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I never had an abiding passion for Abraham Lincoln as a president or an American ideal. For starters, I never much cared for the Civil War era of American history. When juxtaposed to the Revolutionary period where God placed men of immeasurable character in my home state of Virginia at the right time in history to change the world in the face of tyranny, a fight over slavery never held much appeal.
While the Revolution presented an amazing legacy, the War Between the States presented an embarrassment on our historical reputation. Add to that, it was a bloody war. It pitted brother against brother. It saw the erosion of state’s rights and is focused on the uncomfortable subject of southern oppression of their fellow man in the form of slavery.
More specifically, Abraham Lincoln’s legacy bothered me. He suspended habeas corpus and held Americans without trial – something that can never be justified, even in war time. He grew the size and scope of the federal government in a way that wasn’t duplicated until the rise of FDR. So in fairness to me, there was always reason to question the man who had literally been put on a very large marble pedestal by a media I tend not to trust.
But, after all that, I have found my American romanticism awakened upon recent reflections on his legacy.
When I consider Lincoln, he was undoubtedly both a man of character and a politician. What makes him comes alive 150 years later, is how ambitious he was. He wasn’t unlike the politicos of today. But, after his many defeats, he became a great politician.
He made the most of a marriage with an often difficult wife. He was a great father to his two youngest sons.
People that knew Lincoln, loved him. He was the life of the party. He was a first class story teller. People would listen to him for hours. Lincoln would stand in the White House foyer for hours every day greeting guests and travelers that had come to see him. He truly was a people’s President.
As Lincoln traveled the northern U.S., building the abolitionist’s case, following his term in Congress, people latched onto one thing about Lincoln’s slavery stump speech – it was logical. Whereas other leaders of the day appealed to God and religious morality (necessary sources of argument), Lincoln framed the issue in historical and Constitutional terms. It wasn’t that he lacked the passion of his contemporaries; it was that he placed his passion in logic rather than in rhetoric.
Lincoln was a man who attempted to quarrel with no man. He didn’t hold grudges. When one top east coast lawyer disrespected him as an attorney in his early career, he later installed him as his Attorney General – simply because he was the best. He would quickly forgive and forget slights.
Lincoln’s positive attitude in the wake of so many defeats and ability to forgive political wrongs is what endeared him to so many supporters that helped him to secure the republican nomination for president. For Lincoln, there was no enemies list.
In a time where, people like me – the middle class, didn’t exist, leadership was almost exclusively reserved for the rich. His compelling personal story was enough to endear him to any American. Lincoln educated himself and lifted himself far above all of the other ambitious men surrounding him by sheer will and determination, and what proved to be a cunning political sense.
Most of all, I found a man that I was mistaken about. Although there were times where Lincoln revealed himself to be bigoted and even allowed slavery to be placed back on the table, in the end, Lincoln believed in his heart that black people could not continue to be kept as slaves. He may have buckled at times, but in the end, he realized which side of history he wanted to be on.
As the end of the war neared, the President instructed Grant and Sherman that the officers of the Confederacy would be treated with dignity and respect. Confederates would be allowed to return home and even keep their side arms. He was willing to reimburse slaveholders for their losses. He understood what it would take to rebuild the country. He understood that politics comes down to people.
When Frederick Douglas, the influential black leader of the day visited Lincoln in the White House, Mr. Lincoln went out of his way time and time again to make him feel like an old friend. This was in stark contrast to other Union leaders that made Douglas feel like an inferior black man. Douglas would recall stories often of the respect shown to him upon his visits.
In studying Lincoln, I found a man that’s simple disposition, endeared him to all of his peers. Lincoln, coming from nothing, had never won statewide office, never a governor, senator or holder of a respected title. Lincoln, over and over again failed in his quest for public office. He failed in his quest for acceptance among other talented lawyers of the day. But he never gave up. I found a man that I wouldn’t necessarily have agreed with concerning federal powers or the rights of states, but a man that had a strong moral compass. He wasn’t “personally pro-life but publicly pro-choice,” while politically savvy, he was a man of convictions. Eventually, he guided through the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, the greatest testament to his commitment.
Lincoln has handed modern day Republicans, a legacy to be proud of and to mimic.
I once believe that Lincoln cared little for slaves, what I learned was what a shrewd politician he was. He didn’t always come out as the most passionate of abolitionists, but he got the job done. While his rhetoric wasn’t always the most flamboyant, his policies were. What I found was a man not afraid to push a moral standard as public policy, some one that would rather fight a war than uphold injustice, something that is very scarce in the age of poll watching. He stood up for those who could not speak for themselves. That is why the oppressed loved him, while the oppressors hated him. His qualities of steadiness, righteousness and reason endeared him to me and the battles that we still fight to this day. And that’s how I fell in love with the legacy of Abraham Lincoln.