In a book he entitled “Why Lincoln Matters” written prior to and in anticipation of the presidential election of 2004, former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo summoned to the stage for another posthumous bow, a statesman, who perhaps better than anyone before or after him, encompasses the character and indefatigable resourcefulness of a nation he proclaimed to be “the last best hope of earth.”
As in times past, the name of Lincoln is again being invoked by people from across the political spectrum as they grapple with the challenges of a polarized, violently shifting ideological landscape. This is no surprise since “for generations,” as Cuomo puts it, “politicians have twisted themselves – and Lincoln – out of shape to make it appear that they are standing next to the 16th president. His achievements make him irresistible and his eloquence makes him easy to quote.”
Although Cuomo reasons this philosophical adoption of Lincoln is expected and expedient, he contends “there is no political label elastic enough to fit around his magnificent complexity” or to do “justice to his complicated combination of strengths and vulnerabilities, his genius and insufficiencies, his brilliant boldness and wise pronouncements.”
Cuomo’s contention that Lincoln looms, even today, as one of the most coveted and revered figures of the past, is supported by the wide diversity of people wishing to claim him as part of their political, ideological, experiential, racial, and even lifestyle “lineage.”
Lincoln’s humble beginnings, according to Cuomo “make him a natural favorite of generations of seekers and strugglers who have built this nation and continue to strengthen it.”
In 2008, an anthropologist working for the Institute of Historical Science claimed to have analyzed a lock of Lincoln’s hair and identified a strong African genetic link in Lincoln’s DNA; some have inferred that he was gay because he often shared a bed with David Davis, a fellow lawyer, while traveling the 8th Judicial Circuit in central Illinois. It should be pointed out, however, that the alternative to sharing a bed was sleeping on the floor in often primitive accommodations!
Despite all of his admirable qualities, Lincoln, like the rest of us, was not without his faults. He was, after all, human, which by practical definition, made him subject to his own particular assortment of weaknesses and failings. As human beings, our opinions are molded by a lifetime of experiences – shaped and formed by unique circumstances and peculiar twists of fate.
As such, Lincoln’s opinion of slavery evolved over time. While not explicitly advocating for the equality of Blacks as a younger man, it is clear that the practice of slavery offended his sensibilities. In a letter to his friend and colleague Joshua Speed in 1855, he declared that “slavery is wrong, morally and politically.”
Having witnessed slaves shackled together on a steamboat trip from Louisville to St. Louis in 1841 he confided that “the sight was a continual torment” to him. Yet, according to author and historian Greg Caggiano, the final transformation of his thinking would not “be complete until the waning months of the American Civil War when an embattled Lincoln was able to convince his cabinet to go forward with a 13th Amendment” to the Constitution granting slaves their freedom.
Since everyone views the world through a slightly different lens, it is incumbent upon all of us to be sympathetic to the differences among us even though the urgency of the moment or the passion of our emotions may dictate otherwise. Although originally critical of Lincoln’s perceived indifference to the abolition movement, Fredrick Douglass later recalled that “In all my interviews with Mr. Lincoln, I was impressed with his entire freedom from popular prejudice against the colored race. He was the first great man that I talked with in the United States freely who in no single instance reminded me of the difference between himself and myself…”
In a book entitled “Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln by Distinguished Men of his Time” written 21 years after Lincoln’s death, Donn Piatt, a 19th century journalist, remarked that “by our popular process of eliminating all human weakness from our great men, we weaken and, in a measure, destroy their immortality, for we destroy them.”
As we debate the worthiness of our Founders and our other historical predecessors, let us focus on their strengths and contributions not on their weaknesses and indiscretions for it is hypocritical to expect perfection in others when we ourselves fall short of that measure.
Shelly Aldean is a Carson City resident.