As we observe Presidents Day on Monday, and the celebration of the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth on Feb. 12, it is interesting to reflect on how a current president is looking at the record of a one-time chief executive to help address the nation’s ills. That’s due in part to Lincoln working to reunite a nation ruptured by social, sectional and economic issues, and fighting a war that dominated all but a month of his administration.
With no disservice to George Washington, the nation’s first president whose birthday is celebrated Feb. 22, the focus has been on Lincoln, reinforcing a fascination not just with that volatile period of American history but with the man himself.
Much of it may lay with the fact once the myths are swept away, Lincoln was a self-made man in a developing nation, rising from humble store clerk and postmaster in an early Illinois settlement to one of the top lawyers in that state’s judicial circuit. He was a self-effacing man who craved anonymity but found little after he burst on the national scene in an unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate that produced highly charged debates between himself and opponent Stephen A. Douglas. And he was a man who took charge of his administration, brought men into his Cabinet who considered themselves his political and mental superiors (as related in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s current best seller, Team of Rivals) and accomplished the mighty feat of ending a divisive, bloody war between the states and starting the nation on the path to reunification.
We are also intrigued by the contradictions history presents about the man. Compassionate, yet unable to deal with the emotional problems of his wife and the loss of their children at early ages; a humorist who battled bouts of melancholy; an advocate of democracy forced to suspend civil liberties in wartime; and the man whose Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves but who still possessed what historian Michael Beschloss called “shockingly retrograde” views on race relations.
Even his assassination less than a week after the Civil War ended remains a topic of discussion and study today.
The opposing poles of his nature point to another reason the 16th president remains compelling: He was a complex human being, as all of us are, and therefore, more accessible and identifiable to all of us.
And the lessons of his four years in the White House and the character that created them remain an inspiration to us nearly 150 years since his inauguration.