Lincoln the imperfect


“… Lincoln was not a perfect man, nor a perfect President. By modern standards, his condemnation of slavery might be considered tentative; his Emancipation Proclamation more a military document than a clarion call for justice. He wasn’t immune to political considerations; his temperament could be indecisive and morose. And yet despite these imperfections, despite his fallibility…indeed, perhaps because of a painful self-awareness of his own failing, etched in every crease of his face and reflected in those haunted eyes…because of this essential humanity of his, when it came time to confront the greatest moral challenge this nation has ever faced, Lincoln did not flinch. He did not equivocate or duck or pass the challenge on to future generations. He did not demonize the fathers and the sons who did battle on the other side, nor seek to diminish the terrible costs of his war. In the midst of slavery’s dark storm and the complexities of governing a house divided, he kept his moral compass firm and true.”

Excerpt from speech given by Senator Obama, April 20, 2005


I’ve loved Lincoln my whole life. When I was five years old my mother gave me a Civil War playset by Marx for Christmas. It contained among the blue and the gray soldiers a plastic figure of Abraham Lincoln. It wasn’t blue or gray in color but cream in color. I remember being totally fascinated by the interesting tall figure with a funny looking hat. Thus began my journey of discovery about “Old Abe.” The first book I read about Lincoln was Carl Sandburg’s one volume edition edited down from the original six volume set. After that I read the Benjamin P. Thomas biography ‘Abraham Lincoln.’  After that I read everything I could get my hands on about Lincoln and the Civil War. As a young man I was smitten by Lincoln. I think of this of my “honeymoon” phase in my understanding of him. As time went on it became apparent to me that not everyone agreed on their views of Lincoln. In fact, I discovered that there were those who downright hated him. I also began to sense that some of the views I had of Lincoln were wrong. I discovered Lincoln was not perfect. He had flaws. He said some things I wished he hadn’t said. He made mistakes. He was not a saint. This hit me hard. The honeymoon was over. I began to wonder if I knew him at all. William Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner, once made a comment to the effect that Lincoln was unknowable. How strange! Consider that it is said that more books about Lincoln have been written than any other person other than Christ. Yet, I found myself wondering who he was. This paradox is evident today in that there is a type of ‘ Lincoln’ for every cause. For those interested in psychiatry there is Lincoln the depressive (see ‘Lincoln’s Melancholy’ by Joshua Wolf Shenk). For those advocating gay-rights there is the gay Lincoln (see C.A. Tripp’s ‘The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln’). Then there is the racist Lincoln (see ‘Forced Into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream’ by Lerone Bennett Jr.). Of course, there is the Lincoln I grew up on, the perfect Savior of the nation.  There are many more examples. Whatever the cause seems to be, there is a Lincoln to match it. My guess is that all of the viewpoints probably have some truth in it. In my own journey I had to determine who the real Lincoln was. I made it through my personal “dark ages.” I did it through more study, more reading of books and the literature, more time considering and weighing what others have said. I no longer accepted blindly what was written as necessarily so. Hence, I am now in my “settled phase.” I’ve reached a point in my relationship with Lincoln that I’ve pretty much heard it all. When I hear or read about someone claiming that Lincoln was this or that it doesn’t bother me anymore. I consider it for any merit. If it fits or seems to be true then I’ll accept it, otherwise I don’t take it seriously. What I’ve come to understand about the man Lincoln is just that: he was a man. He was imperfect. That being said, I consider him the greatest. He is my hero. I consider him worthy to be honored in the same way others considered great deserve honor: Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, and Washington to name a few. They too, had their flaws and made mistakes. I accept that Lincoln (looking through 21st century eyes) wasn’t always what he was once thought to be. I think then Senator Obama (now President) must have had a similar journey. He stated so aptly in his speech (partially quoted above) that Lincoln had certain failings (more or less), but he rose above them in the end and is worthy to be considered, honored, and celebrated. Let me finish by giving another partial quote from the Obama speech of April 20, 2005:

“Today, we come to celebrate not a building but a man. And as that man called once upon the better angels of our nature, so is he calling still, across the ages, to summon some measure of that character, his character, in each of us, today.”

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