- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 8, 2003

Feb. 12 marks the 194th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln. It was a bitter cold Sunday in 1809 when the baby was born to young Nancy Hanks Lincoln and her husband, Tom. Among the first to visit the Lincoln cabin that morning was 10-year-old Dennis Hanks, the new baby's cousin. Years later, he described the newborn Lincoln as "looking like red cherry pulp squeezed dry." After pausing a few seconds, Hanks added, "Abe was never much for looks."
Lincoln's birth went unnoticed that cold February except by the few neighbors living along the wilderness road where Tom and Nancy had their cabin. His presence would go mostly unnoticed for another 49 years until 1858, when he ran for the U.S. Senate seat held by incumbent Stephen A. Douglas. Lincoln burst onto the national scene in a series of debates with Douglas by arguing whether the Declaration of Independence meant to include all men or just some men when it spoke of equality.
Lincoln lost his bid for the Senate but emerged as a national candidate whose forceful words caught the country's attention.
Two years after his senatorial defeat Lincoln became president of the United States, in large part due to the debates with Douglas. His election, however, proved to be sectional. While winning only 39 percent of the popular vote, Lincoln won 63 percent of the electoral vote, none from the slave states. He was not even listed on the ballot in the deep South.
His election brought about a bloody civil war testing whether the Founders' promise for equality would become part of the American dream. It did, thanks to Lincoln, who never lived to see the ultimate fruit of his labors.
Five weeks into Lincoln's second term, John Wilkes Booth abruptly ended the president's life. Like Moses, Lincoln had led his people to the Promised Land only to be denied entry for himself. His dream of a better America would go forward without him.
From time to time historians like to poll themselves asking each other to rank the presidents in order of their greatness. Between 1948 and 1998, six of these surveys have taken place and in every one of them Lincoln has been the winner. While the rest of the pack has fought over the remaining positions, Lincoln has left his fellow presidents in the proverbial dust. The question is why?
Most people associate Lincoln's greatness with his role as a war president, crediting him for saving the Union in its hour of greatest peril. Lincoln's legacy, however, goes well beyond this most important accomplishment. Of the handful of greatest acts adopted by Congress during the past 200-plus years, three occurred as a result of Lincoln's presidency and all three dramatically changed America for the better.
On Sept. 22, 1862, five days after Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's failed invasion of Maryland at the battle of Antietam, Lincoln released his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation declaring that "all persons held as slaves within any state or designated part of a state, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free;…."
The issuance of the proclamation created a firestorm in many circles. Lincoln was forced to issue his proclamation as a war measure since slaves were protected property under the Constitution. Confiscating the enemy's property was sanctioned under the war powers of a president. Lincoln justified the proclamation as a war measure using his authority as commander in chief. His proclamation would have effect only as a measure aimed at hurting an enemy in time of war.
Thus slaves within the border states of Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri and Delaware were excluded from Lincoln's proclamation since these states remained in the Union. Modern pundits have trivialized Lincoln's proclamation, pointing out that because it was limited to those areas under Confederate control, it freed few if any of the 4 million slaves. These critics, however, miss the point. While Lincoln's proclamation freed few, if any, slaves when it was issued, it redefined the war.
The Declaration of Independence, after all, did not free a single American; it took a war to do that, but it established a policy upon which that war would be fought and men would give their lives. Lincoln's proclamation did the same thing; it established a policy upon which the war would be fought, and thus changed the entire direction of the war and, ultimately, the nation.
Despite its limited reach, the Emancipation Proclamation was an enormous step for Lincoln and for the United States. It was the first time that the abolition of slavery became the official policy of the government. It was followed in late 1865 by the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery nationwide.
Another act, which Lincoln signed during summer 1862, forever changed the face of America. Known as the Morrill Act, after Sen. Justin S. Morrill of Vermont, we know it today as the College Land-Grant Act.
This far-reaching piece of legislation was designed to both invigorate old and create new institutions of higher learning in every state, present and future, and make them available to citizens at a nominal cost.
To do this, the act set aside 17 million acres of public land to be apportioned to each state, based on their congressional representation. The land would then be sold, the funds to be used to establish state educational institutions. The act even set aside public land for each of the Confederate states then in rebellion, placing their share of the sale money in escrow to be awarded to them at such time as they ceased their rebellion and rejoined the Union an unselfish act that only a statesman of great vision and courage could have carried out in the midst of a civil war. In all, $7.5 million was provided for state universities throughout the republic.
The United States stands pre-eminent today in the world in the area of higher public education. Some 70 land-grant colleges thrive today in all 50 states. As a group, the land-grant schools far outrank all other institutions of higher learning in granting degrees at the bachelor and doctoral levels clearly a monument to the vision of Lincoln, a man who described his own education as "defective."
During that extraordinary year of 1862, the Lincoln administration engineered the passage of a third great act in May.
Known today as the Homestead Act, this legislation also changed the face of America. The act made available, at no cost, 1.8 billion acres of public land apportioned in quarter sections of 160 acres to be claimed by any individual, citizen and noncitizen alike, who was willing to work the land for a period of five years and improve it. At the end of the five years, the land and all of its improvements belong to the individual without cost, free and clear.
Three million American families filed under the Homestead Act between 1866 and 1916; while 50 percent of all homesteads failed, 50 percent succeeded and in doing so established 1.5 million American family farms. The law opened up the Midwest, creating 13 new states and resulted in an agricultural phenomenon that remains the envy of the world.
While it is true that Lincoln saved the Union in 1865, along the way he also defined America's future in ways no president before or since has done. In the field of human rights, higher education and free enterprise, Lincoln truly stands as our greatest president.
On Feb. 12, it behooves all of us as beneficiaries of these three monumental events in our nation's life to pause and reflect on the greatness of this country and the one president whose vision brought it about. Happy birthday, Mr. Lincoln. And thank you.

Edward Steers Jr.'s book, "Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln," was published in 2001. He lives in Berkeley Springs, W.Va.

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