Presidential Review: Abraham Lincoln

16 Jun



Reviewing Lincoln is a little like reviewing Moses or Shakespeare–he’s so much above all the others it’s really hard to find things to say.  You all know his story, never have we had a president who had so much to lose and managed to gain so much in the absolute worst of times our country has ever seen.  He is our president of the civil war–a war of terrible proportions, and he is our president of emancipation–slavery being the divisive issue that was the fly in the ointment for the first century of the United States.  He defined what the United States means more than any president, and I include Washington on this list.  He is a master of speeches, politically savvy, and is something of a modern martyr.  Without Lincoln, the United States would be an entirely different country, if it even existed as an independent country at all–that’s how important he is.

Unlike Washington, Lincoln was not surrounded by brilliant minds during his tenure.  His cabinet was contentious, congress didn’t really fully support him, his generals were largely incompetent (until Grant).   He had to constantly work to keep people moving forward rather than back.  He suffered the death of his younger son, the insanity of his wife, as well as nearly everybody thinking they could do a better job than him.  Let’s make this clear, before he died, Lincoln was not an exceptionally popular president at the time.   He really was at risk to lose his second election, and had a couple of successful battles not happened just before election day, his story would have been much different.

The most impressive part of Lincoln is how his philosophy and the policies that developed continuously evolved.  He started running on a ticket that was against the spread of slavery, but not in favor of abolishing it.  As the states seceded one by one, he remained cautious on the subject–he was worried about pushing border states over the edge.   Then he privately announced his idea about an emancipation proclamation, but he had to wait until there was a battlefield success, otherwise the statement would seem hollow.  Even with the proclamation–he only freed slaves in rebel states, so any state that remained in the union were allowed to keep them.  Realistically, Lincoln  probably knew that slavery would be abolished if the war was won, but he didn’t perform that act.  He eventually allowed black regiments in the army, and joined the Civil war to a cause for freedom, and what that meant for all the future.  Whenever we talk about freedom today, we’re talking about Lincoln’s version of freedom which is much broader than the ideas that the founding fathers had.

Besides preserving the union and ending slavery, he also kept the idea of Democracy alive–because had the United States fallen, most certainly the idea of Democracy would have died with it.  Around Lincoln’s time there was much skepticism about Democracy, after all it was only a half century after the French Revolution which started as an idealistic movement and ended as a mob ruled bloodbath.  Other Democracies in the world also fared poorly, falling into their own infighting and civil wars in short order.  In the eyes of Europeans, you can’t simply have people vote on things, there must be someone or a class of someones who manage things to ensure social harmony.  While the Civil War certainly was brutal, Lincoln showed that a democratic society could survive through the worst kind of conflict.

You know his speeches, you know the war, but the thing that makes him loved to this day is his compassion and humanity.  Just looking at his images, whether for a presidential portrait, or walking through the army camps, he possessed an image of incomparable personality–ultimately, all his talk about freedom would not be worth a stick if he wasn’t relatable.    The man wasn’t perfect, but he managed to be great in spite of his imperfections, not because of a lack of them.

In the end, Lincoln proves that one person (he really did come from humble beginnings) can really have an enormous amount of power to change the world for good.   In this day of corporate mush and the general feel that the voice of the individual is getting drowned out by the forces that drive the masses, he’s the perfect life to study.

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