No president makes it to more "greatest presidents" lists than Abraham Lincoln. Maybe it was his role as war-time president during the United States' only internal conflict; maybe it was his abilities as an orator; maybe it was his fashion sense. Whatever caused Lincoln to be so revered, it's only gotten stronger in the century and a half following his death, so that he's remembered more as a folk hero and demi-god than a mere man who happened to be president.
Born into a frontier family in Kentucky in 1809, Lincoln personified the American ideal by transcending his humble circumstances through sheer hard work and determination. Self-taught, he's remembered as a brilliant politician and speechwriter, a capable public debater, and a champion of freedom and democracy. He's also been subjected to extensive historical revision, both by demonizers and by hero-worshippers. The real man is often lost in rhetoric.
The facts are well known: lazy as a boy, hardworking as a teen and adult; a brief stint in the Illinois militia during the Black Hawk War; elected to the U. S. House of Representatives in 1846, where he served one term; he established and maintained a successful and respected law practice; and finally, he entered Republican politics, which culminated in his 1860 election as sixteenth president of the United States of America.
What most people remember is simply that Mr. Lincoln was against slavery and the South. What they seldom realize is that he was also opposed to abolition, and even initiated a project to deport as many blacks as possible from U. S. shores to the invented African country of Liberia. And it wasn't so much that he was against the South as that he felt their move for secession was illegal and that as president it was his duty to preserve the federal union of the states.
Some of the tools he used to accomplish this last task were suspicious in their own right, such as suspending the writ of habeas corpus, meaning that the unlawfully jailed could legally petition for release. While the U. S. Constitution does protect the right to this action in time of rebellion or invasion, Lincoln's willingness to make use of this provision evidenced a proclivity for a somewhat tyrannical implementation of his presidential rights and abilities.
That's not to say he did nothing good. Far from it, for it was largely under his auspices that the Transcontinental Railroad was planned and built, and while his methods were unfortunate and his motives hazy, his preservation of the Union did ultimately lead to the abolition of slavery. He seems to have acted according to conscience and to have chosen a course that he believed was most conducive to the nation's welfare and longevity.
So why point out his flaws? Why cast doubt on a man posterity has deemed almost superhuman? Because there's always two sides to any story, and we never want to assume someone is great just because popular opinion says so. It's also important to avoid the ipso facto logical fallacy: just because good things came about at the time of, or resulted from the efforts of an important figure, does not mean those good things are directly attributable to that person.
For instance, while the abolition of slavery is undoubtedly one of the most sublime achievements of the American people, it isn't quite right to equate Abraham Lincoln with that event. He wasn't an abolitionist, and he wasn't pro-slavery; in his mind he had bigger fish to fry, and they were the preservation of the federal Union. References to "Father Abraham" are a bit misguided, and don't pay tribute either to his genuine accomplishments, or to the role of true freedom fighters.
We're not here to demonize Lincoln, but neither are we here to uncritically sing his praises. He was a human like everyone else, prone to the same flaws and weaknesses, capable of moments of brilliance and greatness. His unnatural death at the hands of a demented Southerner has only served to further cement him in his role of national patriarch, but our hope is that people can see through the rhetoric to the gifted but ordinary man who was often dependent on others for his victories and accomplishments.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur.Read more of his reviews here.
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