Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Searching for the Real Lincoln

As April 15th marks the 150th Anniversary of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, it is perhaps appropriate to consider and reevaluate this most unique, and perhaps most opaque of American lives.

Joseph Ellis, in his biography of Jefferson, “American Sphinx” says of Lincoln “Like Jefferson, he was accessible and had also spoken magic words…. But Lincoln's magic was more somber and burdened; he was a martyr and his magic had a tragic dimension. Jefferson was light, inspiring, optimistic. Although Lincoln was more respected, Jefferson was more loved.”

Ellis chose to write about Jefferson because he thought of him as the President who inspired the most contemporary interest—an opinion I might disagree with.  But he is also making a perceptive point.  It is easier to revere Lincoln for the immensity of his efforts and his personal sacrifice—but reverence is not necessarily love.  You can see Jefferson having a grand old time in Paris, and at Monticello—fine wine, music, beautiful women.  But for Lincoln, there is a dignified, almost silent mournfulness, perhaps best captured in Millard Lampell’s poem about the funeral train that returned Lincoln’s body to Springfield.  “A lonesome train, on a lonesome track.  Seven coaches painted black. A slow train, a quiet train.  Carrying Lincoln home again. ”

The darkness to which Ellis alludes surrounds Lincoln even in our visual memory, as a quirk of a new, but limited technology.  While Jefferson is seen in vigorous color portraiture, rosy-cheeked and alive, Lincoln was the first President to be extensively photographed, and his image is defined in Matthew Brady black and white—the stress etched into his face as the years passed.  Because of the time it took to make the exposure, the sitter had to remain as motionless as possible.  The images created an extraordinary contradiction—an immensely physical man who grew up on a farm, splitting rails, wrestling, riding flatboats down the Mississippi, appears to us still and solid, like the impassive, seated statue in the Lincoln Memorial.  You can approach Lincoln, but you cannot fathom his depths.  Lincoln is the embodiment of introspection.

He was different, not just by our contemporary measures, but by those of his own time.  He stood apart, mocked for his appearance and ungainliness and resented by many in his own cabinet, who thought him lacking in refinement and inferior in intelligence.  Yet he took upon himself enormous burdens, and, unlike our modern-day politicians, he saw first-hand the sacrifices he called upon others to make.  No scripted visits in POTUS jackets with press in tow.  The wounded, the maimed, and the dying were right there, and Lincoln visited with them, and suffered with them.

David Brooks has a piece in today’s New York Times about his wish to find another Lincoln for President.  He concludes, of course, that another Lincoln would be impossible in the modern media age—too ugly, too raw.  Yet, “Lincoln’s temperament surpasses all explanation. His early experience of depression and suffering gave him a radical self-honesty. He had the double-minded personality that we need in all our leaders. He was involved in a bloody civil war, but he was an exceptionally poor hater.”

There is something about that last line that resonates with me—“he was an exceptionally poor hater” because it describes something that begins to explain a profound contradiction in the Lincoln narrative—the Lincoln we don't know.

How is this possible, a man about which literally tens of thousands of books and papers have been written?  We know his deeds, we know what he said and wrote publically, but, in spite of all of this, his inner self, beyond his torments, are walled-off from us.  Lincoln wasn’t a diarist, and the circumstances of his death made accurate reporting impossible. We perceive what we want to perceive—Lincoln as a just man, as a kind and compassionate man.  And, someone who was willing to go to nearly any length to achieve two singular goals—preserving the Union and ending Slavery.  Since we see those ends as good we focus less on the process and more on the result.

Perhaps that’s all we need to know.  And yet, inevitably, talking about Lincoln means talking about slavery, and talking about slavery means talking about race.  And there lies the paradox of Lincoln—he hated slavery as an institution and he had great sympathy for the slaves’ suffering but he had no particular human connection to black men and women.   There is really nothing at all in the record about any relationships that Lincoln might have had with African-Americans, and no one (beyond Frederick Douglass, who had a couple of respectful personal meetings) to offer any personal testimony. 

What did Lincoln think about the black man?  In the 4th Lincoln-Douglas Debate, at Charleston, Illinois, on September 18, 1858, he said something rather remarkable.  

While I was at the hotel to-day, an elderly gentleman called upon me to know whether I was really in favor of producing a perfect equality between the negroes and white people. [Great Laughter.]….I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, [applause]-that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. I say upon this occasion I do not perceive that because the white man is to have the superior position the negro should be denied every thing. I do not understand that because I do not want a negro woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife. [Cheers and laughter.] My understanding is that I can just let her alone.”

Those are Abraham Lincoln’s words, the type of language that would get virtually any politician disqualified today.  He is the same man who in the 7th Debate, at Alson, referring to the Declaration of Independence; "I think the authors of that notable instrument intended to include all men, but they did not mean to declare all men equal in all respects. They did not mean to say all men were equal in color, size, intellect, moral development or social capacity. They defined with tolerable distinctness in what they did consider all men created equal-equal in certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This they said, and this they meant. They did not mean to assert the obvious untruth, that all were then actually enjoying that equality, or yet, that they were about to confer it immediately upon them. In fact they had no power to confer such a boon. They meant simply to declare the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit.

Is that the real Lincoln? We will never really know, but I think the answer is almost certainly yes. Brooks is right—Lincoln is not a good hater.  Nor, does he have it in him to be cruel, at least not intentionally cruel, but he’s no biblically motivated abolitionist and leveler like Garrison.  The differences he notes are the differences he belives exists.  Yet, he built his whole political and moral life around the Founders vision, as he saw it: "They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society which should be familiar to all: constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even, though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people, of all colors, every where."

Lincoln is always relevant.  He will always be a man exceptionally poor at hate, and remarkably grand in his ambition—for humanity.  

April 7, 2015

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

Please join us on Twitter.