Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Lincoln in context

This month I will be among the many who celebrate the two hundredth birthday of our greatest President. In "Lincoln the Great, Though He Didn’t Look That Way at the Time", Wilfred McClay reminds us that many of the President's contemporaries took a more jaundiced view.
.... To see a statesman in full, and thereby learn something about the nature of statesmanship, one needs to see him not only in the overly clear light of retrospection, but in the shadowy and inconclusive light of the conditions he faced as they were unfolding. “I claim not to have controlled events,” Lincoln mused during the course of his presidency, “but confess plainly that events have controlled me.”

When standing before the Lincoln Memorial, we should remember the depth and breadth of Lincoln’s unpopularity during his entire time in office. Few great leaders have been more comprehensively disdained or loathed—or underestimated. The low Southern view of him, of course, was to be expected, but it was widely shared north of the Mason-Dixon line. As David Donald put it, Lincoln’s own associates thought him “a simple Susan, a baboon, an aimless punster, a smutty joker”; he was, in the view of the abolitionist Wendell Phillips, a “huckster in politics,” and “a first-rate second-rate man.” When he delivered the Gettysburg Address, one of the great speeches of human history, he was completely overshadowed by the two-hour-long speech of famed orator Edward Everett that preceded his. There was little or no applause for him as he concluded his two-minute speech and sat down. ....

We also need to remember how likely it seemed to Lincoln and others that he would lose the 1864 election, and thereby experience ignominious defeat and see the disintegration of the Union cause as he had fought for it. Had it not been for the miracle of Sherman’s and Grant’s decisive victories in the field, such a defeat at the polls would have been likely, as the American people had grown weary of this frustrating struggle. Add to this bleak outlook the weight of Lincoln’s relentlessly self-examining and depressive temperament and his constant, lonely struggles with a crippling sense of failure, and the sheer resiliency of the man becomes awe-inspiring, in ways a marble temple could never convey. ....

Statesmanship is not an abstract skill, but a contextual one, highly specific to the circumstances it finds. It is irresistible to wonder what kind of leader Lincoln would have been had there been no secession attempt after his election, or had he lived to be a postwar president. That the question is almost impossible to answer intelligently, though, tells us a great deal. Lincoln was above all a war president. Like it or not, that condition of history defined him. He was not elected to be such a president. He might have been no more effective in peacetime than Andrew Johnson was. And he might well have found out, as Winston Churchill or George H. W. Bush later did, that voters prefer very different kinds of leaders in times of peace and war. We will never know. In any event, such was not to be his destiny. [more]

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