Students of history know that the prevailing opinions of Presidents tend to change over time. Often, a particular President is controversial or even unpopular during his tenure, but with the perspective of history his actions and accomplishments grow in stature and appreciation. Such has been the case with President Abraham Lincoln. As we celebrate Lincoln’s birthday this week I thought it appropriate to offer my “two cents” on his legacy as President.
During his time as President, Lincoln was very controversial. In fact, his very election to his first term in 1860 was controversial. He ran as a moderate from a “swing” state, Illinois, as the first nominee of the new Republican Party. He swept the northern and western states, but he had little support in the South. In fact, he won zero electoral votes in the South. Historically, such extreme regional disparity has been highly unusual, if not unique. Furthermore, in a multi-candidate race he garnered less than 50% of the popular vote, although he did win the electoral vote decisively (180 compared to his rivals’ combined total of 123). Ironically, two of his defeated rivals were William Seward and Salomon Chase, whom, in a show of solidarity, Lincoln later appointed to his Cabinet as Secretaries of State and Treasury, respectively.
Additionally, Lincoln’s election was the “last straw” for the pro-slavery southern states. The slavery issue had been brewing since before the American Revolution. Its resolution had been delayed time and again through various compromises, such as the famous “Missouri Compromise” of 1820. (In order to maintain the balance of power in the Congress the Missouri Compromise was an agreement to admit Missouri as a “slave” state and Maine as a “free” state.) This “can” had been kicked down the road for nearly 100 years. It was the proverbial 500 pound gorilla in the room. Southerners were convinced that Lincoln meant to end slavery. Thus, after threatening to secede from the union for several years, one by one, the pro-slavery states did so before Lincoln even took office, beginning with South Carolina in December 1860. Lincoln’s immediate predecessor, James Buchanan, one of the worst Presidents in US history, had been unable or unwilling to deal with the issue effectively, leaving the mess for Lincoln. Ironically, Lincoln viewed his primary objective as preserving the union at all costs, not necessarily ending slavery.
The Civil War began in April 1861. At first, the war did not go well for the North. The rebels, with more competent leadership, particularly General Robert E. Lee, were more than holding their own. By contrast, the northern generals, such as Winfield Scott, George Meade and George McClellan were overconfident and/or ineffective. Many northerners became dissatisfied with the war. Many in the North had expected a quick and easy victory. Anti-war sentiment took hold. A “Peace Wing” arose in the Democratic Party and gained some traction as the election of 1864 approached. As President, much of this criticism was focused on Lincoln. There was even some doubt that he would win re-election. He did, but the longer the war dragged on the more unpopular it and Lincoln became. Finally, Lincoln found a general, Ulysses S. Grant, who could and would fight effectively. With better leadership and superior resources and manpower the North was able to wear down the South and win the war. Despite Lincoln’s unpopularity at the time many historians, such as Princeton University’s Fred Greenstein, a noted scholar and author on the Presidency, praise him for acting decisively and wisely eventually. In any event, at the time of his assassination Lincoln was a very controversial, if not unpopular, figure.
Lincoln’s stature and reputation have grown considerably over the years. Currently, most surveys by presidential scholars and historians that rank presidents place him in the top three along with George Washington and FDR. Consider:
1. His assassination made him a martyr in the eyes of some people, especially among southern blacks and northern abolitionists. Some historians maintain that his assassination and the aftermath had as profound an effect on US history as any other event in our history.
2. Over the years, he has become a symbol for nationalism, freedom and courage, particularly in times of turmoil, such as WWI, WWII, the Great Depression and the Cold War.
3. He has been memorialized on Mount Rushmore and by the Lincoln Memorial.
4. He has become a pop culture icon. Hollywood has always portrayed him in a very favorable light in movies. The “New Yorker” has denoted that his likeness has been used in marketing and advertising “for almost as long as he has been dead.” His likeness has appeared in TV commercials.
5. In the days immediately preceding America’s entry into WWII FDR referenced his words and deeds in speeches to inspire the American people.
6. His likeness is on US currency, such as the penny and the five dollar bill.
7. In general, he is revered as a common man of humble origins who rose to the highest office in the land and preserved the union.
Some fun facts about Lincoln:
1. He was one of 11 presidents who did not graduate from college. He had less than two years of formal schooling of any kind and no law degree.
2. He actually argued a case before the Supreme Court (and lost).
3. He was the first president to have been born outside of the original thirteen colonies (Kentucky).
4. He was the only president to have a patent (for a device that freed steamboats that had run aground).
5. In his youth he was a wrestler.
6. He was a suffragette as early as the 1830s, well before it became a popular issue.
7. As a youngster, his life was saved on two separate occasions.
8. He was photographed with John Wilkes Booth at his second inauguration.
9. In 1863 he designated the final Thursday in November as a day of “giving thanks.”
As an aside, personally, I agree with the prevailing opinion of most historians and presidential scholars that the top three presidents were Washington, Lincoln and FDR, although one can debate the order. I place Jefferson, T. Roosevelt and Truman in the next group.
What is your opinion? I would welcome your comments and opinion.