John Cribb - Old Abe

John Cribb - Old Abe

General notes:

Announce podcast subscribe at the middle of the show (everyone asks for 5-star reviews, but I think you should just ask for honest feedback)


Lincoln announced a "new birth of freedom" in the Gettysburg address – to make good on the promises of the declaration of independence.
Those who denounce Lincoln as racist or try to cancel him are uninformed.
This is not the first time America has been so divided.


John Cribb is a bestselling author who has written about subjects ranging from history to education. His previous work includes coauthoring The American Patriot’s Almanac and The Educated Child, both New York Times bestsellers; co-editing The Human Odyssey, a 3-volume world history text, and developing on-line history courses. John also worked as former U.S. Secretary of Education Bill Bennett’s collaborator on the New York Times #1 bestseller The Book of Virtues. His writing has been published in the Wall Street JournalUSA Today, the Chicago TribuneNational Review Online, and several other publications. During the Reagan administration, he worked at the Department of Justice, the Department of Education, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Old Abe is John’s first novel. Abraham Lincoln has been his hero from history since boyhood, when he read about Abe growing up on the frontier in the old Childhood of Famous Americans biography series. John’s bookshelves are now full of Lincoln books. His love of history, Lincoln, and a good story led to Old Abe. John worked on the novel on and off for a dozen years, which means it took three times as long to write the darned thing than it did for Lincoln to win the Civil War.

John lives in his hometown of Spartanburg, South Carolina, a state rich in both Civil War and Revolutionary War history. He serves on the board of trustees of the Spartanburg County Public Libraries, one of the finest library systems anywhere. He also serves on the board of directors of the Hub City Writers Project, which operates an award-winning independent bookstore and the premier literary press in the South.

Blurb: America's Second Founding

Every 4th of July, we commemorate the signing of the Declaration of Independence – some 250 years ago – but the proclamation that all men are created equal was not truly realized until another proclamation was made some 90 years later, on September 22, 1863, by President Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln may not have been one of the original founders of the United States of America, but his influence on our nation’s trajectory rivals even George Washington’s. More books have been written about Lincoln than any other American, and his actions as President permanently altered the very definition of American liberty. In this sense, Lincoln can be said to have presided over a second founding moment – of almost equal importance to the first in 1776.

John Cribb has written the latest in a long line of books about Lincoln. Old Abe: A Novel distinguishes itself as one of the few historical novels – accurately retelling the story of Lincoln’s last five years leading up to his untimely demise. Cribb joins me this special Fourth of July Sunday to unpack the complex and fascinating legacy of Abraham Lincoln, from his election to the Presidency, through the tumultuous war that almost tore the country apart, to his assassination in 1865.

Of course, we will discuss the role Lincoln played in ending the “peculiar institution,” which the founders themselves had neglected to solve in their own struggle for emancipation. Can this help explain why celebrating the 4th of July has become less popular in recent years? I’ll ask John how “Old Abe” can help us recover a sense of patriotism in every generation.

Finally, we’ll discuss the murkier questions of Lincoln’s legacy, including the growth of federal power and the questionable suspension of Habeas Corpus during the Civil War.

Don’t miss this 4th of July live special – buy John’s book, tune in live, and take some time to reflect on your liberties over a hamburger and beer.

From the PR person

Old Abe: A Novel, about the holiday’s importance in these divided times.

In five years, on July 4, 2026, Americans will observe the 250th anniversary of our nation’s founding. That milestone approaches at a time when critics say America’s birth was fatally marred by slavery, and even that the true founding came not in 1776 but in 1619, the year the first enslaved Africans arrived in Virginia.

Is the 4th of July still a holiday we can all share? Will our 250th birthday be a grand patriotic coming together like we had in the Bicentennial year of 1976, or is it going to be something different?

Cribb reminds us that Abraham Lincoln once warned against letting the Spirit of 1776 fade, and that he insisted that the Declaration of Independence “links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together.”

A discussion with Cribb will frame Lincoln’s insights about the 4th of July, the founding, and why it’s so important for modern Americans to pay tribute to 1776.

