03/15/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

How Lincoln Speaks to Us Today

Abraham Lincoln, whose two hundredth birthday we observe today, was our greatest president and a keen student of political expression. Though his personal hero was George Washington, he also had a high regard for Thomas Jefferson. "I never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence," Lincoln said in a speech at Independence Hall in Philadelphia in 1861, a month before his inauguration. His contemporary political heroes during his rise to power were also masters of political language, Henry Clay and Daniel Webster.

Lincoln believed that his two greatest achievements were saving the Union against the secession of the southern states which triggered the Civil War and issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, and today we honor him for these historic accomplishments. Lincoln had loathed slavery from his youth, but he was willing to abide the practice in the South if the slave states would remain peacefully in the Union. What Lincoln held to without compromise was the necessity of preventing slavery from entering the federal territories from which new states would be carved. He believed that if slavery could be confined to the states where it already existed, it would gradually wither and die. Unfortunately, the southern leaders, or at least a significant portion of them, also believed that slavery would be doomed if it could not be continuously invigorated with new additions from the public lands. They also coveted new slave states to increase their political clout in Washington. Almost from the moment of Lincoln's election in 1860, the states of the South began to leave the Union. And so the war came.

Thus was born the irony of a president who longed for peace being called to preside over four years of the bloodiest war in our history. Six hundred thousand young Americans died in that conflict, a number equal to the combined U.S. losses of World Wars I and II. Of course, the losses were so high because the soldiers on each side were Americans -- Americans killing Americans.

One could cite a number of reasons why Lincoln remains such a highly regarded president to all the generations since his assassination so many years ago. Certainly one of those factors has been the inspired and masterful speeches that came from his heart, mind, and soul. No other president possessed such compelling literary power and grace. Perhaps Thomas Jefferson and Woodrow Wilson would rate second and third among the presidents who crafted their own addresses.

I recall vividly during my years in the excellent public schools of Mitchell, South Dakota, being required to memorize and recite Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. That address stirred my respect for Lincoln then as it does today. It belongs with the Declaration of Independence, the preamble to the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights among our greatest state papers. Each of us might add others to that list. In my case I would add Lincoln's two inaugurals and the farewell addresses of two generals who served as president, George Washington and Dwight Eisenhower.

Lincoln worked diligently on his speeches. He would begin by reading the better speeches of Daniel Webster and Henry Clay, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, and he would draw upon his knowledge of the Bible, Shakespeare, Aesop's Fables and John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress. He also kept at hand a file of his own previous speeches. He would then begin to write in longhand a draft of his speech, which he would further refine each time he read it.

This process of reading selected works, digesting the most stirring and eloquent passages of other speeches, and then laboriously writing his own thoughts and words could sometimes take weeks or even months. When he finally had a draft that satisfied him he would call in a critic -- perhaps his secretary of state, William H. Seward -- and ask him to read the speech aloud in Lincoln's presence. Then the president would read it aloud to Seward and the two men would discuss where the draft might be improved. It was through this give and take that Seward suggested a phrase for Lincoln's first inaugural address that in the final draft became the now immortal phrase "the better angels of our nature."

Often Lincoln made his point with a story -- a parable. Here he addresses the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society in Milwaukee, on September 30, 1859:

It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: 'And this, too, shall pass away.' How much it expresses! How chastening in the home of pride! How consoling in the depths of affliction.

Perhaps we need to ponder these words in our present national need.

It might also be wise after eight years of "neo-conservatism" to recall Lincoln's words at Cooper Union in New York City on February 27, 1860: "What is conservatism? It is not adherence to the old and tried, against the new and untried?"

It is also relevant to our own day, while respecting Lincoln's appreciation for historical experience, to recall his appreciation for the need for change:

The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present, the occasion is filled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves and then we shall save our country.

George McGovern, a former U.S. senator from South Dakota and Democratic presidential nominee, is the author of Abraham Lincoln, just published by Times Books.