We live in a time where the conclusions of experts, recognized scholars in different fields of study, are disparaged because some individuals with Internet access don’t agree with them. The expert’s informed writings are merely their opinion and are not fact. Never mind that the expert’s viewpoint came about from years of research and familiarity with the topic at hand, subscribe to my theory; it’s better and closer to the truth because I say it is.
When it comes to the greatest of America’s past presidents, disagreement runs as rampant as it does about music, cell phones and cars. However, despite questions about certain aspects of his administration, there is consensus that among the greats is the 16th chief executive, Abraham Lincoln, whose birthday will be observed Feb. 12.
And why? Because the times in which he served in the White House were among the most challenging ever faced by a country not quite a century old. Indeed, the battle for survival of the United States as a whole consumed Lincoln’s tenure until his second term was cut short by assassination a month after he had again took the oath of office.
The comparisons history has drawn between Lincoln and the first president, George Washington, are forged in the momentous events of their day. Washington would perhaps still be known as the father of our country for leading American forces in the Revolutionary War of 1775-1783 alone, but becoming the nation’s initial president under the new Constitution from 1789 until 1797 cemented his fame. He was the leader of a new democracy of more than a dozen states finding a way to work together and establish national policy. That the union of those states still existed at the end of his administration indicated the U.S. was on a sure path.
More than six decades later, the union tottered on the verge of collapse due to the lingering debate over the preservation of or abolition of slavery, among other regional issues between North and South. Lincoln, up until his run for the presidency in 1860 a virtually unknown attorney from Illinois and former congressman, was looked upon by the brand-new Republican Party in the North as a voice of reason who, if elected president, would cobble together some kind of compromise of the type that had kept the nation as one throughout the 1850s. In the South, he was viewed as a country bumpkin and abolitionist puppet whose election to office would force secession from the Union.
After Lincoln won office, southern states began leaving the Union to form the Confederacy and little more than a month after his first inauguration, the new president found the nation rent and engaged in war. A grim determination to preserve the Union and bring the states that had left back into the fold became the byword of Lincoln’s administration. He then won over most of a cabinet whose members believed they were more qualified for the job than he, freed the slaves and began laying plans for reunification when the bloody conflict reached its end on April 9, 1865.
This is not to say that the man was immensely popular as president. To prosecute the war, Lincoln instituted a draft of civilians to bolster troop strength against growing anti-war sentiment, suspended habeas corpus and seemingly changed commanding generals as often as he did hats when desired results on the field were not achieved. Interestingly, his reelection in 1864 was not at all assured as he was opposed by one of his discarded generals, George B. McClellan. But the victories scored by Lincoln’s current pick, Ulysses S. Grant, drew more voters to Lincoln’s side.
Had the assassin’s bullet not brought his life to an end almost a week after the Civil War’s conclusion, Lincoln would have turned his energies toward rebuilding a conflict-shattered South, despite cries from within his party to severely punish the “rebels.” Even the vanquished had come to realize their greater hope rested with the man who led the cause they hated. D.W. Griffith, in his mammoth if controversial example of early American filmmaking, “The Birth of a Nation” from 1915, recognized this sentiment when hero Ben Cameron, a former Confederate officer, laments to his family that “we have lost our best friend.”
Had there been no war and all of the events that followed, would Lincoln have been considered a great president? Perhaps not, but he might have achieved fame if he were allowed to concentrate on a domestic policy and westward expansion. But the times brought him to the forefront of a terrible conflict, in which he was charged with the unenviable task of patching the rift between two sections of the nation. It was a task his immediate predecessors had avoided to the point that Lincoln’s very election to office caused the pot of regional rivalries and beliefs to boil over. Mending the Union became his job to do and it became one he meant to finish.
“I shall do nothing in malice,” Lincoln wrote to a Southerner loyal to the Union in 1862. “What I deal with is too vast for malicious dealing.”
Kevin Kelly, who was affiliated with Ohio Valley Publishing for 21 years, resides in Vinton, Ohio.