Wolf Pascoe considers the growth of his favorite president.
Cameraman: Just look natural.
Lincoln: That is what I would like to avoid.
I love that this face, the hardscrabble prairie written in its lines, makes no apologies for itself. Resignation is there, and loss. The loss, when a boy of nine, of his mother, loss of his first, great love, loss of his second son. Yet open, curious, in retrospect even innocent, he seems ready almost to break into a smile. One can do business with this man. One wants to know him better.
It is May 7, 1858, a month before his nomination to be Republican Senator from Illinois, opposing the Democrat, Stephen Douglas. The two men differ over the issue of slavery. Republicans want it confined to the South. Democrats want new states to decide for themselves.
Though well-known in Illinois, Lincoln is obscure nationally, a prairie lawyer and local politician, with one undistinguished term as a U.S. Congressman a decade ago. He is 49 years old.
October 4, 1859. The innocence is gone here. In its place, a wariness. The intelligence behind the eyes, formidable. Not quite cold, but not warm either. Evaluating. I feel utterly seen by this man. I wouldn’t mess with him.
Although he outpolled Douglas in the final ballot, the Democrats had gerrymandered voting districts to retain control of the Illinois legislature. They sent Douglas to the Senate. (Direct election of senators by the people only came in 1913 with the Seventeenth Amendment.) After the race, Lincoln returned to his law practice and continued making speeches for the Republican cause.
That year, an editor wrote to him suggesting he run for president. “I must, in candor, say I do not think myself fit for the Presidency,” he replied.
November 18, 1863. Two weeks before his address at Gettysburg. He presides over the bloodiest war in American history, the end not yet in sight, and he has to tell the nation why. I cannot conceive the immensity of these burdens.
There’s eternity in this face. How did it get there?
He seemed to have captured all the greater qualities of the great Americans who preceded him, without their defects: the poise of Washington without his aloofness, the astuteness of Jefferson without his indirection, the conscience of J.Q. Adams without his harshness, the forthrightness of Jackson without his ignorance, the magnetism of Clay without his vanity, the lucidity of Webster without his ponderousness; and fused them with a magnanimity peculiarly his own. — Morison and Commager, The Growth of the American Republic.
A year and a half later, he confided to Harriet Beecher Stowe, “I shall not live to see the peace. This war is killing me.”
I confess to an an endless fascination with this man. Embarrassing because this isn’t an age of heroes.
When my son was five, he told a reporter from the school newspaper, “My dada fought in the Civil War.”
When I told James Hillman a few years ago that I was reading Lincoln, he responded, “That was a long time ago.”
So sometimes I feel I’ve retreated into a fantasy of the past. Probably because the problems of the present seem so insurmountable. I’m not just talking about our economic decline, but the circumstance behind it that the Depression has exposed: the hijacking of Congress by monied interests, the train wreck of our republic.
If there were four signal crises in our past–the Revolution, the Civil War, the Gilded Age, the Great Depression–then this is now the fifth.
Each of those four crises produced a hero–Washington, Lincoln, the two Roosevelts. There is no hero now, none on the horizon. Perhaps, in our age, if remedy is to come, it must come from below.
Lincoln’s greatness was that each day, each punishing day, he became a better man than he’d been the day before. Knowing this gives me courage that perhaps I can be a better man tomorrow.
Perhaps I may yet contribute to making a better world for my son.
Check out the rest of our “Men and Heroism” section.
The “Men and Heroism” section was run and edited by Dave Kaiser.