It’s too bad, really, that Abraham Lincoln has been accorded sainthood.
Not that we call him Saint Abe or put a halo around his image, but Americans do just about everything else to turn our 16th President into a plaster statue up on a pedestal rather than a person who lived and breathed and ticked people off.
Consider that, in 2011, a national poll found that 91 percent of Americans esteemed Lincoln, one percentage point higher than the 90 percent recorded for Jesus.
In our national rhetoric and myth-making, Lincoln has become the sum of all American virtues — kind, self-deprecating, funny, thoughtful, visionary. A martyr.
It was the bullet of John Wilkes Booth that turned Lincoln into a saint. Up until that moment — for all his talk about the Union, and, indeed, because of it — he had been one of the most divisive figures in American politics.
Too far and not far enough
The South fled the Union in 1861 because he was elected as the nation’s president, because of the Southern perception that he was essentially an abolitionist.
But abolitionists found fault with him as well. When Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, they argued that it didn’t go far enough since it only freed the slaves in Southern-held territory.
Other Northerners, particularly those with low-paying jobs, feared that newly liberated African-Americans would compete against them for jobs. They were also angry that Lincoln seemed to be redefining the Civil War as a conflict to free slaves rather than re-unite the Union.
One result of that anger was the outbreak of racist anti-draft riots in New York City in July of 1863, in which at least 11 blacks were lynched and scores more murdered and some 2,000 injured.
Indeed, as the 1864 presidential election neared, the antipathy against Lincoln and his administration was so great that, in late August, Lincoln wrote, and had his Cabinet members counter-sign, a memo that said:
This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re-elected. Then it will be my duty to so co-operate with the President elect, as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such ground that he cannot possibly save it afterwards.
Please don’t get me wrong. My goal isn’t to bash Lincoln. Like most Americans and most world citizens, I believe that he was the greatest of U.S. presidents.
Yet, we could learn much more from him — and better see his greatness — if we could see him as a human being and not a saint, not someone without blemishes.
There is a tendency to look at today’s political landscape and throw our arms up in frustration and surrender. The women and men who seek to lead us seem like small potatoes compared to our images of Lincoln and his colleagues on Mount Rushmore.
Let me tell you, though, that, if you read even a little bit about Lincoln the human being, you’ll recognize that he wasn’t the easiest person to deal with. He was moody and private. He told jokes, but it was hard for anyone to guess what was going on inside his skull.
His wife Mary was identified by contemporaries as unstable, but it would have been hard for any woman to put up with a guy who spent so much time brooding.
A man of his time
In recent years, there have been great debates over racist comments that Lincoln made throughout his life, such as these lines from his fourth debate with Stephen Douglas in 1858:
I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.
The shock of seeing such comments is jarring because we Americans have an image of Lincoln as the perfect person. How could he say something racist?
The reality is that Lincoln was a man of his time. Which is to say that he carried with him the biases of his era (just as we carry, often unthinkingly, the biases of our era).
The deeper story is that Lincoln worked to rise above those prejudices, to evolve in his understanding and treatment of African-Americans, and he did that. Not perfectly, but well. And he found ways to drag the nation along with him.
Saint Abe? Not exactly.
Don’t put him in a stained-glass window. Don’t suck the life out of him and reduce him to a caricature of goodness.
He was great, no question. But, like you and me, he was human. He was flawed.
His greatest role today is as a model for each of us in trying to rise above our flaws, for our nation in trying to rise above its failings.
Patrick T. Reardon
This essay originally appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times of 1.18.14.