O tan-faced prairie boy,
Before you came to camp came many a welcome gift,
Praises and presents came and nourishing food, till at last among the recruits,
You came, taciturn, with nothing to give –– we but look’d on each other,
When lo! more than all the gifts of the world you gave me.
-Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
Monday, the 12th of February, marks the 198th anniversary of the birth of my hero, Abraham Lincoln. I’m not just a fan of the man because I’m in Illinois, either. Although respecting the man seems to be a prerequisite to settling down in the Land of Lincoln, my arrival upon these shores, so to speak, came by virtue of birth. My arrival at Lincoln came as a matter of choice -- and yet, the choice was a natural one.
I gather that most people think of Mister Lincoln as that cartoonish fellow in the stovepipe hat, down-home and folksy. They remember his beard, they remember the Gettysburg Address, and they surely studied that he was the President of the United States during probably the greatest challenge the nation could face, and he led the country well.
That’s not the primary reason for my cheering for the man. My rationale is purely personal: if not for him, I would not exist. He was our family’s Saint Valentine, in a manner of speaking.
In 1862, in the midst of the growing chaos, a bill was put on Lincoln’s desk which his predecessor, James Buchanan, had vetoed. The bill was the Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Bill. Lincoln signed it into law. What the Morrill Act did was to allow each state in the Union to set aside a percentage of land to sell, for the express purpose of establishing a university. My parents met at one of those universities. Their eyes met, they fell in love, in a setting made possible by Lincoln’s decision. The rest, as they say, is history.
Aside from setting the stage for the wonder of my birth, though, that bill Lincoln signed gave us what eventually would become the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC), and set precedent for the later establishment of historically black colleges like Tuskeegee University in Alabama, and Native American schools such as the American Indian Higher Education Consortium in Virginia. Not so bad for a wartime chief, eh?
Let’s add, now, that, during the same year he signed the Pacific Railway Act of 1862, and then, two years later the Pacific Railway Act of (surprise!) 1864. These acts made it possible for federal support to be given to the private companies building railways (the Union Pacific Railway and the Central Pacific Railroad) to create a transcontinental line. It not only gave land, but ultimately cash, so that the railroad companies could get all the land they needed to build a great road west. Granted, the Acts did allow for some egregious corruption, but, ultimately, it gave the country the one thing it needed to bind the land together as one. I won’t say the end justified all the means, but the end was, after all, good. Much else, after all this time, can be forgiven.
Ultimately, Lincoln also made my home what it is today, by creating the United States Department of Agriculture. Yes, the guys who make sure your food is safe were first put together as a government agency with Mister Lincoln’s signature. And beneath that big USDA umbrella now rests the Small Community and Rural Development division, which has for many years assisted Monmouth -- and towns just like us-- in keeping competitive, alive and afloat. For the tree-huggers, too, the USDA has a division focusing on conservation: Natural Resources and Environment, subdivided into the Forest Service and the Social Conservative Service (SCS) , who work toward a cooperative effort between landowners, developers, communities, etc., to protect our water and soil.
In other words, Lincoln was far from merely a wartime president. He was one singular man who simultaneously saved and reshaped the country, helped to make it the great nation that it is today. In the process, he made quite a few of us what we are, as well. It was, truly, more than all the gifts of the world he gave us.