Abraham Lincoln is often described as America’s best – and most popular – president. Republicans and Democrats alike claim Honest Abe as their own. Yet we often forget that Lincoln was a complicated human being, and that his presidency was the most controversial in American history: seven southern states seceded in protest when he was elected in 1860, effectively launching the Civil War. He was the commander-in-chief of the Union Army during a war that took the lives of at least 620,000 Americans. He suspended the civil liberty of habeas corpus and instituted the first national military draft. Indeed, he was so controversial that after winning office he had to sneak into Washington on a secret train to avoid a suspected assassination plot; and when he left, it was in a coffin, the victim of a Confederate sympathizer’s bullet.
All American politicians like to cast themselves as men-of-the-people, but few have come from beginnings as humble as Lincoln’s. He was born on the Kentucky frontier in 1809 in a dirt-floor log-cabin with one window, one door hung on leather hinges, and a primitive stick-and-mud chimney. He was tall, very tall. One of his good friends remembered him as “a long tall raw boned boy—odd and gawky.” Too often his clothes didn´t fit. Wrote one country observer, “Between the shoe and Sock & his britches—made of buckskin there was bare & naked 6 or more inches of Abe Lincoln shin bone.”[i] But the ragged appearance clothed an intellectually ravenous mind, and discovering books changed Lincoln’s life. He read everything he could get his hands on, and in his mid-twenties taught himself law, receiving his license to practice in 1836.
It was an auspicious moment to begin a career as a lawyer, for political freedom was rapidly expanding. Although the privilege of voting was restricted to a very few wealthy, white, landowning men in the years immediately following the Revolution, by the early decades of the nineteenth-century these property qualifications were being overturned, allowing many more white men to vote.
Social activists—including Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Sojourner Truth—campaigned for female suffrage, laying the groundwork that would eventually result in the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920. It was also the age of both slavery and abolitionism when approximately one in every ten Americans lived in bondage, and the Radical Abolitionists argued not just that slavery was immoral, but that second-class citizenship violated the spirit of that most idealistic of American documents, the Declaration of Independence.
Yet, Lincoln himself was not an unqualified champion of equality. Elected to the Illinois House of Representative in 1834, he made a mark as a politician who fought against both the extension of slavery and against the full and immediate equality of blacks advocated by the radical abolitionists. As a Congressman from Illinois, he voted to exclude slavery from the territories recently taken from Mexico in the Mexican American War. And he voted to
abolish the slave trade in Washington D.C. But in 1854, Lincoln, speaking of the slaves, declared, “Free them, and make them politically and socially our equals? My own feelings will not admit of this.”[ii] And in his 1861 inaugural address he argued that he had no constitutional power to end slavery, nor could he repeal the Fugitive Slave Law.
But the Lincoln who, in 1858, had said that the peculiar institution of slavery “should be put in course of ultimate extinction”[iii] was the man who so terrified the South.
How should we understand Lincoln’s position on race? Was he a wartime general who signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863—freeing the slaves in the rebellious Confederacy— only to help preserve the Union? Or was he a champion of equality? Can one be against slavery and yet still be a racist? These are important questions to ask, important arguments to have. It’s equally important to point out that Lincoln’s evolving understanding of power and liberty was stopped by John Wilkes Booth’s bullet—and so we may never know, for certain, what Lincoln really thought.
What we can say is that Lincoln´s actions as president managed to preserve the union of states that we think of as the United States and also ended slavery in this country for good.
It does seem that the cornerstone of Lincoln’s political philosophy was his faith in the exceptionalism of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal,” reads the famous second sentence.
However, the notion of an American exceptionalism is a loaded one. Today’s political Right often understands “American exceptionalism” to mean that America is better than other nations and a model to them: they should work harder to be more like us. To the Left, “American exceptionalism” often signifies the hubris used to justify American economic and military interventions around the globe.
But there’s a third way of thinking about American exceptionalism, a way that eludes the love-it-or-leave-it version of the Right as well as the wary stance of the Left. As Lincoln—certainly one of America’s most gifted orators—said during his 1863 speech after the terrible battle of Gettysburg:
It is for us the living...to be dedicated to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to that great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.[iv]
Perhaps this is Lincoln’s legacy: an exceptionalism that honors America’s founding ideals by emphasizing the ever-unfinished obligation of every American—both Left and Right—to struggle towards those still unrealized yet self-evident truths that all people are created equal.