PRIME MINISTER - PREMIER MINISTRE
Reflections on Abraham Lincoln
Upon the death of Abraham Lincoln, it is said, his War Secretary, Edward Stanton, broke the anguished silence with the words, "Now he belongs to the ages."
There is some debate over Stanton's exact words, but in any case the sentiment is accurate.
One hundred and fifty years since his death, the 16th American president not only belongs to the ages, but to the masses as well. For he remains an inspiration to people everywhere who cherish or aspire to the values for which he stood.
To be sure, your Canadian neighbours were bound up deeply in the great struggles and achievements of Lincoln's life--the emancipation of the slaves, and the preservation of the Union.
For tens of thousands of fugitive slaves fleeing the cruel oppression of America's "peculiar institution" via the Underground Railroad, Canada was the Promised Land beneath the North Star that guided them.
In turn, tens of thousands of Canadians took up arms for Lincoln's cause. Among their number was the poet Thomson, who fought as a Union cavalryman; Calixa Lavallee, who would later compose what would become Canada's national anthem, and who was wounded at Antietam on the Civil War's most awful day; and, of course, Edward Doherty, the officer who led the posse that tracked down and killed Lincoln's assassin.
And make no mistake: Canada's own union -- our Confederation, established just two years after Lincoln' death -- owes much to that terrible war, though from a very different perspective.
Sir John A. Macdonald, our other founding fathers, and the diverse peoples they represented were terrified by the prospect of invasion and annexation -- and their consequent marginalization or assimilation. Those in British North America who had thus hoped for Southern success were now faced with newly reunited America and one of the most powerful standing armies the world had ever known.
This Canadian ambivalence -- admiration for Lincoln and his values, aversion to the Republic he led and preserved -- shaped the institutions of our new Dominion. There was affirmation: That a government of the people, by the people, and for the people could successfully unite half a continent, from coast to coast to coast. Yet the horrors of the war----
pitting state against state also inspired the establishment of a strong central government, retaining as its head the Monarch, "placed above the region or party," in Macdonald's words.
Still, when Lincoln died, Canadians mourned with those in the North. Shops closed, bells tolled, flags hung at half-staff and churches filled.
"He was the spiritual promise and the fact of democracy," and our renowned General Sir Arthur Currie, no stranger to the cruelties of war, years later in paying tribute to the fallen president.
I have always thought that leaders are judged by their response to great crises; that their finest hours arise out of their countries' darkest days. Such was the case with Lincoln. This is why he is a giant of history.
He wished fervently for peace, but did not hesitate to fight when he believed the cause just.
He sought charity for those he had engaged as enemies in combat, resisted vengeance on the part of his victorious friends.
He spoke with clarity and eloquence of powerful principles, while acting with artful expediency to move them forward.
Yet it is those words that are most remembered. They spoke strongly to his countrymen -- indeed, to the world -- in the 19th century. They speak strongly still.
"If we have given Shakespeare to America," said the writer John Buchan, later Lord Tweedsmuir and Governor General of Canada, "you have paid us back with Lincoln."
The Rt. Hon. Stephen Harper, P.C., M.P.
Prime Minister of Canada