Former Vice President Mike Pence has called Old Abe “the best Lincoln book I’ve ever read.” Former US Secretary of Education William J. Bennett says that “you must read this book.” The Civil War Monitor says it “will appeal to generations of readers.”

Possible discussion questions:

  • Why did Lincoln believe the 4 of July is an important holiday?
  • Why did he regard all Americans as descendants of the founders?
  • According to Lincoln, why did the founders allow slavery to exist while founding a nation supposedly based on the ideals of freedom and equality?
  • Why is July 4, 1776, still one of the most important dates in history?
  • What sort of 250 birthday celebration is the country headed toward in 2026?

Lincoln In His Own Words:

Gettysburg Address

Gettysburg address calls for a "new birth of freedom," and pivots the war from merely a war to preserve the union to also trying to end slavery.

Full text (272 Words): Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

First inaugural address:

I close. We are not, we must not be, aliens or enemies, but fellow-countrymen and brethren. Although passion has strained our bonds of affection too hardly, they must not, I am sure they will not, be broken. The mystic chords which, proceeding from so many battlefields and so many patriot graves, pass through all the hearts and all hearths in this broad continent of ours, will yet again harmonize in their ancient music when breathed upon by the guardian angel of the nation.

Lyceum Address:

The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions:Address Before the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, IllinoisJanuary 27, 1838

Lincoln notes that America can never be destroyed by outside enemies. If we fall, it will be from within. Issued at the age of 28, on the occasion of mob violence and lawlessness.

"if destruction be our lot, we ourselves must be its author and its finisher."

Jeff Hummel finds in this speech a prophecy is his own ascent to the Rogue Presidency:

The question then, is, can that gratification be found in supporting and maintaining an edifice that has been erected by others? Most certainly it cannot. Many great and good men sufficiently qualified for any task they should undertake, may ever be found, whose ambition would inspire to nothing beyond a seat in Congress, a gubernatorial or a presidential chair; but such belong not to the family of the lion, or the tribe of the eagle. What! think you these places would satisfy an Alexander, a Caesar, or a Napoleon?--Never! Towering genius distains a beaten path. It seeks regions hitherto unexplored.--It sees no distinction in adding story to story, upon the monuments of fame, erected to the memory of others. It denies that it is glory enough to serve under any chief. It scorns to tread in the footsteps of any predecessor, however illustrious. It thirsts and burns for distinction; and, if possible, it will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen. Is it unreasonable then to expect, that some man possessed of the loftiest genius, coupled with ambition sufficient to push it to its utmost stretch, will at some time, spring up among us? And when such a one does, it will require the people to be united with each other, attached to the government and laws, and generally intelligent, to successfully frustrate his designs.

An apology for going to war against the south after they seized military forts and federal buildings.

Finding this condition of things and believing it to be an imperative duty upon the incoming Executive to prevent, if possible, the consummation of such attempt to destroy the Federal Union, a choice of means to that end became indispensable. This choice was made, and was declared in the inaugural address. The policy chosen looked to the exhaustion of all peaceful measures before a resort to any stronger ones. It sought only to hold the public places and property not already wrested from the Government and to collect the revenue, relying for the rest on time, discussion, and the ballot box. It promised a continuance of the mails at Government expense to the very people who were resisting the Government, and it gave repeated pledges against any disturbance to any of the people or any of their rights. Of all that which a President might constitutionally and justifiably do in such a case, everything was forborne without which it was believed possible to keep the Government on foot.
And this issue embraces more than the fate of these United States. It presents to the whole family of man the question whether a constitutional republic, or democracy--a government of the people by the same people--can or can not maintain its territorial integrity against its own domestic foes. It presents the question whether discontented individuals, too few in numbers to control administration according to organic law in any case, can always, upon the pretenses made in this case, or on any other pretenses, or arbitrarily without any pretense, break up their government, and thus practically put an end to free government upon the earth. It forces us to ask, Is there in all republics this inherent and fatal weakness? Must a government of necessity be too strong for the liberties of its own people, or too weak to maintain its own existence?

