Abraham Lincoln in a photograph by Alexander Gardner taken in 1865, a few days before his death.
Unlike many other Texans of the time, my father revered Abraham Lincoln. On the question of the South and the "Noble Cause," my father was a Sam Houston Texan. Like Houston, he opposed secession. Neither "states' rights" nor "the peculiar institution" (slavery) were worth throwing away the union. My father hated the Confederacy and everything about it, and he was an old time "states' rights" Southern conservative.
I revere Lincoln too, but for perhaps different reasons. He was a most unlikely candidate for Great Statesman status. He was a self-taught backwoods bumpkin from what we would call a "dysfunctional" home; his own mother died when he was a boy, his father left a lot to be desired as a provider. He was a manic depressive married to a neurotic fat woman whose family all hated him. His children kept dying one after the other. He and Mary Todd held seances in the White House to try to talk to their dead sons. He shared many of the conventional prejudices of his day. He felt the best solution for the huge population of slaves and former slaves in this country was their own separate state either in Africa or some place in the west. He could be high-handed when dealing with the national emergency of the Civil War, suspending the right of habeas corpus for the duration.
And yet, this entirely self educated man from a background of isolation and poverty turned out to be one of the greatest political leaders of the 19th century, idolized by such different people as Walt Whitman and Karl Marx (and my father). This man with no formal education became arguably the greatest political orator of the 19th century. He memorized Shakespeare's soliloquies and worked out the proofs in Euclid's Geometry for pleasure. He, more than anyone else, transformed the United States from a republic of propertied white gentlemen farmers and merchants, to an industrial democratic state with a universal franchise. It was Lincoln more than anyone else who made the Declaration of Independence, especially its famous lines about "all men are created equal" and are endowed with "inalienable rights," into a binding document at a time when most thought of it as a quaint antique. Lincoln's record on African Americans may have been imperfect at best, but toward the end he won the respect and admiration of one of his fiercest critics, Frederick Douglas. And finally, he gave his life for that vision of a strong union of the states where liberty and equality are guaranteed by the rule of law.
My friend David Kaplan always said that the United States at its best is a place where "Life Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness" are protected and guaranteed by "Equal Justice Under Law." At its worst, the United States is a plea bargain with history on behalf of the white middle class.
Lincoln is someone to remember now when the United States is a byword for hypocrisy of the worst sort. After spending decades trumpeting to the world the need to stand firm for human rights and democracy, what did we do when we got hit? We panicked and resorted to all those expediencies -- a war of aggression, massacres, secret prisons, torture, contempt for our own laws and for international law -- the very things we loudly condemned in some regimes (and quietly tolerated in others).
Lincoln is also someone to remember now when American society is becoming ever more stratified, and the lines between the classes are hardening. America looks today more like Europe than ever before; not the Europe of today, but the Europe of a century ago with its various entrenched establishments. It would be almost impossible for a man of Lincoln's background to rise very far, let alone become President, in contemporary America, no matter how brilliant he was. Our current President comes close; a brilliant young man on scholarships.
But as the former President demonstrated, money and connections still count for way too much these days.
Happy 200th Birthday Mr. Lincoln. Thanks for all that you suffered and for all that you did.