America’s Journey: Mr. Lincoln

Mr. Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln was the kind of man you don’t see twice in a thousand years. No president except George Washington is a match for Lincoln’s character. An extraordinary man – a deep thinker, a careful accurate calculator, a wonderful persuader – who remained, all his life, truly humble. Lincoln believed in the people. He really did. Lincoln was always of the people, and nobody could make any mistake about it. Of course the homegrown aristocrats looked down on him because of it. They would! They had to! He was living proof that breeding and inherited wealth do not necessarily convey superiority.

North and South came to blows because of slavery, but the Civil War was about class as much as it was about race. Slavery was intertwined with aristocracy, a home-grown aristocracy that, however illiterate or cash-poor in practice, admired the airs and luxury of English aristocrats and the autocracy of ancient Rome and Greece in politics. Slavery turned the south into a sort of hot-house aristocracy, a few families in each state running things. These few families knew what they wanted, and all the pattern of their lives told them that what they wanted, they had a right to. So they would be infuriated to be in a political Union with the rough-and-tumble North, Unlike the way it was at home, in Congress they couldn’t get their way automatically, but had to bargain for it. They thought it was humiliating to have to ask; they just preferred to give orders.

And Abraham Lincoln was going to be their President? Abraham Lincoln, who was nobody and came from nowhere and didn’t even own anything much to speak of except a house? It was like a bad joke. They weren’t going to bear it. They’d seen plenty of non-entities in there – they’d put them there, by way of a decades-long alliance with Northern Democrats, to be sure they didn’t get King Stork instead of King Log – and now here was King Stork.

(And that aristocracy-in-practice explains how secession was declared in state after state on the say-so of state conventions, or on the vote of a state legislature. Can you imagine a northern state seceding just because the legislature said so? They’d have had a civil war within the state, because if the north was anything, it was a mixture of elements, rather than the property of any one group. It couldn’t have been done. In the South it was a matter of a few families coming to an understanding. That’s over-simplified, but not wrong.) It would have been a whole lot easier for them if the North had elected William Seward, the lawyer who became Lincoln’s Secretary of State. They hated Seward, but at least he was Eastern, and sort of polished, and even if he weren’t a gentleman, you could treat him as a gentleman’s lawyer. But Abraham Lincoln, by what he was, was a living day-by-day demonstration that the common people aren’t necessarily all that common, that there is more to life than money and manner and a society that admired each other. Mr. Lincoln, just by being exceptional and by not having society manners, and by being so obviously kindly and well-meaning while still being sharp as a carpet nail, he, himself, just by being what he was, proved who was right and who was wrong about aristocrats.

That is the secret of Abraham Lincoln! He was a giant in every way, and he was a man of the people. And that’s why the people loved him. They loved him when they could just only read what he wrote, and see what he did. They loved him even more when the stories about him began to circulate, after he was murdered. After he was martyred. They liked the stories about his poverty-filled youth, and about what happened in cabinet meetings, and his patience with fools and incompetents, and his pardoning soldiers for sleeping on duty or deserting. All the stories gave them a clearer and more detailed picture. And the more they heard, the better they loved him. It didn’t hurt, either, that at the end they could see that he’d brought us through. It was a terrible disaster, an awful blood-letting that seemed like it was going to kill the country. But none of it was Lincoln’s fault, and the people knew that. If he had been somebody they thought didn’t care, maybe the country would have said “enough” when the death-rolls started coming in with thousands of boys in a day. But the people knew that he grieved too. Even the death of his son in early 1862 united him in their minds with grief. But he was resolute that they finish the job of saving the Union, and in the end the people believed in him, and followed him to the far shore.

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