Mr. Lincoln and His Times

No, I never move on from this. Like some people love the stars, or adore the oceans, or hug the trees, I am fascinated by Mr. Lincoln. His rise from obscurity, his tortured family life, replete with so much death, his “terrible math,” his political sense of just when to pull some gorgeously crafted document out of his breast pocket, the pathos, the intellectual giant in his lean and muscled frame, all call out to me over 135 years after his murder. He is the American story condensed into fifty-six years of earthly life.

Mr. Lincoln wrote his own scripts. The Emancipation Proclamation was his own, as was his two minutes at Gettysburg, his careful First Inaugural and his timeless Second Inaugural (the best sermon I ever read). He might ask Seward for his thoughts, or let MTL teach him fear, but he crafted his own speeches. He pulled his sacred words from a long reel of poetry, set in the back of his mind, stored there by his constant reading of Shakespeare and the King James Bible. He remembered every story he ever heard. He dealt in myth, the deepest understanding of truth. He made statements that sounded like those of a racial bigot, though he was the least bigoted of men.

He was not a good hater, so he might have failed important political tests. When a man was bashing him, he did not bash back at the man. When the man quit bashing him, he forgave the man utterly and never held the bashing against him. He was deathly afraid of his wife, the MTL his personal secretaries called “the Hellcat.” He turned that fear into political advice, as MTL so often saw the road ahead before he worked it out in his own mind.

Mr. Lincoln let his times inform his conscience but he seldom failed to let his conscience guide the actions he used to reform his times. Revisionist historians take his story of seeing slavery up close on a riverboat ride with a skepticism bordering on derision these days but no one can doubt what he did to combat slavery or what his works cost him. He was the essential Tragic Hero, if, for a Tragic Hero, we need a protagonist who sows the seeds of his own coming death in Act I, but winds up a torturous path to his end in Acts I and II.

So, I have the Devil’s own time trying to leave his story.



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