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The Lincoln Memorial, Washington, D.C. (© Natural Selection Chris Pinchbeck / Design Pics / Corbis)

Lincoln's Contested Legacy

Great Emancipator or unreconstructed racist? Each generation evokes a different Lincoln. But who was our sixteenth president?

And yet, as Bennett and others have rightly insisted, the Lincoln of earlier generations of blacks was also in part a mythic figure—his own racial prejudices passed over too lightly, even as African-Americans' roles in emancipation were underemphasized. In a series of 1922 editorials for the NAACP journal the Crisis, W.E.B. Du Bois stressed the importance of taking Lincoln off his pedestal in order to place attention on the need for ongoing progress. But Du Bois refused to reject Lincoln in the process. "The scars and foibles and contradictions of the Great do not diminish but enhance the worth and meaning of their upward struggle," he wrote. Of all the great figures of the 19th century, "Lincoln is to me the most human and lovable. And I love him not because he was perfect but because he was not and yet triumphed." In a 2005 essay in Time magazine, Obama said much the same thing: "I am fully aware of his limited views on race. But...[in] the midst of slavery's dark storm and the complexities of governing a house divided, he somehow kept his moral compass pointed firm and true."

Lincoln will always remain the president who helped destroy slavery and preserved the Union. With stubbornness, caution and an exquisite sense of timing, he engaged almost physically with unfolding history. Derided by some as an opportunist, he was in fact an artist, responding to events as he himself changed over time, allowing himself to grow into a true reformer. Misjudged as a mere jokester, incompetent, unserious, he was in fact the most serious actor on the political stage. He was politically shrewd, and he took a long view of history. And he knew when to strike to obtain his ends. Just for his work on behalf of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery in the United States, he has earned a permanent place in the history of human freedom.

In addition, he was a man of patience who refused to demonize others; a person of the middle who could build bridges across chasms. Herein may lie one of his most important legacies—his unwavering desire to reunite the American people. In Chicago's Grant Park, the night he was declared the winner of the 2008 election, Obama sought to capture that sentiment, quoting from Lincoln's first inaugural address: "We are not enemies, but friends.... Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection."

And with the inauguration of the nation's first African-American president, we remember that, in 1864, with the Union war effort going badly, the national government might have been tempted to suspend the upcoming elections. Not only did Lincoln insist they take place, he staked his campaign on a controversial platform calling for the 13th Amendment, willing to risk everything on its behalf. When he went on to an overwhelming victory in November, he obtained a mandate to carry through his program. "[I]f the rebellion could force us to forego, or postpone a national election," he spoke to a gathered crowd from a White House window, "it might fairly claim to have already conquered and ruined us....[The election] has demonstrated that a people's government can sustain a national election, in the midst of a great civil war."

Around the world, governments routinely suspend elections, citing the justification of a "national emergency." Yet Lincoln set a precedent that would guarantee the voting rights of the American people through subsequent wars and economic depressions. Though our understanding of him is more nuanced than it once was, and we are more able to recognize his limitations as well as his strengths, Abraham Lincoln remains the great example of democratic leadership—by most criteria, truly our greatest president.

Philip B. Kunhardt III is co-author of the 2008 book Looking for Lincoln and a Bard Center Fellow.

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