On Habeas Corpus

Soon after the first call for militia it was considered a duty to authorize the Commanding General in proper cases, according to his discretion, to suspend the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus, or, in other words, to arrest and detain without resort to the ordinary processes and forms of law such individuals as he might deem dangerous to the public safety. This authority has purposely been exercised but very sparingly. Nevertheless, the legality and propriety of what has been done under it are questioned, and the attention of the country has been called to the proposition that one who is sworn to "take care that the laws be faithfully executed" should not himself violate them. Of course some consideration was given to the questions of power and propriety before this matter was acted upon. The whole of the laws which were required to be faithfully executed were being resisted and failing of execution in nearly one-third of the States. Must they be allowed to finally fail of execution, even had it been perfectly clear that by the use of the means necessary to their execution some single law, made in such extreme tenderness of the citizen's liberty that practically it relieves more of the guilty than of the innocent, should to a very limited extent be violated? To state the question more directly, Are all the laws but one to go unexecuted, and the Government itself go to pieces lest that one be violated? Even in such a case, would not the official oath be broken if the Government should be overthrown when it was believed that disregarding the single law would tend to preserve it? But it was not believed that this question was presented. It was not believed that any law was violated. The provision of the Constitution that "the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended unless when, in cases of rebellion or invasion, the public safety may require it" is equivalent to a provision--is a provision-that such privilege may be suspended when, in cases of rebellion or invasion, the public safety does require it. It was decided that we have a case of rebellion and that the public safety does require the qualified suspension of the privilege of the writ which was authorized to be made. Now it is insisted that Congress, and not the Executive, is vested with this power; but the Constitution itself is silent as to which or who is to exercise the power; and as the provision was plainly made for a dangerous emergency, it can not be believed the framers of the instrument intended that in every case the danger should run its course until Congress could be called together, the very assembling of which might be prevented, as was intended in this case, by the rebellion.

On states' rights:

Unquestionably the States have the powers and rights reserved to them in and by the National Constitution; but among these surely are not included all conceivable powers, however mischievous or destructive, but at most such only as were known in the world at the time as governmental powers; and certainly a power to destroy the Government itself had never been known as a governmental--as a merely administrative power. This relative matter of national power and State rights, as a principle, is no other than the principle of generality and locality . Whatever concerns the whole should be confided to the whole--to the General Government--while whatever concerns only the State should be left exclusively to the State. This is all there is of original principle about it. Whether the National Constitution in defining boundaries between the two has applied the principle with exact accuracy is not to be questioned. We are all bound by that defining without question.

On the origins of political authority in America:

Whoever in any section proposes to abandon such a government would do well to consider in deference to what principle it is that he does it; what better he is likely to get in its stead; whether the substitute will give, or be intended to give, so much of good to the people. There are some foreshadowings on this subject. Our adversaries have adopted some declarations of independence in which, unlike the good old one penned by Jefferson, they omit the words "all men are created equal." Why? They have adopted a temporary national constitution, in the preamble of which, unlike our good old one signed by Washington, they omit "We, the people," and substitute "We, the deputies of the sovereign and independent States." Why? Why this deliberate pressing out of view the rights of men and the authority of the people?

On saving the union and republican form of government:

The Constitution provides, and all the States have accepted the provision, that "the United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a republican form of government." But if a State may lawfully go out of the Union, having done so it may also discard the republican form of government; so that to prevent its going out is an indispensable means to the end of maintaining the guaranty mentioned; and when an end is lawful and obligatory the indispensable means to it are also lawful and obligatory.

