Fifteen men were president before Abraham Lincoln, but time and distance have almost erased them from our national memory. Thomas Jefferson – the genius behind the Declaration of Independence – seems as inscrutable as a Buddha; his public and private personas seem so different, it’s difficult to determine just who he was. Modern day Americans regard George Washington as an immense stone face chiseled from a mountainside, a description his contemporaries would not be surprised by.
Portrait painters might have been tempted to correct for nature, but photography captured Lincoln’s lined face, uneven and asymmetric. Even when the republic was but four score and five years old, our Founding Fathers were already being deified by the generations born in the new century. While Abraham Lincoln was a tall man, he seemed only life-sized to his fellow Americans. He came from modest beginnings. He failed more than once. He lost his first political election. In the race for Vice President in 1856, he came in second on the ballot. Even when he finally became president in 1860, contemporary accounts seemed disappointed with Abraham Lincoln. A compromise candidate, a moderate, an ill educated man from the West, someone who had never held a military post, Lincoln had just been elected to lead the United States in its darkest hour.
If to err is to be human, Abraham Lincoln was definitely just a man. In his first weeks as President, three more states seceded from the Union. As Commander in Chief, he found it difficult to find generals to counteract the Confederacy in the field. But as he had done through his entire life, Lincoln learned from his mistakes. As the fortunes of war eventually turned in favor of the Northern Armies, Lincoln worked to bring the Confederate states back into the fold, suggesting amnesty for all except those who actually held office in the rebel government. Unfortunately his vision of Reconstruction died along with him that night in April, 1865.
Two hundred years after his birth, Abraham Lincoln is considered one of our greatest presidents. His face graces the penny, the five dollar bill and sits alongside Jefferson and Washington on that South Dakota mountain. For all that, he still seems life-sized. Two hundred years on, we can still follow his dream of becoming a self-made individual. Two hundred years on, we see that anyone – no matter the circumstances of their upbringing – can aspire to become President. And in these dark days we find ourselves in, we can look to each other and know that we hold inside ourselves, the potential for greatness and the possibility to rise above and triumph over our adversities.