Friday, February 13, 2009

Why Lincoln? A Bicentennial Reflection

As this, the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth winds down, I'm pausing to reflect on the meaning of this celebration. It's been a busy day, spent watching lots of Lincoln coverage on television, from the Congressional noontime celebration to the (online) coverage of Barack Obama at the Abraham Lincoln Association dinner in Springfield tonight, along with several hours of CNN's special coverage. (I've also been catching up on the PBS documentaries, owing to lengthy Cable interruptions because of weather the past two nights; reviews to come.)

I could comment on the celebration as a whole, at least those parts of which I've been aware and in which I've participated electronically, but I want to try to step back and consider this phenomenon from a broader perspective. (Also, I'm not really capable of giving an objective analysis of CNN's coverage. I missed part of it to watch the Congressional celebration. And, in my experience, a little Soledad O'Brien goes a very long way. Multiple hours of her anchoring coverage was a little much for my taste.) I will include, though, a couple of comments made during today's ceremonies.

The question that kept nagging at me today was "Why?" Why this persistent and pervasive interest in Lincoln? Watching the coverage, I saw all types of people expressing their fascination in Lincoln -- all types of people who have read and thought about the 16th president of the United States. In our society, which has a love/hate relationship with its history -- or at least an selectively passionate, mostly apathetic relationship -- Lincoln is an amazing phenomenon. Why?

In looking at this question personally, I realize that I've been interested in Lincoln so long that I take my interest for granted. What was it about Lincoln that first attracted me? Frankly, I don't remember. My interest goes back to when I was very young, almost as far back as I can remember. Something grabbed my attention, so I started reading about Lincoln. And I've kept reading about Lincoln all the years since.

For most of my life I've admired Mr. Lincoln greatly, though not always. Over the years, especially when I first discovered part of Lincoln's "dark side" -- his cutthroat political instincts and, especially early in his career, actions -- I was embarrassed by Lincoln and even a little betrayed. But I was already committed, and I kept reading. Since then, I've discovered more of Lincoln's dark side, but, in general, I've grown to admire him even more.

But why? Earlier today in her fine remarks, Doris Kearns Goodwin offered one answer to the why: Lincoln's moral example is the source of his enduring legacy. She wasn't talking merely about his goodness or his kindness, but, quoting Tolstoy, his "peculiar moral power." This moral power goes beyond Lincoln's common touch, it goes beyond his lack of malice, and it might even go beyond his status as the Great Emancipator. Lincoln made decisions that most people are, first, convinced they would not want to have to make under unfathomable pressures, and, second, astonished by how consistently wise and prescient Lincoln's decisions were. This attitude is fairly consistent, cutting across age and depth of knowledge about Lincoln. There are no secret stories that explain Lincoln's decision-making abilities or his skills in inter-personal relations.

In fact, this attitude is so consistent with Lincoln that we forgive him his obvious mistakes -- appointing the wrong generals or sometimes speaking out of both sides of his mouth (or pen). We forgive him for his fractured relationships: with his wife, with his father, with his eldest son. Sometimes, confronted with evidence of shortcomings or failings, we even rationalize for him. But mostly, even as we learn these stories, we evidently still think he lived better/wiser/juster than we ever could. Lincoln's moral example has such depth that it keeps giving, which may be why he's been almost instinctively compared to Christ by so many intelligent and religious people. It is impossible to know to much about Lincoln or the context in which he lived.

Harold Holzer offered another alternative in his remarks today; twice, he called Lincoln a "prophet of unfinished work." Perhaps Holzer has published this remark elsewhere or is quoting someone else, but I don't recognize it. Most directly, I suppose, it comes from Lincoln's two unforgettable speeches: the Gettysburg Address -- "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" -- and the final paragraph of the Second Inaugural Address -- "...let us strive to continue the work we are in...." Then again, it is an ongoing theme in Lincoln's speeches, partially by necessity -- Lincoln vowed to prosecute the war until the end. But partially it seems to be key part of Lincoln's personality, of the man whose ambition was, in the words of William Herndon, "little engine that knows no rest."

As such, the parallels between Lincoln the man and his herculean task are eerie. Lincoln was always striving to do more work -- even after he became a successful appellate attorney, which should have allowed him to take only cases that came to him, he rode the Illinois circuit for months. His hours as president were legendary; it is almost impossible to imagine him sleeping. There was always more work to be done. And Lincoln was performing that work in service to a republic that in its founding document sought "a more perfect union." Lincoln led a nation in preserving that always unfinished union, leading an "almost chosen people." And in this task, he embodies the American spirit.

There's much to recommend both suggestions, though both can be criticized. They both implicitly suggest that Lincoln's legacy is strong because Lincoln's example still has great meaning for our lives; studying Lincoln can not only make us smarter, but can make us better -- better leaders, better Americans, better people. That has been my experience, too, but I hesitate to push it too far. While it is true that many people see themselves in historical figures -- sometimes to the point that those figures become mirrors rather than people -- some people have a sincere interest in Lincoln that appears distinct from this. I don't think most of the finest Lincoln scholars are looking for themselves in Lincoln; they're sincerely looking for Lincoln.

These answers are unsatisfying, but so are the other answers. Lincoln was the great American leader; yes, but so was Washington or Roosevelt. Lincoln was a great charismatic presence; yes, but so was Washington or Roosevelt. Lincoln was a prime actor in a time of unprecedented national drama; yes, but so was Washington and Roosevelt. Lincoln was the greatest president; yes, but so was Washington or Roosevelt. But neither Washington nor Roosevelt (TR or FDR) has 16,000 books written about them and counting. And those people, and countless others in American history, are fascinating.

In the end, I cannot explain it. Perhaps as I grow older, I will become more self-aware and I can offer a better answer to the question, Why Lincoln? Maybe it is a combination of answers; perhaps Lincoln is more fascinating on multiple levels and in multiple ways than other people. Maybe Lincoln is, as Sen. Dick Durbin suggested at the beginning of the week, "the one truly indispensable American," just as for countless millions, Shakespeare is the one truly indispensable English author, Napoleon is the one truly indispensable military leader, and Jesus Christ is the one truly indispensable example of faith (to compare Lincoln to the other most written-about people). Then again, maybe it's something else entirely. Why Lincoln, indeed.

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