[This post originally appeared on 3/21/06 (it hardly seems possible that three years have passed by that fast). I'm reprinting it on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth.]
Recently, I got into a discussion with someone on another blog about how Presidents get one sentence in the history books. When I suggested that Bush’s sentence would include the words, “distorted intelligence,” the commenter suggested that the sentence, instead, would be: “Freed more people than Lincoln.” That the commenter would be making a Civil War/Bush/Iraq reference in this way was as revealing as it was mind-boggling.
But I digress.
I have just gotten done reading Doris Goodwin’s Lincoln book, Team of Rivals. I’m not sure if any of you would enjoy the book — it is, after all, almost 800 pages long and anyway, does the world need another Lincoln biography?
Actually on that last point, it is more a collective biography of Lincoln and the other 3 major political personalities of that age that Lincoln chose to be in his Cabinet: Senator William Seward, Governor Salmon Chase, and elder statesman Edward Bates.
Taken together, the lives of these four men give us a picture of the path taken by ambitious young men in the North who came of age in the early decades of the nineteenth century. All four studied law, became distinguished orators, entered politics, and opposed the spread of slavery. Their upward climb was one followed by many thousands who left the small towns of their birth to seek opportunity and the adventure in the rapidly growing cities of a dynamic, expanding America.
Just as a hologram is created through the interference of light from separate sources, so the lives and impressions of those who companioned Lincoln give us a clearer and more dimensional picture of the president himself. Lincoln’s barren childhood, his lack of schooling, his realtionships with male friends, his complicated marriage, the nature of his ambition, and his ruminations about death can be anlyzed more clearly when he is placed side by side with his three contemporaries.
I was especially struck by one passage she includes, relating what Leo Tolstoy had written about Lincoln:
In 1908, in a wild and remote area of the North Caucasus, Leo Tolstoy, the greatest writer of the age, was the guest of a tribal chief “living far away from civilized life in the mountains.”
Gathering his family and neighbors, the chief asked Tolstoy to tell stories about the famous men of history. Tolstoy told how he entertained the eager crowd for hours with tales of Alexander, Caesar, Frederick the Great, and Napoleon.
When he was winding to a close, the chief stood and said, “But you have not told us a syllable about the greatest general and greatest ruler of the world. We want to know something about him. He was a hero. He spoke with a voice of thunder; he laughed like the sunrise and his deeds were strong as the rock…His name was Lincoln and the country in which he lived is called America, which is so far away that if a youth should journey to reach it he would be an old man when he arrived. Tell us of that man.”
“I looked at them,” Tolstoy recalled, “and saw their faces all aglow, while their eyes were burning. I saw that those rude barbarians were really interested in a man whose name and deeds had already become a legend.” He told them everything he knew about Lincoln’s “home life and youth…his habits, his influence upon the people and his physical strength.” When he finished, they were so grateful for the story that they presented him with “a wonderful Arabian horse.”
The next morning, as Tolstoy prepared to leave, they asked if he could possibly acquire for them a picture of Lincoln. Thinking that he might find one at a friend’s house in the neighboring town, Tolstoy asked one of the riders to accompany him. “I was successful in getting a large photograph from my friend,” recalled Tolstoy. As he handed it to the rider, he noted that the man’s hand trembled as he took it. “He gazed for several minutes silently, like one in a reverent prayer, his eyes filled with tears.”
Tolstoy went on to observe, “This little incident proves how largely the name of Lincoln is worshipped throughout the world and how legendary his personality has become. Now why was Lincoln so great that he overshadows all other national heroes? He really was not a great general like Napoleon or Washington; he was not such a skilful statesman as Gladstone or Frederick the Great; but his supremacy expresses itself altogether in his peculiar moral power and in the greatness of his character.
“Washington was a typical American. Napoleon was a typical Frenchman, but Lincoln was a humanitarian as broad as the world. He was bigger than his country — bigger than all the Presidents together.
“We are still too near to his greatness,” Tolstoy concluded, “but after a few centuries more our posterity will find him considerably bigger than we do.
“His genius is still too strong and too powerful for the common understanding, just as the sun is too hot when its light beams directly on us.”
I know there are some who revile Lincoln’s memory even today (a startling number of them living in the North), suggesting that he ruled with an iron fist, disregarding the Constitutional protections of habeus corpus and instituting an income tax and paper money. Others would compare the current President favorably with the sixteenth President. I’d say those are, at best, incomplete observations and, at worst, ingnorant.
Lincoln was a warrior, he was poet, he was a politician, “he was a hero, he spoke with a voice of thunder; he laughed like the sunrise and his deeds were strong as the rock,” and he was, as Tolstoy suggests, “bigger than all the Presidents together.”
As Goodwin puts it, “Lincoln has unequalled power to captivate the imagination and to inspire emotion.“