Happy birthday, Abe

Today is the real birthday of Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States and, in my humble opinion, the greatest president we’ve ever had. It’s hard to think where to begin to describe this remarkable man. Without a doubt, he saved the nation from final dissolution in the Civil War. I honestly don’t think there was any other public figure in America at the time who could have done what he did: fight a massive, horrific war; hold together a fractious political coalition that had within it the recurring risk of further secession; deal with incompetent generals until he could find good ones; and still see to the nation’s economic development. And all that doesn’t cover his impressive career before becoming president. He was truly an amazing man.

Hundreds if not thousands of books and articles have been written about Lincoln and his presidency; a great one to start with is Carwardine’s Lincoln: a life of purpose and power. Old but worth looking for is T. Harry Williams’ Lincoln and his Generals, a study of Lincoln as a wartime commander-in-chief. And, of course, Doris Kearns Goodwins’ Team of Rivals, about Lincoln’s skill at building a government out of factional rivals in the Republican Party.  (For a critical review of this book, see Pinkser’s article Lincoln and the myth of "Team of Rivals.")

Several good pieces about Lincoln appeared online today, too: at Power Line, there are must-read essays about Lincoln here, here and here. The Heritage Foundation discusses Lincoln as a conservative president.

Like geeks in any hobby, history and politics buffs love lists of "the best." When it comes to presidents, I think such lists can be a bit unfair; not all presidents faced the same conditions, thus they weren’t tested the same way. Take a now-obscure president, such as Chester A. Arthur, and ask yourself how he compares to Washington, or FDR, or Lincoln. Almost inevitably, he comes off the worse for the comparison. This is unfair, for Arthur governed at a quiet time in our history: there was no crisis for him to rise to and afterwards be remembered as "great." On the other hand, had Lincoln been president in quiet times, he might well have gone down as a competent but largely forgotten chief executive, much as has Grover Cleveland. The times shape the man as much as the man shapes his times.

And yet, when one reads about Lincoln and learns of his qualities, it’s not hard to believe he was destined for greatness, that in whatever role in which he found himself, his influence would have been profound. Perhaps he would have achieved his dream and become a senator from Illinois, or a Justice of the Supreme Court. (Now there’s an interesting what-if: Mr. Justice Lincoln.)

In the end, however, we were lucky he was there when we needed him, and today is a fitting day to perhaps give thanks for that to that same "Almighty Providence" Mr. Lincoln himself so often cited.



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