Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday was a few days ago, and I was thinking about him as Kish and I took Penny for our walk this morning. It is probably close to impossible to say anything original about Lincoln. He is, almost certainly, the most re-thought, psychoanalyzed, iconic American president in our history.
As is the case with many Americans, I have always been fascinated by Lincoln. My Christmas gift from Russell this year was a portrait of Lincoln, a copy of which is attached to this post. I love the portrait, because it is yet another reimagining of Lincoln — which is one of the characteristics of the man that I find so compelling. Lincoln’s persona is complex and full of seeming contradictions. He was the Great Emancipator who also suspended the writ of habeas corpus, the melancholy individual who regularly displayed a keen, sometimes bawdy, sense of humor, and the poorly educated backwoodsman who nevertheless wrote the compelling prose that most aptly captured the very idea of America. The many contradictions in his character and career allow people of all political views to cite different facets of Lincoln’s actions and writings as support for their views.
I think Lincoln has a special significance because, in my view, he is the most indispensable figure in American history. Some historians apparently believe that history is the story of inexorable forces leading to inevitable results. Others believe that history is the story of great men, who through eloquence, sheer force of will, or some other trait, by themselves cause history to take a different course than it would have otherwise.
Lincoln seems to support the “great man” approach. The Civil War may have been the inevitable product of the social and political forces set in motion by a a nation that struggled to survive half-slave and half-free. It is difficult to imagine, however, that any other American alive during that day could have seen the country safely through the War to a result in which a single country emerged, free forever from the blight of slavery. Lincoln somehow found the fortitude to bear the extraordinary bloodshed and death, the incompetence of political generals and the greed of shoddy manufacturers. He continued to fight for the concept of a Union of free men when other political leaders and newspaper editors called for surrender or compromise. In our modern political culture, where our sensibilities are tender and our appetite for failure and loss is very small indeed, Lincoln’s ability to withstand crushing military defeats, appalling casualties, draft riots and harsh personal attacks seems almost impossible to believe.
I think one of the reasons why Lincoln remains so popular is that Americans feel enormous pride in the simple fact that our country produced a figure like Lincoln. We know that a unique and gifted leader arose to guide the country through the darkest hour in our history, and we hope that what happened before will happen again.