Not Your Father's Lincoln
By David S. Traub
Junto Contributoring Writer
With the avalanche of books, articles and lectures on Abraham Lincoln that have been falling upon us these last months, can anything more of value be said? The two hundredth anniversary of Lincoln's birth on February 12, 1809 has arrived, and it would seem the man finally has been given his due. So I approach writing this article with humility and the acute awareness of the many distinguished Lincoln historians and biographers who have preceded me and who undoubtedly will follow. And yet, as with those others, I press on with still one more searching essay.
Perhaps Lincoln's complex character serves as a mirror in which many individuals and groups see themselves reflected. The individuals are countless, but among the groups are the Democrats and the Republicans (Lincoln was a Republican), liberals and conservatives, capitalists, egalitarians, straights and gays, sufferers of depression, orators, poets and humorists. All admirers in their own way, identify with Lincoln, and feel the urge to express their unique understanding of him. On the other hand, Lincoln has not been without his detractors. Even today, in the South, his admirers seem scarce, and in the North there are those who complain that Lincoln was a tyrannical president opposing secession and obsessed with pursuing the terrible Civil War to save the Union.
Still another group, the African Americans, prior to the civil rights movement of the 1960's, championed the Great Emancipator as their hero, but as they learned more about his racial attitudes in contrast to his specific views regarding slavery, their enthusiasm for Lincoln began to cool. Today, in the black community one detects some ambivalence. As evidence, few black scholars study Lincoln, and one sees few African-Americans at current lectures about him. I frequently hear, first hand, disparaging remarks about Lincoln from my African-American friends, confirming their mixed feelings.
To better understand this attitude, one first must be clear that from an early age Lincoln disliked slavery. It is true in his early political career, he did little to oppose it, but in the middle 1850s, he sprang to life in opposition to slavery, first its extension into the territories, and then proceeding incrementally, he pursued an anti-slavery politic leading to the limited Emancipation Proclamation pertaining only to the rebel states, and finally to the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery forever in the entire United States.
Keep in mind as we proceed into this discussion, that with Lincoln, we are dealing with a shrewd politician through and through. In 1864, during his presidency while running for his second term, Lincoln visited Philadelphia to help raise money for the Great Central Sanitary Fair. Here in our city he made a telling comment when asked to speak: "I do not really think it proper in my position for me to make a political speech……being more a politician than anything else, I am without anything to say." With that remark before us, consider now Lincoln's views on race as opposed to slavery per se. In a key speech in at Peoria, Illinois in 1854, he said, "What now? Free them (the slaves), and make them politically and socially, our equals? My own feelings would not admit of that, and if I could come around to that myself, the rest of our other white friends surely would not." This is for sure not a commendable position and today would be considered racist.
Putting this remark in a historical context that perhaps renders it understandable, consider that women were not themselves "social and political equals" in Lincoln's time. And some, in defense of his stance, claim that his stated racial views were not his actual personal ones. However, what really counts, in my opinion, are a politician's public positions, and Lincoln held this view of race relations well into his presidency. Frankly, Lincoln is simply forging his way through tough ideological terrain, separating the issues of slavery and race for political advancement, to gain votes. Thus it has been said that Lincoln was ultimately an emancipationist but not an integrationist. Here is an intriguing picture of Lincoln as a complex and seemingly inconsistent political creature emerges. Acclaimed Lincoln biographer, David Herbert Donald, said that Lincoln, "the central figure in the American experience is also the most elusive." No neat formula defines him.
Stepping away from his political sensibility to look at him in a more personal way, we also see a complicated individual. Born in 1809, Lincoln came into the world in the dawning years of the romantic period. Far away in Europe, the arch romantic composer, Felix Mendelssohn, was born just a few days earlier on February 3, 1809, placing Lincoln, if not in a specific cultural context, then in a historical time frame with its own "mood" that prevailed even in the young United States.
