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Judge Barbara M. Quinn
Danbury Bar Association

May 1, 2009

Lincoln: Why He Matters Today

Hon. Barbara M. QuinnI first want to thank you for inviting me to address you today. One of the best parts of my job is getting out into the field, to visit the lawyers and judges who work on the front lines every day. So I appreciate this opportunity you’ve provided for me to visit Danbury.

And as I offer you the following observation, let me just add that I have not a scintilla of evidence to support what I’m about to say. However, I do think I can safely speculate that if you asked a group of people to name five historical figures whom they would have most liked to meet, that President Abraham Lincoln would be in the top three time after time.

Why is that? Why our fascination with a gangly man whose shirt sleeves and pants legs always struggled to reach their intended destination? Why our reverence for a country boy who grew up in the back woods of Kentucky and Indiana and once told someone, “If I were two-faced, would I be wearing this one?”

I think the answer is within the many different layers of Abraham Lincoln. There is, for example, the triumph and wisdom of a determined, self-taught pioneer who overcame a difficult childhood to achieve the highest office in the land. There is the tragedy of a father losing his own sons and sending to war other people’s sons, knowing that the certain deaths of thousands would break their parents’ hearts. And then there is the tapestry of everything in between – the humanity of a man who found time to write a sweet letter to an 11-year-old girl who suggested that he “let your whiskers grow” threaded together with the resolute, shrewd politician who managed a country, his Cabinet and a colorful group of headstrong generals.

That resoluteness was most necessary during the four years where we know Lincoln the best, when his overriding goal was to keep this nation as one. As battles raged in places called Antietam, Chancellorsville, Vicksburg, and Gettysburg, that objective rightfully evolved to include the abolition of slavery.

It really is quite a remarkable record for a man who was on this Earth just 56 years. How, I ask myself, could someone possibly stay on track with that kind of an agenda on his plate?

The task is even more daunting when you consider the changes that occurred throughout his lifetime. In 1809, the year of Lincoln’s birth, the web site HistoryOrb tells us that Robert Fulton patented the steamboat; the first U.S. geology book was published; the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that federal government was greater than any state; and James Madison became the first president inaugurated in American-made clothes.

Over the next five decades, Abraham Lincoln’s society changed a great deal. Between the 1830s and 1860s, Wikipedia says, railroads became the primary method of transportation over canals. The Industrial Revolution continued to change forever how our country would do business both within and without, and millions of immigrants arrived in our country, hopeful for a new and promising future. Our borders grew, our government grew, our population grew and the great cancer of slavery grew. And although he had neither the Internet nor television news, I am sure that life spun just as rapidly for Lincoln and his contemporaries as it does for us today.

I would submit to you, however, that the lure of Abraham Lincoln to our wired 21st century minds is that he somehow stayed grounded despite all of the turmoil. In a nutshell, it is that proverbial inner compass that we all hope to develop, along with the resilience and set of values that are needed to confront the challenges that any generation faces.

How is that relevant to us, as officers, judges and users of our courts, today? I would answer that is relevant in many different ways.

You all have heard the phrase, “He/she never forgot where they came from.” We rightfully view it as a compliment and one that could easily apply to Lincoln.

He was in large part a homespun lawyer with a gift of gab and a keen awareness that the real victory for a client often resulted from mediation. “Discourage litigation,” he once said. “Persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can. As a peacemaker, the lawyer has superior opportunity of being a good man. There will still be business enough.”

That statement is as true today as it was in the 1800s. And, I believe, a more subtle but no less important message is this: never lose the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. More than ever, we need to retain our humanity and our goodness; I would submit to you in fact that the stakes have never been higher. For if we lose our humanity, we lose ourselves. Lincoln understood this completely when he said, “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.”

I believe too that Lincoln shows us the wisdom of approaching the complex challenges we face with the simplicity of our core values. Here was a man who literally stood on the brink of America destroying itself – and in my book that surely qualifies as a complicated situation. Yet amid this crisis, he seemed to gain strength and direction from two documents that have as much meaning for us today: the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. Put simply, he had great faith in the words of our forefathers, their form of government, and the people of this great nation. “I am a firm believer in the people,” he once said. “If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts.”

It’s important to note as well Lincoln’s reliance on the input of others – even those who ripped him apart. His Cabinet alone was enough to shake the mettle of a lesser individual, but through it all, Lincoln somehow managed to become a better leader. He listened, he collaborated, he drew together different positions – but in the end, the decision made was his own.

So as we deal with our own problems, I would suggest to you that we keep our eye on our mission, our vision, and our core values, much as Lincoln did. For if we rely on these basic principles as our road map, then we will not lose our way.

As many of you know, the Judicial Branch has spent the past two years refocusing on its mission, vision and core values through the development of a strategic plan that will guide us over the next three to five years. This plan, the result of the Public Service and Trust Commission appointed by Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers, will well serve our judiciary over the rocky months to come.

Now, can I stand here and tell you that Abraham Lincoln guided the development of this plan? No, I can’t. But make no mistake about, the lessons of Lincoln – even if unintentionally so – are evident throughout this document. Lessons such as: Don’t be deceived by appearances. Remember that courtesy and the little things matter. Be empathetic to other people’s situations. Amid despair or change, remember what’s important. Amid complexity, embrace simplicity. Stand your ground when you need to and don’t look back. Remind yourself that an adversarial system doesn’t preclude mediation; in fact, seek peace. Be accountable. Seek input from others but know who the boss is. Collaborate, don’t destroy.

And finally, remember who you serve. Ultimately, we are not doing what we do for ourselves. William Lee Miller, the brilliant author of the book Lincoln’s Virtues put it best when he wrote: “His self did not get in the way.” Ladies and gentlemen, the true lesson of Abraham Lincoln for us, today, is that ourselves must not get in the way of our duties and responsibilities to the people we serve. That is our greatest task, and our success will make it easier for our young people to deal with the many complex challenges that they will doubtless face. To the generations before us and the generations to follow, we owe no less -- and Abraham Lincoln would expect no less.

Thank you again for the opportunity to speak to you. It has been an honor, and I appreciate the time you have given me.


Remarks by Chief Justice Rogers


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