Ever since Secretary of War Edwin Stanton uttered those immortal words at the deathbed of Abraham Lincoln, "Now he belongs to the ages," Lincoln has been in the American psyche. Everyone seems to find something in him either to glorify or vilify. People from all sections of the country recall a sometimes startlingly different Lincoln. To some, he is the epochal hero; to others a demon and purveyor of all that is bad.
Since his death, Lincoln has been used by the religious and the secular. He has been defended by both sides of the temperance movement; invoked for and against federal intervention in the American economy; praised by fierce anti-communists such as Sen. Joseph McCarthy while simultaneously being extolled by the American Communist Party, including those who joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the fight against the fascist government of Spain in the 1930s.
Lincoln has been called a defender of American civil liberties and a subverter of the American Constitution, and he has been viscerally proclaimed both a true and a false friend to blacks.
We live in a cynical and skeptical age, finding more heroes in sports and entertain-ment than in government. The modern-day nonstop news cycle and omnipresent Internet eagerly alert us when celebrities falter. A "gotcha" mentality enjoys the scrutiny of historical figures as well, and in recent years, Lincoln, too, has not escaped his detractors.
Was he a visionary or a ruthless, cunning politician? Was he an enthusiastic or reluctant emancipator? Were his wartime powers excessive; indeed, was his war even necessary?
Those questions have been debated ad nauseum without resolution, but what has been resolved is that the Civil War etched Lincoln in national memory -- be it positive or negative. Lincoln once poignantly conceded that every one of his campaigns had been "marked for their bitterness." A lover of jokes, he was as often their butt as much as their narrator, leading him once to confess wistfully: "I have endured a great deal of ridicule without much malice; and have received a great deal of kindness, not quite free from ridicule."
Strength, modesty, humor and wisdom were Lincoln's personal attributes, but none of them would have mattered had he allowed the Union to die or slavery to live. With stubbornness, caution and an exquisite sense of timing, he engaged almost physically in the unfolding of history.
Yet, it was emancipation, for whatever reasons that motivated him -- political, social, or military -- that cemented Lincoln's reputation in the American memory, then and now. And it is a sad sign of the times that emancipation has been at the center of recent debates that call his greatest achievement into question.
Just days before he was assassinated, Lincoln strolled the streets of the devastated capital of the Confederacy, Richmond, Va., not as conquering hero, but visibly and personally to "bind up the nation's wounds." He was greeted by such impassioned liberated slaves that, overcome with emotion, Lincoln had to beg them not to kneel to him, but only to God. He drew bitter criticism that day, and since, for placing his hand on a black man's shoulder in public. "It was the great deliverer meeting the delivered," marveled one eyewitness.
Derided by some as an opportunist, he was, in fact, a pragmatist, responding to events as he himself changed over time. Misjudged as a mere jokester, incompetent, unserious, he was, in fact, the most pensive actor on the political stage. And he was a man of patience who refused to demonize others.
"We cannot escape history," Lincoln told Congress in his annual message of 1862. And he has escaped neither its debilitating demands nor its lofty rewards. He had been inspired by the heroes of the American past and animated by the American dream, and he determined to expunge the hypocrisy that he believed "tarnished the original idea." He not only kept faith with what he called "the ultimate justice of the people," he kept an abiding faith in himself. Lincoln once predicted that if America followed a "plain, peaceful, generous, just path" to preserving freedom and democracy, "the world will forever applaud." The record shows that he earned that ovation.
As he was declared winner of the 2008 presidential election, Barack Obama sought to capture the essence of Lincoln. Addressing the masses assembled in Chicago's Grant Park, Obama quoted Lincoln's first inaugural address. "We are not enemies, but friends," the new president-elect quoted as the specter of his martyred predecessor lingered. "Though passion may have been strained, it must not break our bonds of affection."
Lincoln surely was not perfect. But he did prove that poverty was no obstacle and partisanship born of conviction no barrier to ambition or success. He was, as one of his biographers described him, a "child of America."
So, as we prepare to celebrate his 200th birthday, Lincoln emerges as the quintessential American, "one of us, but also the best of us -- at once eternally approachable and majestically grand," as one contemporary put it. He is the silhouette on the copper penny, the massive god-like figure enthroned in his memorial on the National Mall.
Perhaps our understanding of him is more nuanced than it once was. Perhaps today, we are more able to recognize his limitations as well as his strengths. That notwithstanding, Lincoln remains for us, as he did for our ancestors, as the poet Richard Henry Stoddard aptly described him, the most "uncommon common man."