We wouldn't ordinarily think of Lincoln as a romantic, but he thrilled in the poetry of Robert Burns and Lord Byron and wrote poetry of his own, though historians make little of it. Perhaps his exercises in poetry served to enrich his later great prose writings and speeches. Here is an excerpt from a poem, in a typically Lincolnesque, melancholic tone,written in 1844 upon a return to his boyhood home in Indiana. His romantic inclination is decidedly on display.
O, Memory! Thou midway world
In another part of his being, Lincoln was an exponent of the voice of reason and the rule of law. In his way, he was an intellectual descendant of the 18th century philosophers of the Enlightenment, as were the Founding Fathers who Lincoln revered. Lincoln had the highest regard for those products of the Enlightenment, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, which he sought rigorously to uphold throughout his career and into the presidency, notwithstanding his suspension of the Writ of Habeas Corpus, intended as a war measure.
The first decades of the 19th century were characterized by a certain lawlessness that Lincoln deplored, "outrages committed by mobs," as he stated. In his early Lyceum Speech of 1838, in response to this lawless activity, he said, "Let reverence for the laws be breathed by every American mother," let law "become the political religion of the nation." He went on to say, "reason, cold calculating, unimpassioned reason must furnish all the materials for our future support and defense."
Were then poetic intuition and cold reason in conflict in Lincoln's psyche, or were they harmoniously integrated? I would like to think the latter, and that Lincoln's capacity to operate from both faculties was a source of strength and a key to his success. It is said that political campaigns are poetic enterprises whereas governance is an exercise in reasoned prose. Does not one think of Lincoln's poetic, soaring speeches leading to his election in 1860, and to the contrary, his reasoned leadership during his presidency, navigating through the rough waters of the "team of rivals" and the pitiful succession of haughty, army generals? One wonders if the poetic campaigner and Lincoln emulator, Barack Obama, will be as effective as he proceeds into governance.
Like most politicians, Lincoln was a lawyer and a skilled one at that. He made a good living rising from poverty to the upper middle class. At the height of his career, he earned the equivalent of two or three hundred thousand dollars a year in today's money. He performed run of the mill legal tasks but also represented the powerful Illinois Central Railroad. On one occasion, he assisted a wealthy plantation owner in obtaining the return of a runaway slave. Though he hated the institution of slavery, this action was consistent with his emphasis on upholding the rule of law.
I suspect that Lincoln felt at once both ordinary and exceptional. Perhaps, what is most exceptional about him is his remarkable capacity for continued growth starting from childhood in a Kentucky log cabin to his years in the White House. Animated by a driving ambition, he was an exemplar of the American ideal of self help, always improving himself outwardly and evolving inwardly. In the last years of his presidency his racial attitudes were tempered in part through his friendship with the African-American abolitionist and former slave, Frederic Douglas. Given this burst of moral growth, I speculate that had he not been assassinated, he probably would have advanced the cause of freedom for African- Americans beyond what was achieved in the years following the Civil War.
Customarily when considering Lincoln and other such historical figures, we start with the premise of their greatness, and then as we look closer become disappointed when we see defects. A case in point is Thomas Jefferson, who some have recently severely criticize for his slaveholding and relationship with Sally Hemmings. Incidentally Jefferson was Lincoln's hero, along with another slave holder, Henry Clay. But in considering Lincoln, we should look first at his fallibility, and then watch how his greatness emerges, when it does.
My thought is that, having entered the 21st Century, we finally need to achieve a certain collective maturity. We should stop insisting that people who do great things and achieve greatness, be great in every way. We would assist our own growth and ultimately enhance our understanding of great historic figures, if we maintained a balanced realism. Being all too human, Lincoln was no saint. But as an old childhood friend from Louisville, now a prominent lawyer there, recently said to me of Lincoln, " the more we humanize him, the greater he becomes!"
(David S. Traub, a a Philadelphia architect, was born in Louisville, Kentucky, not far from Lincoln's birthplace. This ariticle was republished, with the permission of the author, from the Philadelphia Weekly Press, where it first appeared).