On Patriotism

Let every American, every lover of liberty, every well wisher to his posterity, swear by the blood of the Revolution, never to violate in the least particular, the laws of the country; and never to tolerate their violation by others.
Government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth.
And now I appeal to all-to Democrats as well as others,-are you really willing that the Declaration shall be thus frittered away?-thus left no more at most, than an interesting memorial of the dead past? thus shorn of its vitality, and practical value; and left without the germ or even the suggestion of the individual rights of man in it?
But Judge Douglas is especially horrified at the thought of the mixing blood by the white and black races: agreed for once-a thousand times agreed. There are white men enough to marry all the white women, and black men enough to marry all the black women; and so let them be married. On this point we fully agree with the Judge; and when he shall show that his policy is better adapted to prevent amalgamation than ours we shall drop ours, and adopt his. Let us see. In 1850 there were in the United States, 405,751, mulattoes. Very few of these are the offspring of whites and free blacks; nearly all have sprung from black slaves and white masters.


H.W. Brands August 2009
The conflict had grown in ways he couldn’t have imagined when he took office in 1861. The casualties were shocking, and would have been more shocking if they hadn’t become numbingly familiar. Every day he sent men to their deaths: a hundred here, a thousand there, till his soul, of necessity, turned callous. Opposition to the war, in the heart of the Union, was escalating, and even as it reminded him of the enormity of what he was doing, it threatened his ability to accomplish his goal. The necessities of command compelled him to override the Constitution, in the name of defending it.

Lincoln laments the conservatism of his general Meade, who could have won the war in 1863 when he had Robert E. Lee pinned against the Potomac.

Lincoln's draft was unpopular, and his liberty-restricting orders should not be papered over:

The lost opportunity pained Lincoln the more as the costs of the conflict ramified. In mid-July the city of New York erupted in rioting. Congress had approved America’s first draft law in which men from 18 to 35 years of age were subject to mandatory enlistment, but those who could afford it escaped service by paying a $300 fee. The draft itself and especially the loophole angered Irish and other immigrants in New York, many of whom disliked African Americans and resented being compelled to fight to free them. Anti-draft protests turned violent, with the protesters attacking the draft offices, the draft officers and then unlucky blacks who happened to be in the area. Authorities were forced to complement police squads with state militia and ultimately several thousand army troops. Before order was restored, on the fourth day of the riot, more than a hundred people were dead, 2,000 were injured, and hundreds of buildings had been damaged or destroyed.

Lincoln's appetite for power grows throughout the war:

On Sept. 15 he issued a proclamation suspending the writ of habeas corpus. He had suspended habeas previously, in the case of persons alleged to be directly abetting the rebellion. But now he broadened the suspension to individuals who resisted or interfered with the draft. As he had with the Emancipation Proclamation, he defended his action as necessary to the success of the war effort. Lincoln’s critics leaped on the habeas suspension, decrying the president’s dictatorial tendencies. Freeing Confederate slaves had been alarming enough, the critics said, but at least that measure had confined its reach to the rebellious South. The habeas order, by contrast, applied to the entire country, and it eviscerated one of the rights on which personal liberty rested, and for which the war was being fought. To be sure, Lincoln said the suspension would apply only to a specific few; persons charged with ordinary crimes could still demand their day in court. But it required little imagination to conjure scenarios in which critics of the army or of the president would be accused of obstructing the war effort and tossed into prison.

The Four Score line's significnace:

The “four score and seven years” Lincoln cited carried the mental arithmeticians in the audience back not to 1787, the date of the Constitution, but to 1776, the moment of the Declaration of Independence. Lincoln had sworn at his inauguration to uphold the Constitution, not the Declaration. Now he emphasized not the American Union, the political structure the Constitution had framed, but the American nation—the “new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”—established by the Declaration.

Freedom came to have different meanings in teh north and south in Lincoln's lifetime.

In the South, it meant independence from federal oversight and full power to control local institutions (slavery included). It meant doing whatever it took to maintain congressional majorities and domination over the federal courts (sound familiar?). And it meant the right, in response to any dispute, to scuttle the entire experiment the founders had created.

The importance of symbols like the American Flag:

As it transpired, the North would embrace the fight against secession in part because of the American flag — or at least the indignities it endured at Fort Sumter. There, on April 14, 1861, Confederate shells brought its flagpole toppling to the ground. In cities across the North, angry families responded by waving American flags from windows and rooftops. The press called the phenomenon “flag mania.”
USA Today oped by Cribb

A response to the attempt to "cancel lincoln."

