My friend Anurag Kumar (author of the excellent novel Recalcitrance, which is about the Indian uprising in Lucknow in 1857. If you haven't read my review of it, you can read it here. I would also point out that recently the book has become available in eBook format) mentioned that he would interested in reading what I have to say about Abraham Lincoln.
We, in America, do not have royalty and as a result we often see American culture transferring our need to worship other humans onto celebrities. Many of our better presidents are regarded a bit like Caesars, in death almost attaining godhood in the eyes of the culture. Lincoln is probably one of the best examples of this. Of course, there are a great deal of "humanizing" anecdotes about Lincoln, but in my experience they mainly only serve to boost that esteem toward Lincoln in the peculiarly American "Everyman" or "Underdog" way. Indeed, that may be the key to our esteem for him as we are, as I said, a nation that rejects royalty. One of the things I find so attractive about Lincoln is that he was kind of a loser, a provincial lawyer losing the Senate race twice, right up until he became the greatest president in the history of our nation. There is also plenty of material written on his greatness.
Also, our culture is hyper-saturated with Lincoln. People of every economic class see his image daily on our one cent piece. He appears in film, cartoons, commercials, to the effect of echolalia.
Which leaves me with the difficult task of writing something hopefully original and blog-entry length on the man about whom it seems almost everything has been said that is to be said. I've been sitting on the post for about a month now, like Brahms with his symphonies, trying to figure my angle. So, I thought I might write simply, after the fashion of a junior high essay, about what's important to me about Lincoln specifically and why he is probably my favorite president. I think it might be best to just relax and talk about what I think about when I think about Abraham Lincoln.
I think there are two key points of importance in regards to Lincoln's greatness in my estimation. One is, as I mentioned, that he was kind of a loser. There's an essence of America in the "underdog making good" story. There was also the tactical brilliance of his composing his cabinet of former enemies who he 1) knew were highly capable, 2) could therefore keep an eye on and 3) use the situation to diffuse some of the most powerful men in the country from continuing to be his enemies. Lincoln had a tactical genius.
Being what's known in contemporary American slang as "a dove," I don't dwell long on his being a wartime president, although I do have to say that the preservation of the Union was of the utmost importance. I look back on that with great gratitude in spite of my gross misgivings about the grizzly war that afforded it. But more importantly, and my second major point about Lincoln, was the issue of slavery which America was still perpetuating thirty years after William Wilberforce died. Slavery is abominable and a monstrous institution, but 150 years ago my nation had a slave trade (and, in some cases, it continues to exist.)
Although earlier in his career, not seeming to have quite as clear a plan to abolish the institution of slavery, (in the Lincoln-Douglas debates he said "I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists") Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation which, in theory, put an end to the institution of slavery in America in the midst of the Civil War, stating that those owning or trading slaves were in rebellion against the United States of America. "And upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God."
Which is very good, but it was another 100 years before the Civil Rights movement. Humans continued to treat one another atrociously. Lincoln is often viewed as sort of the great-grandfather of Civil Rights, which is nice, but there was still a very long road ahead to equality after the work of President Lincoln, a road we are still on. One of the major issues in human civilization is that of equality. We like to fancy ourselves beacons to the rest of the world on issues of equality and to a large extent we've made great leaps and bounds toward that end. But in actuality America has a long way to go until we reach the enviable position of all humans being equal. be it over race, gender, religion (or lack thereof), economic class, or anything else for that matter.
"Racism gone? If only it were possible. Sadly, it is the furthest thing from the truth. Racism is a complicated issue. The election of Obama did not and cannot erase what has taken hundreds of years to establish. Yes, our country has made tremendous strides in getting to where we are today, but there is still so much work to be done. Whether we see it or not, racism is woven like elastic threads throughout our nation’s garments. The elastic threads are there and show their presence only when stretched. Threads can be dyed to blend in with the adjacent material, they can be enclosed so they’re out of sight, or they can even become part of the fabric’s design, but they remain part of the garment until intentionally removed. The threads of racism run throughout American culture and are disguised in so many ways. Most people are so accustomed to racism’s presence that they cannot even see the threads. I don’t mean this in a harsh way, but I believe anyone who has been raised and educated in this country has been trained from day one to be racist or at least biased against others based on skin color and ethnicity. I also believe that unless individuals, with intentionality, have done what is necessary to change their subconscious responses to race, they still are clothed with countless threads of racism."— Clifford O. ChappellI do not wish to minimize this at all. In fact, I want to emphasize that I think the Emancipation Proclamation is probably the most important act of Lincoln's life. I think it did more to preserve the Union that any of the victories on the battlefield and I could probably dig up many historians who would back me up in that assertion.
I am a strong believer in the equality of all humankind. I believe that none of us are free so long any of us are slaves, in prison, in want or need, or treated as less than equal in any way. Ultimately, I think Lincoln was moving America toward its ultimate goal and therefore is sort of the American martyr. It's debatable (and, in fact, I've heard it debated) how aware he was of this or if he was just acting out of necessity. To this, I think he spoke fairly succinctly in his Second Inaugural Address:
"With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."In the end, I think it's not surprising but obvious that I did not end up saying anything original about Lincoln, but again, that wasn't exactly the point. One of the helpful aspects of having a figure like this in our history is to be able to reflect on such things. How often do we reflect on equality and inequality? How often on a daily basis do we see the image of Lincoln? I know I would do well to search myself and see where my own personal line is set in my subconscious whereby I evaluate a person and find myself treating them as less than my equal and then do everything in my power to seek to erase that line within myself.