Looking for Australia’s Lincoln

“With malice toward none, with charity for all”. 

Six weeks after he uttered these immortal words, Abraham Lincoln was dead. 

Today is the 150th Anniversary of that fatal shot by actor and assassin John Wilkes Booth in Ford’s Theatre on 10th Street in Washington DC. 

In the years that followed countless monuments have been built to the man who freed the slaves and saved the union.  His face has been carved into Mount Rushmore.  A 5.8 metre marble statue of the great man looks watchfully down the National Mall.  42 cities in the United States bear his name and thousands of streets.  Hollywood has also got in on the act.  In 2012 two different movies were made about Lincoln.  In one he ended slavery.  In the other he hunted vampires.  He has become more myth than man.  More granite than flesh.

It is not hard to understand why Lincoln is so revered.  His story is the American dream made real.  From a log cabin in the Kentucky wilderness to the White House. 

He only had one year of formal schooling.  He taught himself to read and write.  He was an outsider.  Mocked by others.  Called a “giraffe” and a “long armed ape”.  He suffered from depression.  Churchill had his “black dog”.  Lincoln had his “hippo”.   He also suffered more than his fair share of setbacks, defeats and failures.  It is not well known that the man who would become one of the greatest leaders the world has ever known lost five elections.

He was no saint.  He once drew a pistol on an opponent in a political debate.  He acted for slave owners in pursuit of their property rights.  As President he suspended habeas corpus.  He threw thousands of southern sympathisers in prison without trial.  When the courts ruled that he was acting illegally he ignored them.  He restricted freedom of the press and he shut down newspapers that were sympathetic to the Confederacy.

He was a politician.  An orator.  A persuader and a deal maker.  He wrote sentences that will live on forever.  He saved his country and he helped erase its original sin.

Australia doesn’t have anyone like Abraham Lincoln. Or do we? Think about people like Sir Henry Parkes or John Curtin. Parkes’ Tenterfield Oration is not the Gettysberg Address and Curtin died not of an assassin’s bullet but of heart disease in his bedroom on the first floor of the Lodge.  But both men share many of the traits of Honest Abe. 

Like Lincoln, both came from humble beginnings.  Curtin was the son of impoverished Irish migrants.  Parkes was the son of a poor tenant farmer from Warwickshire. Both had little formal schooling.  Like Lincoln they taught themselves.  Both also had their own personal frailties and experienced their own fair share of failure.  Parkes was declared bankrupt three times.  Curtin lost four elections, only one less than Lincoln. Parkes suffered great bouts of depression.  Curtin was be-devilled by the demon drink.  

Both also did great things. Parkes helped forge our nation.  Curtin helped save it.  There are no giant statues dedicated to these men.  No faces carved into mountains.  But there is a town in NSW and a suburb in the ACT.  A university.  A cottage in Freemantle and two seldom visited graves in Perth and Faulconbridge.

Curtin died 70 years ago this July. Parkes was born 200 years ago next month.  Why are these men, so long dead, so important?  Because, like Lincoln, they tell us that ordinary imperfect people can do the most incredible things.  They tell us to fight for the things we believe in.  To get back up when we get knocked down.  To never give up.  To never give in to hate.  To be the better angels of our nature.

There is a little bit of Lincoln in all of us. Dig deep enough and you will find it.

This piece was published in the Sydney Morning Herald on Tuesday, 14 April 2015