On April 11, 1865, two days after Robert E. Lee surrendered his army to Ulysses S. Grant, President Abraham Lincoln gave the last speech of his life from a White House window to an exuberant crowd outside. He spoke in the evening, reading his text by candlelight, dropping the pages one by one while his son Tad scrambled about the floor, happily picking them up.
Lincoln used the occasion to offer his thoughts about making the nation whole. Half-way into the speech, he touched on suffrage for Black people, saying, “I would myself prefer that it were now conferred on the very intelligent, and on those who serve our cause as soldiers.”
It’s the kind of statement that, without historical context, sounds jarring to modern ears. What? Lincoln supported voting rights for only “very intelligent” African Americans and those in uniform? What a racist. Quick — cancel him!

Lincoln was emphatically not an abolitionist - he sought to unite the country - but he opposed its legalization in the new western territories.

A CNN reporter recently wrote that “in some circles, ‘Honest Abe’ is increasingly becoming Racist Abe.”

The last speech of his life:

As the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass observed, Lincoln was practicing the art of political rail splitting on the night of his last address. Suffrage for African Americans with an education and for those who had fought valiantly to save the Union was an idea Northern whites just might accept. Once the right was secure for some Blacks, it would be easier to extend it to others.
“It was like Abraham Lincoln,” Douglass wrote. “He never shocked prejudices unnecessarily. Having learned statesmanship while splitting rails, he always used the thin edge of the wedge first, and the fact that he used this at all meant that he would, if need be, use the thick as well as the thin.” Lincoln’s audience was hoping for a rousing victory speech that evening, not an address about Reconstruction. Some began to drift away before Lincoln finished. But one listener grew inflamed over the president’s talk of Black suffrage. “That means n----- citizenship,” John Wilkes Booth growled to a friend. “Now, by God, I’ll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever make.”

Videos & Podcasts

TheLarsLarsonShow, April 15, 2021

"No country that learns to loathe itself can survive."

The tendency to call Lincoln racist is a sign of self-hatred and historical ignorance.

There is a connection between this narrative and the 1619 revision of history.

Cribb wrote the book because he loves Lincoln and wants others to as well.

Lincoln died fighting for the rights of African Americans.

The beginning of the novel makes clear the threats to his life that were present from resentful southerners from the beginning of his nomination to the Republican ticket.

Booth's kidnapping plot was changed to an assassination plot after a Lincoln speech in which he make a case for civil rights for African Americans.

Lincoln was the man at the center of the fight to free millions of enslaved Americans.

Eric Cervone, January 28, 2021

Cribb has 250 books on Lincoln on his shelf.

Lyceum address came in the wake of an act of political violence in which a mob destroyed a printing press and killed the owner.

The speech urges the importance of political institutions, and understanding of the duties of citizens.

Today's divide doesn't have as much of a geographical split.

Did Lincoln contradict his earlier argument that states have a right to self-determination?

Cribb says no, Lincoln viewed the Union as a contract, which both the exiting and remaining parties had to agree to.

What happens to debts, for example?

Unlike the American rebellion against the Crown, the South had no argument rooted in violation of their natural rights for its rebellion.

Death threats started to come as soon as Lincoln was elected.

Lincoln tried alternatives to war, including buying all the slaves in the South, but the south was too wedded to the institution of slavery.

"Four score and seven years ago" in the Gettysburg Address refers to 1776.

How much of modern executive power can be traced back to Lincoln?

Cribb is sensitive to this, but he give Lincoln a pass since we would have lost the country otherwise, and it was a wartime presidency.

Cribb's attempted Facebook ads were not approved because they were considered "political" (perhaps because of the blurb from Mike Pence) even though it's not a political book. Cribb calls this collateral damage of big tech censorship.

"Great Man" theory of history is that "towering geniuses" like Lincoln influence the trajectory of history.

Biden's "unifying message" is essentially saying, you're either with me or else you're one of those white supremacists.

Lincoln says that both north and south were responsible for the crisis, and called on both sides to take responsibility.

