Thursday, February 12, 2009

A remarkable American life

It is haunting, this photograph.

The face is weary, exhausted, melancholic. The eyes are sunken into the face, blackened from years of stress. The negative is cracked, an apropos symbol of this man's fate.

It was the last image of Abraham Lincoln, taken days before his assassination, ironically at the moment of his greatest triumph -- the conclusion of the war that plagued his soul.

Today is Lincoln's 200th birthday. What can be said about him that hasn't already been said?

He is with us still. He is with us in all these silly comparisons to Barack Obama. He is with us in a plethora of books. He is with us in at least two new TV documentaries.

I have read more books about Lincoln than about any other human being save Richard M. Nixon. And, while Nixon remains a fascinating enigma, Lincoln remains a legend, the high-water mark of the American presidency; he is in so many ways the savior of our country.

Lest you accuse me of hagiography, let me say just a few short words.

Lincoln, more than any other president, ascended from humble beginnings. He literally was born in a log cabin. He received less than a year of formal education. He was a partner in a general store in his youth, heavily in debt, but honest enough to eventually pay each debtor in full.

He became a successful lawyer, one of the best on the Illinois circuit. He developed a talent for soaring oratory, engaging the most formidable Democrat of the time, the Little Giant Stephen A. Douglas, in a spirited series of debates leading up to the 1858 Illinois U.S. Senate election. And he lost it.

But, two years later, he was elected president of the United States, with only a few years in the Illinois House, and one term in the U.S. House, under his belt. If anyone was destined to lead his country at a particular moment in history, surely it was Lincoln.

He stumbled and fell at times during his first term. He knew personal tragedy, losing his son Willie in 1862. But he kept at it, refusing to give up, doing what it took to preserve the Union.

And he was a ruthless politician. He suspended the writ of habeas corpus, suppressed the freedom of the press, made decisions (even choosing when to announce the Emancipation Proclamation) based on political calculations. Let's not forget, after all, that Lincoln was a flesh-and-blood human being, not the statue that forever stares toward the reflection pool.

I am no expert, but if you were to ask me to name my favorite Lincoln books, I would say these: "Lincoln" by David Herbert Donald; "With Malice Toward None" by Stephen Oates; "Re-electing Lincoln" by John C. Waugh: and "Team of Rivals" by Doris Kearns Goodwin. I have James M. McPherson's "Tried By War" on my bookshelf. I have tried to read Carl Sandburg's epic biography. I will try again someday.

For those of you in the Knoxville or East Tennessee area, take an afternoon and drive up to the Abraham Lincoln Museum on the Lincoln Memorial University Campus. If you can, go in the fall, when the leaves begin to change. Harrogate in autumn is as pretty a spot as anyone can find.

And so today is Lincoln's birthday. We owe this man so much. Here's hoping that we stop to realize that Honest Abe is much more than the Great Rail-Splitter, the mythical monument, the face on the penny.

His is a remarkable American life.



Blogger Dewayne said...

haiography--the study of Alexander Haig?

Man, [you're] in control of the English language...

8:07 AM  

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