Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Lincoln Reconsidered

Lincoln Reconsidered was, I think, the title of one of the books about Lincoln which we were required to read for high school American history class. I haven't actually counted, of course, but my guess would be that Lincoln, who died 150 years ago today, may be one of the most written about of all our presidents - no doubt deservedly so. Certainly, he remains still today at the top of most standard "best presidents" lists, among the most admired and referred to of all our national leaders, worthy of being considered and reconsidered by every generation. 

Not every catastrophic crisis is guaranteed to produce a president or leader of such heroic proportions, but those we acknowledge as history's great leaders are usually those who have successfully led their nations through a major war or comparable crisis. Our great 18th-century president was, of course, George Washington, who, having already attained almost mythically heroic status as national war leader during the Revolution, then served as our first president, leading the country's way through the critical period of the founding and setting the necessary precedents for successful future governance by successors of lesser stature. Our greatest 20th-century president, Franklin Roosevelt, responded aggressively the greatest economic crisis in American history and then led the same nation to victory through the defining military conflict of the century, by the end of which the United States was the undeniably dominant power in the entire world. Likewise Lincoln led the nation through its 19th-century crisis of coming apart and being put back together on a new foundation.

That new foundation was, of course, a transformed constitution rooted in the prior principles of the Declaration of Independence - not its asserted theory of the constitution of the British Empire but its much more audacious assertion of the natural, God-given equality of human beings and their shared community in natural, God-given rights. This, the original constitution had failed to affirm, rooting the new nation's institutions in a fatal compromise with the sin of slavery, a compromise that was only to be undone on the bloody battlefields of a terrible Civil War.

Lincoln the man and the politician remains one of our nation's more interesting historical figures for anyone wishing to consider the way a person's personality and character can respond to the challenge of historical developments and can impact that development in a more moral direction. Like his famous image in Washington, DC, Lincoln really was larger than life. In an era of anything but larger-than-life leaders and leadership, Lincoln demonstrates the absolute need for genuine human greatness to break through the stranglehold that impersonal forces, bad ideas, and narrow individual and group interests will inevitably set as society's agenda, unless countered by great leaders who have developed their characters with authentic moral vision and practical political skill.

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