Frank MacKay
Drew Mariani, February 25, 2021

Good interview (25 minutes) with a lot of substance related to the Lyceum address, Lincoln's motivations, and the importance of patriotism.

Newsmax's National Report, February 16, 2021

Short video on Newsmax.

Madison's Notes

Interview with Nino Scalia.

Ray Bassett & Elena Nourabadi, February 4, 2021
February 1, 2021

More on cancel culture, and the fact that schools no longer teach about Washington and Lincoln, etc. – only that they were white, Washington a slave owner, Lincoln a bigot who opposed interracial marriage, etc.

September 18, 2021


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Questions for John Cribb

Why did you write Old Abe?I love Lincoln, and I want others to know and love him, too.

What’s different about this Lincoln book?I hope it brings him to life in a way no other book does. Thousands of books have been written about Lincoln. By some accounts, more books have been written about him than anyone except Jesus. Several years ago, someone counted 15,000 Lincoln books, and there have been more since. The overwhelming majority are nonfiction. I wanted to write a novel because fiction can paint an image the way nonfiction can’t.

How long did it take you to write Old Abe?I first had the idea for the book around 2006. Of course, I haven’t worked on it full time since then. Sometimes the manuscript sat in a drawer for months at a time. It’s been an on and off effort, as books often are. My wife jokes that from conception to publication, it’s taken more than three times to get this darned book done than it did to fight the Civil War.

What kind of research did you put into writing this book?I’ve got more than 250 Lincoln-related nonfiction titles on my bookshelf. I drew on primary sources and the best secondary sources to depict events, characters, and details of nineteenth century life. I’ve also visited many places where Lincoln lived and worked.

What kind of places did you visit?I think I’ve been to just about every significant Lincoln site, from Sinking Spring Farm in Kentucky, where he was born, to Ford’s Theater, where he was assassinated. Places like Springfield, Illinois; Gettysburg, Pennsylvania; the Lincoln Cottage in D.C.; and City Point, Virginia, where he spent several days at the war’s end.

What do you admire most about Lincoln?Probably his perseverance. His whole life, he just plain persevered. He grew up on the frontier, where you pretty much persevered or died. During the war, he persevered through general after general until he finally got to Grant. When he was president, Lincoln used to say that he was like a man trying to keep a tent up in a storm. Every time he got one of the tent pegs hammered into the ground, the storm blew out another, and he’d have to run around to the other side of the tent to peg it back in. He told people that he just kept pegging away, pegging away.

What made Lincoln such a great president? There are all sorts of ways to answer that question, but I’d zero in on a handful of virtues he possessed. First, he had an incredible ability to persevere. Second, an eagerness to learn. He was, in some ways, one of the least prepared presidents to take office, but he learned on the job. Third, compassion. It’s no coincidence that the president who ended slavery was a man of tremendous compassion. Fourth, he had great people skills, including his sense of humor. Fifth, integrity. Believe it or not, Honest Abe really was an honest guy. Sixth, patriotism. He loved this country and was deeply dedicated to our nation’s founding principles. And finally, faith. His faith not only gave him the strength to make it through the war, it helped him have the wisdom to be a great leader.

How much of Old Abe is fiction, and how much is history?Like all historical novels, it’s a mix, but I spent a lot of time and care trying to make this as accurate and true to Lincoln’s life as possible. So there’s a lot of history in this book. Just about everything I depict actually happened. Much of the dialogue is based on letters, speeches, and reports from the time. But I used my imagination to fill in a lot of details in the dialogue and events.

Why is it important for people to know about Lincoln?You understand the American story better if you understand Lincoln. He stands center stage in that story. In many ways, he represents the best of America. He embodies the American Dream of opportunity, hard work, and achievement. And the American struggle for freedom and equality.

What do you hope readers will take away from Old Abe?I’d like them to come away feeling like they know Lincoln as a flesh-and-blood man. I’d also like them to understand the extraordinary service he performed. He really was a hero in an epic struggle to save the country, a hero who embodied our finest ideals.