Memory  /  Biography

Re-imagining the Great Emancipator

How shall a generation know its story, if it will know no other?

The impulse to judge the past in a harsh and unforgiving spirit has probably never been stronger in this country than it is today. This is especially true of those individuals who have been singled out in our national story — individuals whose achievements earlier generations of Americans chose to celebrate. Their names are attached to streets and schools, cities and counties, forests and mountains; their likenesses are rendered in marble and adorn our currency. All these markers of national gratitude and honor draw special ire from contemporary arbiters of rectitude — arbiters who give imperfection no quarter. And let us grant from the outset: All of these individuals from our past, being human, were imperfect.

This is the context in which Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, is being judged in our time and found wanting — grievously wanting. This judgment, almost unimaginable even 50 years ago, invites further inquiry.

My purpose here is not to explain this shift, but to account for Lincoln's continuing grip on our national imagination. Without fail, in every generation since his untimely assassination, we Americans find ourselves compelled to try to make sense of who and what this man was. His background and character, actions and motivations, shallowness and depth — they all pose challenges to our understanding that cannot be ignored. How could such a person emerge out of nowhere, so to speak, to become the towering presence in our national memory that he continues to be?

The astonishment is even greater when one recalls that in his lifetime, this man of sorrows was badgered by allies, despised by rivals, and hated by enemies. Granted, martyrdom does wonders for the reputation of imperfect men — historical examples abound. There may be no reason to doubt that the grief expressed along the railroad tracks of his funeral cortege from Washington to Springfield was genuine, but the fact remains that while he lived, Lincoln never enjoyed broad political support at either the local or the national level. And yet, in retrospect, he soars.

What's more — and here lies the true puzzle — Lincoln still speaks to us. His story of self-discovery amid the most inauspicious circumstances is a story, properly told, that can resonate with young men and women the world over. These individuals yearn for something greater than the offerings of the impoverished political culture they inhabit; they yearn for an avenue of escape, a model with more than a hint of possible grandeur. To such individuals, Lincoln's quandaries, failures, hesitations, and successes continue to speak. He is ever near to all who ponder him.