Realizing the big deal about Abraham Lincoln…

February 12, 2009

(Copyright 2009)

The anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday comes once a year and he was already ancient history when I was born, although there were still some surviving Civil War veterans when I was younger.

But I had wondered what all the fuss about his upcoming birthday (today, Feb. 12, 2009) was all about when suddenly I caught a headline this morning that said it was the 200th anniversary of his birth. I’m kind of like the small town newspaper editor who realizes he’s too late, that he’s missed an important date, like the first day of spring when you’re supposed to run the obligatory seasonal photo.

Well, even though I usually write my blogs in what I believe they call essay form, a blog is not a formal essay, it’s not a research paper, and this one is just one man’s opinion and observation, so don’t expect any scholarly research here.

But I thought I ought to write a few words about Lincoln, because many historians have concluded that he was our greatest president ever.

I’m not sure about that, but I will say he has to be right up there and he was, to risk understatement, a man for the time. He kept the union together, although at great cost. But who knows what that cost might have been in terms of the development of democracy and what has become a unique experiment in self-government, the United States of America, if he had failed. (And by the way, the word unique has nearly lost its true meaning, one of a kind, with folks proclaiming things to be “the most unique”, but I believe the USA to be unique, even though others try to copy us.)

If you don’t do further reading in history beyond the grade school or even high school curriculum, you might be left with the impression that Lincoln’s greatness was simply in the fact that he freed the slaves.

Well, in the end that is what happened. And while I have gone from thinking that the Civil War was over slavery, to thinking that slavery was more of a side issue, and back to thinking that slavery was the real underlying issue after all, to simply tag old Abe as the guy who freed the slaves is not to appreciate him or his presidency.

We might also want to recall that in true Republican form and as the first president belonging to the modern Republican Party he offered incentives, even giveaways, to private business to develop the first transcontinental railroad, linking us all together from sea to shining sea (completed after his death).

The thing I have to wonder about is what so possessed Lincoln to go to war with the breakaway southern states and commit the lives of so many (the Civil War was the nation’s deadliest with a combined total of 620,000 dead, for both the North and South). Possibly, I have to believe, he did not dream in his worst nightmares that the cost would be so high. I don’t think George W. Bush dreamed the cost in Iraq would be so high. And just like Bush, Lincoln took a long time to find a general that would fight. He finally found Ulysses S. Grant (and William Tecumseh Sherman too). Bush finally found Gen. David Petraeus (and I don’t know if this is a good comparison or analogy). But that and the fact that Bush too was a Republican president is where the comparisons probably should stop. However, I’m sure Bush has to cling to the idea that in sticking to his war policy in the Middle East he showed the fortitude in adversity as Lincoln did, otherwise he has no legacy.

(It is only fair to note, however, that although Bush has been heavily criticized for the overreaching of power by his administration and limiting civil liberties and violating the constitutional separation of powers between the three branches of government, Lincoln took on powers no other president had proclaimed and was responsible for such things as suspending the right of habeas corpus (access by individuals to the courts), the imprisonment of 18,000 suspected southern sympathizers without trial, and spending money without appropriations from Congress.)

Had Lincoln gone to war and failed to preserve the union he’d be nothing but a bad memory. But he was successful, and then the thanks he got, as we all know, is that he was assassinated.

Lincoln and a whole host of other presidents have found that it’s lonely at the top.