silk hat.

“Stephen A. Douglas, the political antagonist of his whole public life, the man who had pressed him hardest in the campaign of 1860, was seated just behind him. Douglas stepped forward quickly, and took the hat which Mr. Lincoln held helplessly in his hand.

“‘If I can’t be President,’ Douglas whispered smilingly to Mrs. Brown, a cousin of Mrs. Lincoln and a member of the President's party, ‘I at least can hold his hat.’”

John McCain now has an opportunity to heal the wounds he, Stephen Schmidt, and Karl Rove (working in the background) have inflicted on this nation. It’ll be interesting to see if he’ll show us he’s the kind of statesman and true American hero that Stephen A. Douglas was.

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