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Abraham Lincoln: Man vs. Myth
Going Beyond the Lincoln Legend
I almost share a birthday with Abraham Lincoln. When I was young, this was very convenient because I often got a day off from school. For Lincoln, unlike myself, is one of the most beloved and mythologized men in American History. When you visit the Lincoln Memorial, you feel like you are in some kind of a Greek temple. Except with Lincoln, you want to sit on his statue’s lap and tell him your problems. People like Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin are deeply respected. Lincoln is loved, revered by many as a sort of political saint. It’s not every president, after all, who has had a national holiday commemorating his birthday.
Lincoln, however, was more human (and interesting) than his statue. Lincoln, as the legends say, did work his way up from virtually nothing to become a successful lawyer, assemblyman, one-term congressman, and eventually President. His father could hardly write, which caused Lincoln to be ashamed of him. He did not even attend his father’s funeral. Lincoln himself had a little more than a year of formal schooling. While we have had many presidents in recent years that came from humble backgrounds, it’s hard to imagine a man of his education, upbringing, and limited political experience reaching the oval office today.
Lincoln loved telling jokes, some of which would be considered a bit dirty by his society’s standards. But he would also suffer from intense bouts of depression where he would go into self-imposed isolation for long periods of time. Some believe that he may have had bipolar disorder or suffered from manic depression. His family life could also be stormy, with his wife Mary suffering from even more serious mental issues than he. These became even more serious after the death of one of their sons, with Mary sometimes conducting séances in hopes of speaking once again to her lost child. Imagine if a story like this leaked out about the current first lady in our current political and media environment. The Lincolns would hardly be seen as good promoters of family values. The fact that Lincoln did not attend church and did not fit any conventional description of a Christian would not help either.
Of course, you could argue that it is unfair to judge him by his personal life or background. Instead, he should be judged by his behavior in the political arena. But even as a public figure and politician, some faults can easily be found. Throughout the political career of this “Great Emancipator”, he would make public statements indicating that he did not necessarily believe in racial equality. He once famously said that his opposition to slavery’s expansion to the west did not mean that he supported the idea of interracial marriage. When he started laying out reconstruction plans toward the end of the war, these plans did not include much in the way of aid for the former slaves he is given so much credit for setting free. When he first became president, a job he would have never dreamed of getting just a few years earlier, he was somewhat indecisive and insecure at times. When his generals during the early years of the Civil War often failed to take decisive and effective action, Lincoln did not feel confident enough to take more direct charge of the war. He was not particularly popular through much of his presidency, and he was nervous about his prospects for winning reelection in 1864. It was only after his assassination, along with the successful result of the Civil War, that he started to become one of the most beloved men in our history.
My goal is not to trash this man with whom I almost share a birthday. He definitely grew into the job of President, and many historians rank him as the greatest chief executive in our nation’s history. No President of the future is likely to have a resume that includes achievements as impressive as abolishing slavery and saving the union. He was also a man who showed the capacity to evolve. (Karl Rove would have labeled him a “flip-flopper.”) He grew from a man who believed that abolishing slavery was impractical to the President who pushed through the 13th Amendment. This man with no military experience, who was subject to torturous bouts of depression, was also willing to stay the course until the war’s bitter end, leading the nation through the most deadly conflict in its history.
If he had lived to see Reconstruction through, would he have eventually supported plans to help ex-slaves transition more effectively to their new lives? Would he have evolved in the same way as he did with the abolition issue, learning through experience that more needed to be done to help the ex-slaves? Or would he have realized that his goal of peacefully reconstructing the union could only be achieved if the south was not pushed too hard toward accepting real racial equality? Unfortunately, his presidency was ended by an assassin’s bullet, and he never had the chance to finish the process that he started. Lincoln is therefore frozen in time, revered for the northern victory and the end of slavery, but not held responsible for the problems involved in transitioning to a post-Civil War America.
No man could ever live up to the Lincoln legend. Like all presidents, he was a flawed human being living in flawed times. Sometimes he had to say things to attract votes, and he was compelled to settle for the practical instead of the ideal. Still, he was one of those rare political figures who rose to the occasion, evolved, and was able in some cases to rise above his society’s (and his own) limitations and prejudices. His imperfections, rather than tarnishing his saintly image, make his achievements more impressive. If a flawed person like him could have moments of greatness, maybe there is hope for our current politicians and, more importantly, for ourselves.