Friday, February 12, 2010
Today is Lincoln’s Birthday. Abraham Lincoln is the ultimate American icon. There are so many stories about Lincoln from his youth to the day of his assassination. Every political group seems to find a way to claim him and his life. So many have written so much, there seems little to be said that has not been said about Abraham Lincoln.
I dwell on Lincoln the President and compare him to modern Presidents. It is hard to imagine any modern President being anything close to Lincoln. As President-elect, Lincoln was forced to sneak into Washington under disguise. Can one imagine a President-elect today sneaking into town?
Despite sneaking into Washington, Lincoln was politically bold enough to fill his cabinet with rivals to his power. While President Obama gave the Secretary of State post to Hillary Clinton, to compare to Lincoln, President Obama would have to have the likes of John McCain as Secretary of Defense, Jim DeMint as Secretary of the Treasury and Lindsey Graham as Attorney General. Lincoln surrounded himself in power with his ultimate rivals. No President before Lincoln or since Lincoln seemed so blind to politics when deciding who was best to do a job.
Lincoln also had a personal life that would have been exploited by the media of today. His young son tragically died of typhoid fever. Mrs. Lincoln was insane. Few Presidents dealt with such personal problems while in office. It was perhaps his personal problems that made Lincoln so forgiving of so many soldiers facing the death penalty.
There was a press at the time, and they made fun of Lincoln. We honor him now so, but in his day, Lincoln was portrayed as a baboon, a monkey, a fool, a hick, and a tyrant. One wonders if Lincoln would have politically survived his first term, much less been re-elected, had Lincoln served under today’s cable news and internet news scrutiny.
Lincoln wrote his own speeches. His inaugural addresses and the Gettysburg address were his alone. There were no staffers writing his remarks. Lincoln wrote them. There was no staff of speech writers helping President Lincoln with his words as there are today.
Ultimately, Lincoln’s execution of the Presidency was filled with contradictions. On one hand, Lincoln greatly expanded the power of the Presidency and imposed his will to preserve the federal union. On the other hand, Lincoln was so unlike Presidents of today. Lincoln’s office was open to office and pardon seekers. Lincoln would meet with them and then scribble some action needed on a card signed by him and give it to the visitor. Lincoln would ride his horse with less a guard than his generals. Lincoln would fill his cabinet with rivals, but when it came to the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln asked for a vote of the cabinet. When the cabinet voted against it, Lincoln calmly said, with his vote, the ayes have it.
Finally, Lincoln was a man who never regularly attended church who thought that he was on a duty from God to run the nation during the Civil War. He often spoke that when that work was over, he would be over. It is haunting how accurate Lincoln was in that regard. Days after Lee’s surrender, Lincoln was shot dead.
Thus, Lincoln became an American icon. A man of contradictions who seemed destined to save the union, Abraham Lincoln was the most American character ever to occupy the White House and forever set the standard of what a great President should be.